The Caliphate as an Extension of Democracy?

The extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir rejects both democracy and the existence of the nation state. A conference, held recently in Jakarta, showed that representatives of moderate Muslim organisations were reluctant to take clear positions on the issue. By Bettina David

​​The International Caliphate Conference was in every way a huge success. It was held at the invitation of the Indonesian branch of the Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and over 80,000 mainly local supporters and sympathisers, many of them women and children, attended the opening on August 12th, filling the Gelora Bung Karno national stadium in Jakarta.

It was an effective display of strength, following Hizb ut-Tahrir's first conference in 2000, also held in Jakarta, which only drew around 5,000 supporters. It was also an unmistakable demonstration of Hizb ut-Tahrir's increasing claim to political influence in the country.

Hizb ut-Tahrir: Democracy is "un-Islamic"

Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation) was founded in 1953. It operates internationally and rejects the concepts of the nation state and democracy as "un-Islamic," striving instead for a global Caliphate. According to the organisation's view, only under a trans-national theocratic Caliphate can the Umma, the community of Muslims, return to its original unity and resist the aggression of the godless West.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's supporters often come from an educated background and its propaganda is particularly effective in student circles. The group is legal in Britain and Denmark, but banned in Germany, France and many Arab countries.

Since the democratisation which followed the end of the Suharto era in Indonesia, Hizb ut-Tahrir has been particularly active there. Its anti-Western and anti-Semitic ideology has found much support, particularly in the universities of what is the world's largest Muslim country.

Indonesian media reported in detail on the conference and the views expressed there. Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for the Indonesian Hizb ut-Tahrir, was keen to present the organisation in a positive light and insisted that while the organisation rejected democracy and sought rule by a Caliphate, it also recognised the "pluralism" of Indonesian society. He pointed to the peaceful coexistence of different religions in the golden age of Moorish Andalusia to show that there was no need to be frightened of the Sharia and the Caliphate.

A society which followed Islam in all its details would, he said, bring about the solution of all the problems which are currently brought about by "secularism" and "liberalism" – even for non-Muslims. Speakers at the conference repeatedly insisted that they rejected violence to reach their aims.

"Signs of the Collapse of Western Civilisation"

Two international Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders were refused entry to the country at Jakarta airport, although no reason was given. Dr Imran Waheed, a practising psychiatrist from Britain, had been announced for a lecture under the title "Signs of the Collapse of Western Civilisation." Sheikh Ismail Al Wahwah from Australia was due to speak on "The World Needs the Caliphate." Other Hizb ut-Tahrir speakers, from Denmark, Sudan and Japan, were able to speak as planned.

In a sign of how Hizb ut-Tahrir has become a recognised player in Indonesian Islam, representatives of more moderate organisations had no hesitation in taking part in the conference.

Among the speakers was the preacher Aa Gym, one of the most popular and most idealised figures among Indonesian Muslims. He has been named "Indonesia's Holy Man" by Time magazine and has been praised by many foreign observers as a representative of a non-political pietistic Islam which may be highly orthodox but is still compatible with global modernity. He too seemed to feel no scruples about being seen together with representatives of radical political Islam.

"Do not be frightened of the debate"

The same applied to Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim mass movement in Indonesia, which is regarded as moderate. His statements at the conference ended up being totally confused, as he tried to bring democracy and the Caliphate together, and, in the name of an all-embracing Muslim community, tried to please both supporters of an anti-state ideology as well as the parliamentary establishment.

He called on Muslims to recognise the Caliphate as an integral part of Islamic teaching. It was not possible, he said, for a Muslim to reject the concept of the Caliphate. But he went on to say that there were considerable differences of opinion between Muslim scholars as to its formal realisation on a political level. The critical issue was the "essence" of the Caliphate, which consisted in the promotion of Muslim unity.

He said he welcomed and supported the idea of the Caliphate, but, in the case of Indonesia, efforts to realise the Caliphate would have to take place solely within the framework of the republic's national character.

He called on the public not to be frightened of the debate, which he described as a legitimate part of a democratic and pluralistic process. To reject the debate would be "undemocratic," he said. As Hizb ut-Tahrir specifically rejected violence and had no paramilitary wing, there was no reason to consider it an extremist group.

Employing arguments which are merely reactive

"Democracy is OK, but it's not enough," Din told the BBC. The Indonesians were a nation of believers, he said, and that meant that democracy should also be based on religious, ethical and moral values.

Din Syamsuddin's views as expressed at the conference – initially adopting the megalomaniac fantasy of the Caliphate, and then trying not very convincingly to put it into more restrictive context, were quoted in a number of Indonesian press reports. They make one thing clear: the attempts of moderate Muslims to accommodate fundamentalist tendencies by adopting a strategy of inclusion lead them, among other things, to employ arguments which are merely reactive, and to shy away from the long overdue challenge over principles.

That way, though, they award the radicals the power to exercise significant influence on the topics of public debate. And it is scarcely surprising if such a defensive position in the end appears scarcely convincing. It is, after all the apparent certainty and the logical consistency of extremist positions which fascinate and captivate many people, not just in Indonesia.

Bettina David

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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