They are indeed a different breed of Islamic radicals, who are armed with modern education and pursue professional careers. Many of them are returnees from England and the United States, if not born there. Even after living in Pakistan for years, they still speak Urdu with a foreign accent, with the vocabulary loaded with English words. In the sweltering summers of Pakistan, some wear suits when they go out with missionary zeal to meet their contacts and potential supporters.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) is still considered a relatively new Islamic fundamentalist group that officially started operations in Pakistan in 2001. But it was banned barely three years later – in November 2003 – by the Musharraf government when Pakistan came under international pressure to rein in militant groups operating from its soil.
The secretive group – formed in Jerusalem in 1953 – abhors Western values and the capitalist economy. It has not been banned in Britain, from where many second-generation British Muslims, including Pakistanis, fan out to their respective countries of origin with the aim of toppling the governments there. Perhaps the British government does not want Hizb members to operate in a clandestine manner and is content with the fact that its activities remains focused on Muslim nations rather than the Western world.
The dream of its members – who are part of the international Islamic movement operating in more than 40 countries – is to establish a pan-Islamic state on the model of the caliphate as it existed in the early days of Islam. Democracy is not their cup of tea and they harbour ambitions for a worldwide Islamic revolution.
They do not recognise Pakistan’s Constitution and its institutions, and aim to mobilise people to get rid of what they call a “pro-US” state structure in Pakistan.
To seize power, its members say, they do not want to resort to violent methods or an armed struggle. Instead, they target influential people of society, including military personnel, leaders of public opinion, professionals and government officials so that they can bring down the system from within and seize power.
The group entered the muddle of Pakistani politics through these second-generation young Pakistanis living mostly in England and the United States. Some of these people have been in and out of Pakistani prisons a number of times, for what are perceived as anti-state activities that include holding small anti-government meetings and rallies and distributing propaganda literature.
Unlike the traditional legal religious parties in Pakistan or militant groups – affiliated with various mainstream Islamic sects or schools of thought – the Hizb members stay away from intra-Islamic ideological debates. They are also not into wearing skullcaps or being dressed in the traditional shalwar-kameez, or flaunting long beards. But when it comes to rejecting the West or its alleged allies in Muslim countries, their long political monologues, laced with religious concepts, are as radical as those of other Islamic radicals. Their group wants these countries united under one supra-state. This makes them distinct from other local Islamic legal and outlawed groups operating in Pakistan.
However, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which still remains an unknown commodity for many Pakistanis, has hitherto been seen as a lightweight when it comes to the overall monolith of Islamic forces in the country.
But the recent conviction of a brigadier and four majors by a military court for their links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir underlines the fact that this pan-Islamist group means business in its objective of seizing power in Pakistan.
This is the first time that military officers have been convicted and handed down prison terms for their affiliation with this banned group, whose members never hide the fact that they want to capture power through unconstitutional means. And in Pakistan the shortest way to do this is by infiltration into the armed forces. Several low-ranking armed forces personnel have been working in league with other outlawed groups and masterminding terrorist assaults, including those on Gen Pervez Musharraf. These small defections within the Pakistani armed forces emerged after Pakistan joined the US-led international effort against Al-Qaeda and its associate groups following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
The conviction of five military officers for their links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir can be an isolated case, which may not necessarily reflect the outfit’s deep penetration into army ranks. So are other such episodes in which armed forces personnel, including those of the air force, were found involved in terrorism and links with Islamic extremist groups. But these isolated defections manifest the efforts of Islamic radicals to win support among the rank and file of the armed forces, which so far have a history of high discipline and loyalty to their institution and the country. However, it remains a lurking danger that needs to be closely watched 24/7-no matter how small this threat may appear.
In a highly polarised and politically divided country, where democratic institutions remain weak, dysfunctional and swamped by allegations of corruption, it is easy for radical groups to influence individuals and sell their utopian models of an Islamic state, an effort that is inspired by Islam’s past glory. The discontent and disillusionment of many Pakistanis with the ruling elite, its perceived corruption, misrule and mismanagement and the ever-weakening writ of the state allows radical groups to thrive and make inroads into the ranks of people angry and frustrated over the current state of affairs.
One answer to this challenge is that the mainstream political parties and the elected representatives get their act together and raise the bar of their performance.
Challenging these fringe forces on ideological grounds is also as important. This is one front where the mainstream parties have been found wanting. They have failed to produce a counter-narrative containing answers to modern-day challenges and the complex nature of a 21st Century state and have allowed those who want to revert to the mediaeval political institutions under the garb of Islam to dominate the discourse.
The concept of caliphate and establishment of a supra-Islamic state may appear a pipe dream of young Islamic radicals who, in all honesty and sincerity, may be only articulating grievances about the present state of affairs in many Muslim countries. But the solutions they propose are in negation of history and do not stand up to the test of times. The golden era of Muslims they refer to-barring the first four Caliphs who led the followers of the nascent religion after Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be upon Him) culminated in the creation of monarchies in the name of caliphates, modelled on the pattern of the great empires of their times. In their writings, many Muslim scholars and historians have already highlighted this fact.
Even the pattern of the selection of the first four Righteous Caliphs varied in each case. How that selection process can be applied in today’s state and who will have the stature to apply it remain fundamental questions.
Many mainstream Islamic parties have found the answer to this in elections, winning popular will and operating in a modern-day state. From Pakistan to Egypt and Indonesia to Turkey, we have examples that Islamic parties participate in elections to get into power, rather than resorting to violent, conspiratorial and other unlawful means.
The militant groups, however, are a different story, which can be dealt with through a combination of steps including democratisation, de-radicalisation, good governance and strong action against individuals resorting to violence and unlawful means.
Radical groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir may appear small marginal players now, but state institutions can ignore them only at their own peril. They have the potential at least to create destabilisation and anarchy even if they do not succeed in their goal of establishing a supra-Islamic state and caliphate. They need to be tackled more through the state addressing the simmering discontent in society and resolving its internal contradictions in the mid- to long term rather than by banking on oppressive measures. For such young and radical minds could only be a step away from raising the gun.
The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: email@example.com