Last week's demonstrations across the West Bank in protest of the Annapolis conference showcased the entry into the public eye of a new force in Palestinian politics - the pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation.) The party held a demonstration numbering 2,500 in Hebron, and one of its members was killed in subsequent clashes with Palestinian Authority police. Similar gatherings took place in other West Bank cities. Hizb ut-Tahrir's slow emergence from eccentric obscurity has been a subject of note among observers of Palestinian affairs in recent years. The anti-Annapolis demonstrations are the latest stage in this process. These events may indicate deeper political currents - both in the West Bank and beyond.
Hizb ut-Tahrir was established in 1952, in then-Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem, by Sharia court judge Taqi al-Din al Nabhani, from the village of Ijzim, near Haifa. The party's goal is the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate to govern the whole Muslim world under Islamic law - and eventually to bring the entire world under Islamic rule. The caliphate, a title that had been claimed by Ottoman sultans since the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, was formally abolished by Turkey's founding father Kemal Ataturk in 1924. In its half-century of existence, Hizb ut-Tahrir has developed into an international Islamist organization known to be active in 45 countries. It has particularly active branches in Indonesia and Uzbekistan, and has made inroads into the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom.
Its branches do not maintain an armed, insurgent wing. But the movement also does not stand in elections. Rather, Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to agitate and educate, gaining supporters for the idea of restoring the caliphate. The intention is to leave violent action - such as the destruction of Israel, which the party supports - to the conventional armed forces of the restored caliphate. This orientation - neither insurgent nor political in the conventional sense - has meant that for much of the movement's history, the Arab world has traditionally considered Hizb ut-Tahrir as a strange, scholastic, rather other-worldly current. Such a view is misleading and outdated. Misleading, because even if Hizb ut-Tahrir itself does not maintain an insurgent wing, recent experience in Europe shows that it has acted as an exemplary hothouse for the nurturing and education of future terrorists, who then go on to ply their trade in different frameworks. Omar Khan Sharif and Asif Muhammad Hanif, for example - the two British-Pakistanis who bombed the Tel Aviv bar Mike's Place in 2003 - had been associated with a Hizb ut-Tahrir splinter group in Britain, as had the "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid. This is why the party is outlawed in a number of European countries.
Outdated, because since 2003 the party has been led by a younger, media-savvy leadership, whose direction is enabling it to establish a more visible and significant presence in parts of the Arabic-speaking world. Hizb ut-Tahrir today is led by a Jordanian of Palestinian origin (and indeterminate whereabouts) - Sheikh Abu Yasin Abu Rashta. Under Abu Rashta's leadership, Hizb ut-Tahrir has made particularly effective use of the Internet in spreading its message. And its central idea of the revival of the caliphate is no longer quite the hallucinatory notion it once seemed. Even if it is nowhere near being realized, the constant use of the idea of the revived caliphate in the propaganda of Osama bin Laden has given the notion a new presence in the Arab world's public mind. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing visibility in the West Bank over the last few years is in turn a product of all this. Its members played a prominent role in the demonstrations organized against the Danish Muhammad cartoons last year. And last May, it organized protests against the founding of a new Christian mission school in Hebron. Most strikingly, last August, it organized a 10,000-strong rally in al-Bireh, north of Jerusalem, and similar gatherings in Hebron and Ramallah, under the slogan, "The caliphate is the rising force." The anti-Annapolis protests are the latest stage in this process.
Hizb ut-Tahrir remains a small, minority stream in Palestinian politics and the significance of its emergence should not be exaggerated. But neither should it be ignored. Those who thought the emergence of Hamas as the most significant Palestinian political movement was a product of a momentary coming together of particular circumstances - the most significant one of them being the corruption and failure of Fatah - may have missed a key contemporary dynamic of the politics of the Arab world, namely the growing "Islamization" of politics, with a variety of different Islamic currents coming to populate and increasingly define political language and action in country after country. Whether Abu Rashta's group, or another movement, eventually benefits from this process is less important than the existence of the process itself, with all its implications for hopes for peaceful and rational development in the region.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.
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