On 19th January 2024, the ban on the Islamic activist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (the ‘Party of Liberation’ or HT) came into effect in the UK and, overnight, the group became a designated terrorist organisation. The sudden proscription of HT comes at a time of heightened political tensions over Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and it is justified by the UK Government based on statements made by the party during ceasefire protests, which the Government claims, incites terrorism and antisemitism. But the ban is highly problematic. It is predicated on labelling a demonstrably non-violent group as terrorist. It is grounded in wider racialised counterterror legislation that has targeted Islamic activism and framed Muslim politics as uniquely dangerous to British society. And it reverses 20 years of a generally successful strategy deployed by the UK Home Office, in which the unactioned threat of proscription, along with backchannel engagement, has successfully encouraged moderation within Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Ultimately, the ban will likely cause more harm than good – to Muslim communities, to civil and democratic rights, and to counterterrorism itself – and is a likely indication that other non-violent organisations may soon come under the security lens. Its actioning should be understood in the context of a UK Government and a Conservative Party that is itself in decline, and a demonstration that proscription – and, indeed, most of the party’s counterterror policy – is a political act, often less focussed on preventing violence than it is on courting votes.
The move to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir
Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Palestine on 17 November 1952 by Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani in East Jerusalem. The party’s ideology conceptualises socialism and capitalism as external impositions in the Middle East and has sought to unite the global Muslim population (ummah) in Muslim-majority lands under a revived Caliphate (Khilafah, or Islamic state). Since its establishment, the party has expanded, first in the Middle East and then beyond, with operative branches currently in at least 45 countries. The first European branch was established in West Germany in the 1960s before more significant branches were founded throughout Western Europe in recent decades.
Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK (or ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain’, as the party has since branded itself) represents one of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s more significant national branches (or wilayat, in formal party parlance). It often acts to produce and disseminate international key party literature in English and has been active in helping to establish other national branches in Denmark (1994), Pakistan (1999), Bangladesh (2000), Indonesia (2000) and Australia (2004). It is historically known for its sometimes controversial activism on the street and in the university, and statements which reject integration and democracy – including its 2003 Birmingham conference entitled "British or Muslim?" and the alleged takeover of several Islamic student societies which saw them banned by the National Union Students.
Discussions on banning the party have been evident in many European countries. In Germany, there has been a government ban on open activism (though, it should be noted, not on membership) of Hizb ut-Tahrir since 2003; meanwhile, Russia has imposed tough laws outlawing Hizb ut-Tahrir in both Russia and areas of occupied Ukraine (particularly Crimea), as part of a crackdown on democratic activism and religious minorities. In countries such as Denmark and the UK, discussion on its proscription has erupted on multiple occasions in recent years – although, until the 2024 ban, all of these had failed or been abandoned.
In Britain, there have been two previous major attempts to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir. The first took place between 2005, in which both the Home Office and the Bar Council undertook an assessment into potentially banning Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ultimately, these investigations found that there was no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir was a gateway to terrorism, that Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain are more interested in political discourse than action, and that a ban was, in the words of Bruce Holder of the Bar Council, ‘unlikely to achieve its purpose’, likely instead to simply push the group underground. A second investigation in the early days of David Cameron’s coalition government in 2011 similarly found that a ban may do more harm than good and could have serious implications for freedom of speech and assembly in the UK, with Lord Carlile stating that, “I think the general view is that Hizb ut-Tahrir are best dealt with in public debate rather than by proscription”. Since then, a broad détente has been settled on in the Home Office, in which Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain were privately monitored but publicly ignored, the threat of proscription persuasion enough to encourage them to moderate their activism.
This changed with the Hamas-led operation on 7 October 2023, and the subsequent ongoing assault on Gaza by Israel, which has seen the continued killing of several thousand Palestinian men, women and children, and extensive destruction of the majority or key Gaza infrastructure. Such violence led to some of the largest protests and anti-war social movements in the West since the 2003 Iraq War. Hizb ut-Tahrir were catapulted back into the limelight following social media videos of their activism, in which they publicly called for Muslim countries to “get your armies and go and remove the Zionist occupiers” – drawing condemnation from commentators. This ultimately led to renewed calls for its proscription in the UK, whereby it was banned under the Terrorism Act 2000 for encouraging support for proscribed terrorist organisations and terrorist acts, as well as accused of Antisemitism.
The problems with banning Hizb ut-Tahrir
There are significant problems with this ban. The ban represents a significant growth of the application of security law, the first banning by the UK Government of a non-violent organisation under counterterror legislation. From a societal perspective, the ban is rooted in, and directly exacerbates, wider patterns of Islamophobia and racism in the UK, risking community cohesion – as well as fuelling fears that other non-violent Muslim organisations may soon come under scrutiny. It also comes at a time when the Conservative government is lagging perilously behind in the polls and may likely be an attempt to focus attention on security, an area where the political right have tended to appeal to voters.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that such a ban will achieve its stated objectives. Rather than diminishing Hizb ut-Tahrir, it may help to unite those critical of UK counterterror policy – with bodies traditionally against Hizb ut-Tahrir publicly criticising the ban – and give greater legitimacy to a group that has, in recent years, been largely sidelined. It is demonstrative of a counterterror approach in the UK that has come to be governed by cynical, racialised and reactive politics, rather than evidence-based strategy.
Hizb ut-Tahrir represent an interesting case study for discussions on counterterrorism. They are an Islamic activist (or, in more securitised language, ‘Islamist’) organisation, but are – even according to their most ardent critics – avowedly non-violent. They are anti-democratic but take part in national debates and engage directly with MPs and democratic representatives. They have a public face but are semi-clandestine in their activities, and they are situated within highly relevant public debates but are largely in decline.
Despite the implication that Hizb ut-Tahrir are violent, interviews with both members, former members, and police have confirmed that they are a non-violent organisation. Whilst they advocate for an Islamic state, they are clear to stress their conceptualisation of a Caliphate is certainly not the same as Islamic State’s (in fact, their work and messaging has been severely negatively impacted by Islamic State’s violence). Their conceptualisation of the Caliphate was developed decades before it became a marker for terrorism concerns. And there is also no evidence that any Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been directly involved in any kind of terrorist-style violence in the West. Indeed, many authorities have suggested that Hizb ut-Tahrir represent a useful ‘safety valve’ for discouraging individuals from engaging with violent groups.
As such, the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir represents a new instance in labelling avowedly non-violent organisations as ‘terrorist’. Whilst the ban came about as the result of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s bombastic language in response to Israel’s destruction of Gaza, it was the banning of the political arm of Hamas by the UK Government on 26 November 2021 that has enabled such proscription. The banning of Hamas led to it becoming a criminal offence to either belong to or to invite support for a proscribed organisation – a device which has enabled the UK Government to clamp down on groups it sees as openly or tacitly offering support for the violence of 7 October 2023. In a context in which the UK Government is offering defence for Israel against accusations in the International Court of Justice of collective punishment and genocide, as well as direct military support to Israeli operations, the UK Government has sought to suppress activism supportive of a ceasefire. This has included painting ceasefire protests as ‘hate marches’ conducted by ‘extremists’ and ‘Hamas supporters’, as well as seeking to restrict protest, where possible. The banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir forms part of this wider strategy by the UK Government to suppress protest that challenges its support of Israeli action in Gaza.
The ban of Hizb ut-Tahrir must also be understood within wider patterns of racialised security that operate in British society. Since the Terrorism Act 2000, counterterror laws – both in practice and application – have disproportionately focussed on Muslim communities in the UK. Of organisations proscribed under counterterror laws in Britain, the overwhelming majority are Muslim. Citizenship deprivation laws have been used almost universally against Muslim individuals; whilst anti-migration security laws are primarily targeted against the supposed threat of migration from Muslim-majority countries.
Since its establishment in 2003, the UK Government’s Prevent programme has also disproportionately discriminated against Muslims, accusing them of lacking ‘British values’, failing to adequately integrate, and casting them as a ‘suspect community’ in society. The recent William Shawcross-led Government review of Prevent (boycotted by hundreds of British Muslim groups) claimed that Islamic instances of extremism and terrorism represented ‘the main threat’ to the UK, and encouraged focus on them over the threat of a significant far right. The proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir does nothing to challenge the accusation that British counterterror legislation is primarily concerned with policing Muslim activism and is discriminatory and racialised in its construction and application.
From a practical perspective, it is unlikely that banning Hizb ut-Tahrir will have the desired effect. Previous bans in the UK were dropped or dismissed because they were found to be unworkable, unlikely to achieve their purpose and had significant implications for rights of free speech and assembly. Due to a history of repression in Middle Eastern states, Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely designed to operate in hostile conditions, with members referring to their ‘natural state’ as being banned. The organisation does not keep membership lists, for instance, and local branches in town and cities operate almost entirely independently. Historically, Hizb ut-Tahrir have also been adept at using front groups to mask their operations – a tactic dropped by Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain in recent years, but likely to be revived following the ban. As the 2005 and 2011 debates in Britain found, a ban will likely push the party underground and make it more difficult to keep tabs on.
The ban also reverses years of successful ‘management’ of the organisation by the Home Office. In the late 1990s and early 2000s – when Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain was at least ten times larger in terms of membership and capacity – the Home Office settled on a strategy of allowing the party to operate with caveats. The threat of proscription existed only to the extent that it successfully encouraged the party to moderate its activism, whilst backroom engagement ensured that frustrations were kept in check. As such, in the recent years, the party has become less ‘radical’ in its activism, as well as largely becoming marginalised amongst British Muslim communities, fading in relevance, membership, and capacity. Even attempts by Hizb tut-Tahrir Britain to engage with widespread anti-Prevent movements popular amongst many Muslim and community groups, has failed to endear the party to many.
The banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir undoes this nuanced approach entirely. It removes the buffers on the party’s activism, giving it strong reason to backtrack on years of moderation. It makes it harder for engagement and monitoring to happen around Hizb ut-Tahrir, pushing the party underground or into a series of front groups. And, critically, it bans a form of non-violent Islamic activism and risks turning Hizb ut-Tahrir into a public martyr of counterterrorism by a Government often criticised for its anti-Muslim statements and failure to deal with Islamophobia. A little-known and largely sidelined group is revived in terms of its relevance, thanks to the UK Government’s actions.
The wrong approach
The ban is arguably the result of a UK Conservative Government which has polarised already controversial counterterrorism approaches. Government statements which specifically target Muslim critics of counterterrorism have worsened relations with minority communities, whilst the banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir sends an ominous message to Muslim campaign groups critical of counterterrorism, who have been increasingly found themselves attacked by Prevent practitioners as “Islamist agitators” and Government Ministers as “Islamist campaigners and their allies”.
Ultimately, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activism has not changed, aside from broad moderation. Yet, somehow, the point made by former counterterror-reviewer Lord Carlile, that “Hizb ut-Tahrir are best dealt with in public debate rather than by proscription”, no longer holds true. The quick resurrection of concern around Hizb ut-Tahrir likely represents the creep of counter-extremism legislation in Britain, coupled with hostility by the Government towards ceasefire protests at a time of electoral panic.
The UK Government’s banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrongheaded – grounded in unequal international political interests, a racialised counterterrorism and politicking by the British Government. It will likely fail to achieve its aims, as it risks giving fresh impetus to a group with otherwise fairly limited support in recent years, removes encouragement for moderation and engagement, pushes a non-violent organisation underground, and further demonstrates to those critical of counterterrorism that security policy unfairly targets Muslims. It is an ominous sign that non-violent groups are increasingly coming under an expanding counterterror lens, and a painful demonstration of how reactive politics so often drive counterterror legislation.