CBS News consultant Hoda Osman wrote this story for CBSNews.com.
An international Islamist political group is preparing for its first conference in the U.S. on Sunday July 19th under the theme "Fall of Capitalism & Rise to Islam."
The sponsor of the conference, Hizb ut-Tahrir, is an organization that has been banned in Germany and several Middle Eastern countries because of its views. It is sometimes described as "extremist" and "radical" by analysts and research groups. In a phone interview with CBS News, the conference's deputy spokesperson stressed that Hizb ut-Tahrir does not call for violence or spread radical ideas.
"Those are mere accusations," said Reza Imam. "The track record of Hizb ut-Tahrir speaks for itself louder than I ever could," he added. He points out that the group has never been charged of being connected to violent activities and adds that Hizb ut-Tahrir has stated that harming civilians was against Islam.
Jeremy Binnie, senior analyst for terrorism and insurgency at Jane's, an information group that provides consultancy on intelligence and strategic issues, says the group advocates ideas that are similar to those of militant Islamist groups like al Qaeda, namely the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate state that would be ruled under Islamic law. The difference is that Hizb ut-Tahrir is against achieving this goal through terrorism, says Binnie.
Hizb-ut Tahrir was established in 1952 and has presence in many countries. The group's goal is to form an Islamic state in countries with a Muslim majority through a military coup. From there, the group hopes the Islamic state would expand to other Muslim countries, according to Binnie.
In the West, the group's objectives focus on building support and trying to recruit visiting members of Muslim armies who could carry out the coup, explains Binnie. Imam says the role of the group in the U.S. is to "remind Muslims of their culture" and influence public opinion amongst non-Muslims by showing "Islam as a viable way of life."
While Binnie says the group is "not very threatening in terms of strategy," he worries that Hizb ut-Tahrir might act as a "conveyor belt." He says members of the group, who are convinced of its worldview, might give up on its strategy, especially given its failure to achieve the goal so far, and decide to join militant groups or engage in violent acts on their own.
Former Member of HT in the U.K. Talks About Group's Ideology, Activities
Maajid Nawaz joined Hizb ut-Tahrir in the U.K. when he was 16. He became a full-fledged member around the age of 20 and was involved with the group for around 13 years. In 2007, after studying Islam for a few years, Nawaz decided to leave the group. "It slowly dawned on me that what I had been propagating was far from true Islam," he says. "The more I learnt about Islam, the more tolerant I became."
"Hizb ut-Tahrir are not a terrorist organization, but they do believe in using violent force to remove a democratic government. This will not be done through the use of terrorism, rather by infiltrating armies in Muslim-majority countries" he explains.
In a profile of the group that Nawaz wrote for Jane's, he says it was not surprising that some of its members "have lost patience with the party's strategy and become involved in insurrectionist violence."
He mentions several examples in the October 2008 article, including Omar Bakri, the radical Muslim cleric who established Hizb ut-Tahrir's branch in the U.K. and later became known for supporting Islamist violence, according to Nawaz. Bakri is known for having described the Sept. 11 hijackers as "the magnificent 19." Another example he provides is Asad al-Tamimi, who according to Nawaz was a founding member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and later became a founder and spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
The Controversy Over The Conference Venue
Al Aqsa Islamic School in Bridgeview, Ill. where the U.S. conference was originally going to be held cancelled the event two weeks ago. The school's business manager Rana Jaber said the group misrepresented the goal of the conference when they booked it as they claimed it was going to be a bazaar type event where tradition food and clothing would be sold.
Imam insists that they clearly explained the nature of the event to the school officials. "We were surprised as to why they canceled," he said, adding that the school was given a flyer on June 1st stating the topic and the title of the conference.
The conference is now scheduled to be held at the Hilton in Oak Lawn , Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Hilton did not respond to a CBS News inquiry about the upcoming conference.
An Islamic Economic System in A Western Country?
Imam says the title of the conference, "Fall of Capitalism and Rise of Islam," does not mean the group thinks it will cause capitalism to fall. The conference "will highlight the inherent disintegration of capitalism," said Imam, adding that the global financial crisis was evidence enough for that.
When asked if he really believed Americans were prepared to embrace an Islamic economic system, he responded, "I would say yes wholeheartedly," adding that the goal is to show that Islam as an economic system can solve the current financial problems facing the world. "The world is waiting for an alternative."
Scarce Information About The Group's Membership, Finances
The size of the group's membership in the U.S. is unknown, which is typical of the group worldwide. "Our organization is an intellectual organization, so anybody who carries the ideas is a member," said Imam. "Our currency is ideas…it is not a card-carrying type of organization," he added.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has no headquarters in the U.S. and no leader, says Imam, adding that it has a strong presence in Chicago.
Binnie explains that because of how the group is organized, it is hard to determine how powerful it is. He believes however that the authorities in Muslim countries are vigilant and the group is far from reaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state through an army coup.
As for the group's finances, Imam says Hizb ut-Tahrir does not solicit funds and is financed through volunteers and donations that come through personal contacts. The July 19th conference will be for free and include lunch and even babysitting.
Nawaz explains that the group is financed independently and through what he termed "a strict 10 percent donation rule." It requires members to donate 10 percent of their gross monthly salaries to support the group's activities.
To Ban or Not To Ban?
The U.K., probably more than any other country, has struggled with the question of whether it should ban the group.
But since the group does not call for violence, there's a debate about whether restricting it would be considered a violation of freedom of expression especially in Western societies.
In his article for Jane's Nawaz argues that the group would manage to operate even if it was outlawed, but that it would become more difficult to monitor.
Binnie believes the British authorities keep a close eye on the group, mainly to check on those who might leave Hizb ut-Tahrir to join militant groups. "It is my firm view that their activities most definitely should be of concern," believes Nawaz.
In 2005, Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to ban the group under new terrorism laws. The fact that the group does not call for violence, made it difficult for that to happen. Hizb ut-Tahrir is still operating legally in the U.K. and will be holding its own conference in London and Birmingham on July 26th and August 2nd.
The FBI declined to comment to CBS News on the group for this story.
By Hoda Osman