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Hizb ut-Tahrir - Utopia or Intolerance?

Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami seeks what some call a utopian dream - a single Islamic state sweeping across the Middle East and Central Asia, headed by a Caliph who would rule solely by the writings of the Holy Q'uran. The roughly 50-year-old group says it wants to accomplish this not through violence but rather what it calls peaceful "enlightenment" of Muslims. But others contend that its beliefs are so intolerant of non-Muslims and the secular world that terrorism may be the end result.

Zeyno Baran, an analyst with the Washington-based Nixon Center and a Muslim, describes those who have been attracted to the group's teachings. "They appeal to the poor who are lost in their identity and are not seeing any kind of advance in society," she says, adding "They also appeal to the politically repressed or people who are suffering from corruption or bad governments across the Middle East and Central Asia."

As for how many people belong to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen estimates that as many as 10,000 active members and many more supporters may be spread from Europe through Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia and east to Indonesia. The group is well established in Uzbekistan, where the government has jailed and harassed its followers. Others have placed total membership closer to twenty thousand.

The group - also known as the Islamic Party of Liberation - believes it can achieve its utopian Islamic state in three steps. The first involves educating Muslims about its philosophies and goals. In the second step, the Muslims would then spread these views among others in their countries, especially members of government, the military and other power centers. In the third and final step, Hizb ut-Tahrir believes its faithful will cause secular governments to crumble because loyalties will then lie solely with Islam - not nationalities, politics or ethnic identifications. At that point the group says a supreme Islamic leader, a Caliph like those of past centuries would rule all Muslims with both political and religious authority.

David Lewis, with the International Crisis Group in London, explains why reestablishing the Caliphate is an important symbol and goal for Hizb ut-Tahrir. "It would give Muslims back a sense of pride, a sense of power in the world and counter this Muslim idea of powerlessness in the face of what they see as western hegemony," he says.

What observers say concerns them the most about this group is its professed intolerance for anything that does not conform to its interpretation of Islam. It strongly opposes western-style democracy and capitalism, specifically attacking the United States for its anti-terror operations and the war in Iraq. Hizb ut-Tahrir also teaches intolerance towards all non-Muslims, especially Jews, and calls for Jihad against them.

Jim Phillips with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation says such beliefs create conditions for confrontation and possibly terrorism. "They define themselves as carrying out God's will on earth," he says. "And then by definition, if you disagree with them, you therefore are obstructing God's will and that opens up the potential for violence."

Hizb ut -Tahrir has not been proven to have involvement in or direct links to any recent acts of violence or terrroism. Nor has it been proven to give financial support to other groups engaged in terrorism. Because of that, it falls outside the definitions used by the United States and others to designate a terrorist group. Michael O'Hanlon, with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, explains why those strict definitions could be reconsidered in this case. "I'm not sure we should give this group any kind of a 'free pass.' Hateful speech that inspires or condones terrorism is itself terroristic."

David Lewis at the International Crisis Group says he believes Hizb ut-Tahrir should not be labeled terrorist. But he does say the United States and other countries should step up intelligence gathering and close surveillance. "This group is important to take note of and keep a very good eye on," he says, "because there is a potential for some of its members to move on to more radical groups or indeed for splinter groups to come out of that group."

Mr. Lewis and others who monitor Hizb ut-Tahrir have put forth recommendations they say are needed to prevent it and similar groups from expanding and/or turning violent. A major proposal is for the United States and other powers to champion human rights and political and religious freedoms, especially in regions where governments are restrictive. Another is encouraging economic development so that people do not turn to radicalism out of anger and frustration. These observers warn that to do anything less may enable Hizb ut-Tahrir to take over a vulnerable nation, which then could become a base for widespread terror.