A recently released propaganda video by the Islamic extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir is quite revealing. Not only does the video demonstrate the group’s growing effort to package arguments in a manner designed to appeal to Westerners on the political left, but it also serves as a barometer of radical Muslim groups’ broader shift in rhetorical strategy.
The video, “Iraq: Past and Present Colonialism,” appears for the first twenty-seven minutes to be a standard leftist critique of the Iraq war, indistinguishable from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. The slickly-produced video begins with the history of past colonialism in Iraq—including the Mongol conquest of the Middle East and British soldiers’ triumphant march into Baghdad after World War I—and attempts to situate the current conflict within the same colonialist paradigm. In one scene, vivid footage of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison and Iraqi civilian casualties is interspersed with clips of George W. Bush and Tony Blair talking about how they will bring “freedom” to the Iraqi people. Another scene shows American soldiers roughly pushing Iraqi prisoners with bags draped over their heads down a nighttime street, the camera speed slowing down with each push to emphasize the excessive force.
As if Michael Moore’s influence on “Past and Present Colonialism” weren’t readily apparent, the video even lifts directly from Fahrenheit 9/11 the famous footage of American soldiers talking about how war is the “ultimate rush,” and how a good song can get you “real fired up” for battle. To demonstrate, one wild-eyed soldier sings a few off-key lines from the Bloodhound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn” (“The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire / We don’t need no water, let the motherf----- burn / Burn, motherf-----, burn”).
Only in its last eight minutes does “Past and Present Colonialism” veer sharply from run-of-the-mill leftist criticism of the Iraq war. This shift in focus is heralded by a Qur’anic verse appearing on the screen, reading, “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect, and raise for us from You one who will help.”
The video then descends into an Islamic fundamentalist screed with a truly ambitious agenda. It calls on Muslims to make Western thinkers contemplate the great civilization of Islam “as it was, and will one day arise, when the Khilafah [caliphate] state returns.” It warns the Muslim community in Britain against allowing itself to become “diluted” by “alien values,” and calls for Muslims to recognize that one of the primary obstacles to the implementation of Islam is the Muslim rulers themselves, who are described as “surrogates” of the West. The video’s proffered solution is the toppling of all extant Middle Eastern governments, and their replacement by an Islamist super-state, or caliphate.
A cursory examination of “Iraq: Past and Present Colonialism” reveals that it was created to advance the agenda of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic extremist group that is particularly strong in Central Asia. The video was produced by the London-based An-Nahda Media Productions, and not only is it featured prominently on Hizb ut-Tahrir’s website (where it is referred to as “Iraq: In The Name of Freedom”), but also it perfectly promotes Hizb ut-Tahrir’s platform, including the group’s call for re-establishment of the Khilafah Rashida, or righteous caliphate.
The West has had a hard time figuring out how to deal properly with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Washington Post recently described the group’s inflammatory rhetoric as “exhort[ing] Muslims to suicide bombings, martyrdom against American ‘infidels’ and the killing of Jews.” Despite this, Hizb ut-Tahrir claims that it does not explicitly endorse violence as a means of re-establishing the caliphate. State Department officials meanwhile say that the group has never been found to engage in terrorism. Thus, although some conservative think tanks have pressed the Bush administration to designate Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist group, it has not done so. Hizb ut-Tahrir is also free to operate in the United Kingdom, which serves as the base for much of its propaganda activities. (In an interesting irony, the group has been outlawed throughout the Arab world and Central Asia, as well as in Turkey, Pakistan, Russia and Germany.)
Although Hizb ut-Tahrir has long been known for its inflammatory rhetoric, “Past and Present Colonialism” evinces a marked shift in the group’s emphasis. In the past, re-establishment of the caliphate was central to the group’s rhetoric, and its critique of capitalism was so heavily rooted in Islamist theology that it was unlikely to have much crossover appeal to non-Muslims.
“Past and Present Colonialism,” on the other hand, appears to be a purposeful play to the political left. The language of colonialism is familiar to the left, and used constantly by such anti-war groups as International ANSWER. The video does not spend much time fleshing out the implications of the caliphate that it advocates; for example, unlike Hizb ut-Tahrir’s 1996 booklet The American Campaign to Suppress Islam, the video does not call for the killing of those who convert out of Islam. Instead, it is laden with footage of dead Iraqi civilians, and also trots out those familiar bogeymen of the left, the dreaded “neo-cons,” men like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is by no means alone among Islamic extremists in attempting to appeal to appeasement-minded Westerners on the left (and, occasionally, on the right). In his famous pre-election video, Osama bin Laden also employed anti-imperialist rhetoric, arguing that al-Qaeda fights the United States not because they hate our freedoms, but “because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.” He thus suggested that America could buy peace by abandoning its support for Israel and withdrawing from the Middle East – suggestions that are not without their advocates in the West. Ayman al-Zawahiri echoed this approach in his November 2004 and February 2005 videotapes, in which he suggested that the West could gain security by dealing with al-Qaeda on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation.
Will Hizb ut-Tahrir’s attempted seduction of left-of-center Westerners succeed? On the surface, leftists seem like unlikely allies for hardcore Islamists. On virtually every social issue—from the treatment of women and homosexuals to the proper place of religion in society—the leftist and Islamist positions could not be more divergent. Yet committed leftists’ hatred for the West can occasionally trump their liberal politics, causing them to search for allies in the unlikeliest of places.
The paradigm example is radical lawyer Lynne Stewart, who served as the defense attorney for 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Omar Abdel-Rahman. Stewart was convicted in February on charges of conspiracy and providing and concealing material support of terrorism for helping Abdel-Rahman to smuggle messages out of his jail cell. The messages informed his followers in the terrorist group Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) to end a ceasefire agreement with the Egyptian government.
The Gama’a al-Islamiyya is one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, best known for slaughtering fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, Egypt in November 1997. Nor does the group’s ideology make its brutal tactics any more palatable; it stands for the implementation of a harsh version of Islamic law. The Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s frequent killings of Coptic Christians in Egypt are a testament to the kind of rule that the group envisions. Yet despite this, Stewart eventually came to believe in Abdel-Rahman’s cause. A September 2002 New York Times article explains that, “[a]s Stewart got to know her new client, she came to see him as a fighter for national liberation on behalf of a people oppressed by dictatorship and American imperialism.” This view in turn caused Stewart to break her own country’s laws and jeopardize countless lives not only by helping Abdel-Rahman pass along orders to break the Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s ceasefire, but also—when some of the Blind Sheikh’s followers doubted the statement’s authenticity—by holding a press conference a few weeks later confirming Abdel-Rahman’s wishes.
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s new video is an indication that Islamists see enough potential in the political left that they are stepping up their attempting wooing a few notches. Time will tell whether more leftists will be seduced into providing aid and comfort to the West’s enemies. But Islamists are becoming more polished in their appeal. Rather than openly touting their desire to behead homosexuals and apostates and shove women into all-encompassing burkas, the Islamists are now packaging their arguments in very familiar language and concepts. At the very least, this strategy provides cause for concern.