Sunday, August 2, 2009

Last month, the transnational Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir — “Party of Liberation” — held its inaugural American meeting in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Ill. Hizb al-Tahrir (HT) is officially dedicated to resurrecting the caliphate, the office of “successor” to Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad.

While banned as a terrorist organization in a number of countries (Germany, Russia, Turkey) for its reputation as “conveyor belt to terrorism,” HT is seen by the U.S. government as less threatening and tolerable under the First Amendment.

But after attending the inaugural conference, I am convinced HT is a more insidious and greater long-term threat to this country and the West than even al Qaeda and its ilk.

With its title “Fall of Capitalism and Rise of Islam,” the event — simultaneously broadcast over the Internet — was clearly aimed at exploiting the current economic recession to advance Islam. HT’s leadership is savvy enough to refrain (for now) from openly calling for replacing our republic with an Islamic caliphate. To that end, economic fear-mongering and class-warfare rhetoric were the order of the day, intermixed with liberal doses of conspiracy theorizing and recitation of Muslim grievances, both real and imagined.

Of course, the origin of all problems in the ummah, the Islamic “community,” is the destruction of the Ottoman Turkish caliphate in 1924 by the “dictator” Kemal Ataturk at the behest of the British. HT wielded its propaganda deftly: short videos railing against capitalism’s evils — showing unemployment lines, rioting, starving African children, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Abu Ghraib. These were interwoven with inflammatory commentary about “corporations that don’t pay taxes, continue polluting our lakes and streams and cut our wages and salaries” and “trillions of dollars going to make the 1 percent rich while millions live in poverty.” This being a recruiting cotillion for HT, facts did not get to lead. The presence in Islamic history of multiple caliphates over the centuries went unnoted, as did the disagreeable point that the Ottoman Empire, even under its caliphate, was far from an Islamic paradise.

Western capitalism was said to be predicated on “hoarding,” and one speaker even claimed, oxymoronically, that “the Patriot Act took away our right to have conferences like this.”

But the Islamic populist red meat seemed filling to many of the 300-plus in attendance: More than once, I saw heads nodding vigorously in agreement, particularly among the black “sisters” sitting — like the other, white Muslimahs - in the HT-designated back third of the room. And whenever a speaker hit on a particularly telling point, an HT cheerleader would shout “Takbir!” (“Praise!”), eliciting the crowd’s shouted response “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”)

Despite its historical ignorance and economic illiteracy (real or feigned, on both counts), HT is a dangerous organization — but not because it engages in violent acts of terrorism. Nor, frankly, is it dangerous because (as may very well be true) it serves as a “gateway drug” for Muslims who wish to move on to more violent groups.

Rather, it is a threat because of an ideology which strikes a chord with many in the Muslim world and which may, if the group’s opening American salvo is any indication, resonate with a substantial minority of America’s 2.35 million Muslims. Indeed, HT’s economic populism echoes, and may appeal to, even some on the political left who would similarly decry the evils of “casino” and “corporate capitalism.”

But HT’s claim that Islam is the only system willing to diagnose — as well as providing a cure for — the “disease of godless, immoral Western capitalism” ignores the fact that Western capitalism has its own intrinsic, complementary corrective to the periodic ravages of the invisible hand. That corrective is the religion of more than 2 billion people and which is at the bedrock of Western civilization: Christianity.

Foremost among the Christian leaders offering ideas for these tough economic times is the Bishop of Rome: In his latest encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI critiques capitalism, calling for the “central place of charity,” reminding us that “every economic decision has a moral consequence” and praying all “to receive the daily bread that we need, to be understanding and generous towards our debtors, not to be tempted beyond our limits, and to be delivered from evil.”

The alternative to “godless capitalism” in our culture, then, is not Islam, but capitalism with a reaffirmation and greater infusion of Judeo-Christian mores. Furthermore — and, more importantly, in the long run -Benedict, like many Christians, is unwilling to concede that, as HT claims, “Islam has won the intellectual battle.”

Some Americans hope to fight this battle with the purely secular weapons of democracy and liberty, but those are easily bested by a strong religious faith such as Islam. It may not be possible to defeat groups like HT without fighting on their own ground, at least ideologically and intellectually — which means invoking Christianity, as the pope did in exposing Islam’s violent past (the 2006 Regensburg address) and in calling for acknowledgement of Islamic intolerance (his urging the Saudis to allow a church in the Kingdom).

This new, nonmartial campaign must be led by the churches (not just Rome), for our government, under Republicans or Democrats, seems unable to acknowledge the intrinsically Islamic ideology behind groups like Hizb al-Tahrir.

Timothy R. Furnish, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic history, is an analyst and author who specializes in Islamic eschatology and sects.

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