‘Extremist is the secular word for heretic’: the Hizb ut-Tahrir leader who insists on his right to speak
As David Cameron lays out a counter-extremism strategy that he calls ‘the struggle of our generation’, the voice of the ‘extremists’ has been missing. So what does Dr Abdul Wahid really believe?
Since the Islamic State atrocity in Tunisia David Cameron has made a series of statements pointing the finger at those he calls extremists. These people, says the prime minister, refuse to subscribe to British values such as free speech and the rule of law.
Cameron does not assert that all extremists are terrorists. He does, however, warn that extremists form a pool where terrorism can flourish and from which killers emerge. This week, in a headline-grabbing speech, he laid out a counter-extremism strategy to fight what he described as “the struggle of our generation”.
As the prime minister has developed this theme he has persistently raised one group’s name as the most noxious: Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Cameron called for HT, the pan Islamist movement which presses for the restoration of the caliphate and introduction of sharia law, to be banned in 2007, following the example of Tony Blair two years earlier. He named it again a month ago in his Today programme interview in the wake of the Tunisian atrocity.
As the latest round of this debate has unfolded, one voice has been noticeably absent: that of the alleged extremist. And it seems worth examining exactly what form that extremism takes. So it is that I go to a leafy street in West London, where Dr Abdul Wahid, chairman of the executive committee of the of the British wing of HT, lives with his wife and two sons.
I have known Wahid for around a decade, ever since the time of the Iraq invasion. We have dinner occasionally. As well as his role at HT, he’s a GP. Today the weather is warm and he answers the door in a safari suit. He bought it, he says, on a recent pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. (Later, he emails to specify that it’s from Medina, explaining “Saudi is an entity that was conceived in the Foreign Office, not in Islam”.)
His front room is a very ordinary environment for a man who leads an organisation so frequently accused of bigotry and worse. In recent years HT has been charged with trying to bring down democracy, antisemitism and suppressing women. It also outrages many foreign governments. When the head of the Pakistan army visited Britain in January, getting Britain to clamp down on HT was top of his agenda.
So, then: what does it feel like to be singled out by the government as an extremist? “Extremist,” says Wahid, “is the secular word for heretic. It means that you don’t subscribe to certain political and social norms.” Blair and Cameron,” he adds, “suffer from the disease of populism. Blair felt like after 7/7 he had to do something, and Cameron echoes a lot of that kind of talk. He is relying on the ignorance of most people and trying to get away with it.
“Someone murders people in Tunisia, and he goes on talking about people in Britain with political ideas and religious views he doesn’t like, who have nothing to do with violence. And he spins it in a way that makes it look almost seamless.” But what of the link, which has been made by many besides the prime minister, between extremist opinions and terrorism? Wahid is well prepared for this question: “Nobody serious has any evidence of that link. And in fact, several big players have actually refuted it.” He cites the work by Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and forensic psychiatrist, which (he says) challenges the notion of a linear progression towards radicalisation. He quotes then MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller telling the Chilcot enquiry that the Iraq invasion provoked Muslim terrorism. He has chapter and verse from a leaked cabinet memo from 2010 saying there was no “typical pathway to violent extremism”.
What of elections? In Britain, I suggest, we believe in democracy, free speech, tolerance. His critics say that he doesn’t believe in any of those things and in particular, not in democracy. Wahid replies: “Well, we have a view on democracy. I believe in voting, I believe in elections. The caliphate we want to see is one where a ruler would be elected, accountable, not above the law; accountable to people, to political groups, to elected assembly, to independent media.”
Wahid says David Cameron’s belief in democracy is just skin deep: “You don’t have to be a member of HT to say this, there are an awful lot of flaws and contradictions in the democratic system.
“Let us just remind ourselves at this juncture that Britain’s head of state is actually a hereditary monarch; she’s not elected and her successor will not be elected. Britain’s legislature has two houses, one of which is an appointed house. Cameron goes and has tea and dinner with the royal families of the Middle East. So suddenly pulling out the democracy card is a little bit rich.
“And that’s without saying that in democracies the people with voting power are not actually the masses. And if you need an example of that, just look at Greece. Greece had a popular referendum a week ago, and that decision is basically overturned by closed-door meetings in Europe. That’s democracy as it exists.”
I move onto another topic: HT and women. Critics of the organisation point to its draft constitution, which states “the primary role of a woman is that of mother and wife, she is an honour that must be protected”. Does Wahid agree?
“The view of HT on all those things is a traditional Muslim view: women and men before God have the same value, the same worth, the same status. The instructions for human beings, men and women, are broadly speaking, the same. However, there are distinctions in the way that Islam addresses men and women. Islam puts the burden of providing for the family on the man, which doesn’t mean to say that a woman can’t work.
What about his own wife? “My wife stopped working when we had kids. Before then she worked as a teacher, before that she worked in market research. My mum worked most of her adult life. I have two sisters, who are married, have kids, and they both worked before they had kids; one still works, even with kids. And that was the choice of my wife, when she gave up work.”
Do you believe that women can and should go into politics? “Yes, absolutely.” Can they become the caliph? “No, because of the specific injunction of the prophet, they can do everything except become the ruler.
“They can be the Judge, they can be in the assembly, they should be in the elected assembly. In our own drafted constitution it says that.
“They can be in the administrative services of the state. In the time of one of the prophet’s successors, peace be with him, he appointed a female judge in his time, you know, 14 centuries ago. And in fact HT has a very active political women’s movement, they organise their own conferences and meetings.”
I remind Wahid that men and women are segregated by a screen at these HT meetings. “Yes, the women and men sit separately, usually with a sort of screen between them, which is the normal Islamic etiquette. Actually, we believe very much that it’s the way it should be.
“It should be that women and men engage in political discourse actively. Our women’s section all across the world, by the way, organises conferences that address thousands of people.”
I suggest the HT women’s section is an affront to modern British sensibilities: “Is it? Do you ever listen to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4? Is it an affront to British sensibilities that there should be a regular magazine programme on one of its main broadcasting stations which is dedicated to women? If Mr Cameron thinks it’s in affront to Britain that there is a women’s section in HT, then tell him to go and say that to the Women’s Institute. I daresay a fair number of the Conservative party belong to men only clubs in the City.”
I turn to the charge that his organisation is antisemitic. Fifteen years ago HT published a notorious article entitled The Muslim Ummah will never submit to the Jews. It contained unpleasant language, some of which I read out to Wahid, and invite him to denounce the article. He refuses. “HT is not antisemitic at all, but we are absolutely anti-Zionist … It actually doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or non-Jewish, if you’re Zionist, we cannot support someone who believes that it’s right that the land was usurped from some people and given over to others, especially when the occupying force is particularly murderous and bloodthirsty, as it has been.
“You will never find those words being used about Jews living in other parts of Middle Eastern world, Iraq, Morocco or those places. And you should never find those words being used about that.
“And you will never find this language used by us, because probably here we have more understanding of the particular European experience, and what it means.”
Once again I invite Wahid to denounce the pamphlet. “Of course I am not going to denounce it! Because it’s about a leaflet, a small extract of the leaflet, which was written in response to murder, brutality. The people who wrote this in original Arabic in the context it was written, and the people who read it, understand what it means. When you take it out of context, you translate it into English, you take it to Europe and put an interpretation to it, which is not what it was, you find that people misunderstand it. But I am not going to denounce the leaflet.”
Later on, he emails about all this, saying he has now read it. “I appreciate through a European lens, after the massacre of millions of Jews by Europe, any generic negative language about Jewish people sets off alarms,” he writes. “But through a Middle East lens, where ‘Israel’ calls itself the Jewish state and the term Jew and Israel are used synonymously, where people see themselves in a war, people understand this language as the rhetoric of conflict and understand it within the context of that region and NOT Jews per se.”
So what about Britain? Would he fight for it? “You know what, I have no issue with serving the people of this country, but I wouldn’t fight for any country or a flag, a national flag. I think the Islamic idea of fighting is actually fighting for an idea, for a principle, it isn’t about fighting for a flag.”
Does Wahid regard himself as a subject of the Queen? “I have no particular issue with the Queen, I am sure she’s a very pleasant old lady. But I don’t regard myself as her subject. And, by the way, I never did.”
Would he support those who fought against British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan? “If someone invaded a country, then that would be their right to do that.” For justification he produces a quote from Winston Churchill: “It is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders’ hearth”.
I ask him why he joined HT. Wahid cites a possibly surprising reference: Lady Evelyn Cobbold, daughter of the seventh earl of Dunmore. “She became a Muslim in an odd way. Someone took her to a private audience with the Pope. The Pope asked her which denomination she was. She answered she was a Muslim. This spontaneous answer shocked her, although probably not as much as it shocked the Pope.”
Wahid takes down a book from his shelves and reads Cobbold’s account: “What possessed me I don’t pretend to know, as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years. A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study. The more I read, the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Islam was the most practical religion, and the one most calculated to solve the world’s many perplexing problems, and to bring to humanity peace and happiness.”
Wahid adds: “When I read that, years later, it echoed exactly with what my own journey was.”
Wahid has a well-organised mind, perhaps in part the product of his upbringing. His own family came to the UK from Pakistan. His father worked as a travel agent and made many sacrifices to send his son to Merchant Taylors’, a private school in north London. He also understands Britain, and the contradictions embedded in the British identity, uncomfortably well.
He is widely read, too. Before I leave, I look at the books on the wall. There is the collection of commentaries on the Qur’an by Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood theorist who has executed in Egypt by Nasser in 1966, and became (in part through Ayman al-Zawahiri) one of the inspirations for al-Qaida. Kissinger’s Diplomacy is there, as is Niall Ferguson’s Empire and Robert Peston’s Who Runs Britain?, alongside Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill and Ibn Khaldun’s masterpiece Al Muqaddimah: “It’s a very good book. I actually got it when I was working in obstetrics, and there is a chapter on midwifery which is fantastic.”
A man’s bookshelves can hardly be said to define him. All the same, they do teach an ironic lesson about the range of allowable voices. You can say many things about Wahid, and be appalled by much of what he says. But in a democracy he surely has the right to say it. Whatever the government thinks.