Radical Islamist group pushes limits of free expression

Sunday 18/06/2017

Out of step. A file picture shows supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir waving flags during a rally at central Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. (Reuters)

Tunis - Hizb ut-Tahrir, a hard-line Islamist group that wants to unite Muslims in a global caliphate, was suspended for one month in Tunisia after issuing statements calling for an end to democracy and urging the army to disobey state directives.
“Democracy no longer attracts anyone,” Hizb ut-Tahrir politburo chief Abderraouf Amri said in April. “It is time to announce its death and work to bury it.”
The position drew a harsh rebuke in Tunisia, a young democracy in which members of the public, both secularist and Islamist, derided the comments as “ridiculous,” “back­ward” and “delusional.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir caused further controversy May 12 with a state­ment encouraging “officers and soldiers of the army of Tunisia” to resist orders to protect energy fa­cilities in southern Tunisia, days after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi deployed the army to those areas.
About 1,000 protesters demand­ing better access to employment and a share of the government’s energy revenue had disrupted pro­duction in southern Tunisia for more than a month, Caid Essebsi said.
The statement renewed scrutiny of Hizb ut-Tahrir and raised ques­tions about the limits of freedom of expression in a society trying to balance civil liberties and security concerns.
“I am radically against Hizb ut- Tahrir’s statement (against democ­racy),” said Mohamed Ali Azaiez, a political activist and member of Tunisia’s main Islamist Ennahda party. “Democracy is one of the pillars of Ennahda and we strongly believe in it.”
“Hizb ut-Tahrir is entirely discon­nected from the political scene,” said Ayoub, a university student in Sfax, 270km south-east of Tunis. “They do not believe in democracy and they’re still unable to assume that their project is inconsistent with the current political orienta­tion of the country.”
“The question of whether people want democracy or autocracy is simply irrelevant,” he said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is a pan-Islamic Salafist party that wants to “resume the Islamic way of life” and imple­ment Islamic sharia. It is active in more than 50 countries — including Western ones — but is banned in the majority of Arab countries because of its extremist views. The group was banned in Tunisia until 2012 and is closely monitored by the government.
A party representative, in an e-mail exchange, refused to backtrack from the group’s anti-democratic stance, saying that supporters of democracy should “reconsider themselves.”
“We renew our call to every hon­est democrat to stop the sanctifica­tion of democracy,” said Mohamed Ennaceur Chouikha, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s administrative board. “Has democracy solved one problem since its implementation in 2011? Or has it made the colon­iser control us more?”
Chouikha argued that demo­cratic policies were responsible for political and economic corruption and the country’s increasing debt. He said the failure of Arab armies to protect the Syrian people was partly responsible for the stream of young Arab fighters joining jihadist groups in the area.
“If we were to enumerate the ways in which democratic princi­ples have corrupted people’s lives (in every democratic state), large volumes of books wouldn’t be enough,” Chouikha said.
While most Tunisians dismiss Hizb ut-Tahrir as a fringe network of religious purists, some Ennahda members were careful not to alien­ate the group.
“Personally, I respect (Hizb ut- Tahrir) opinion,” said Zohra Smida, a lawmaker from Ennahda repre­senting Gabes, “and we in Ennahda support intellectual and cultural dif­ference as it is necessary to make people think.”
Smida said Ennahda and Hizb ut- Tahrir shared Islam as a reference point but stressed Ennahda was a “moderate party” that supported Tunisia’s quest for “freedom and democracy.”
While Hizb ut-Tahrir has repeat­edly disavowed violence and even spoken out against terrorism, some argued that its continued contempt for the state was dangerous, even bordering on sedition.
In 2016, Hizb ut-Tahrir was pre­vented from having its annual news conference at Palais des Congrès in Tunis after it was accused of dis­turbing the public. Caid Essebsi said the organisation’s “arrogance towards the state undermines its authority.”
Later that year, reports alleging the group had threatened to “cut the heads and hands” off the state circulated in the media, leading to renewed calls for it to be banned. Hizb ut-Tahrir said its comments had been distorted and that its members had frequently been victims of police harassment and abuse.
It is unclear how much support Hizb ut-Tahrir has in Tunisia but it remains socially and politically ac­tive, frequently issuing statements against the government and having regular gatherings and workshops in its headquarters in Soukra, near Tunis.
Polling indicates the party’s hope of ridding the country of democ­racy is out of step with mainstream society. In May 2016, a poll by Tu­nis-based One to One for Research and Polling found 86% of respond­ents said they valued democracy as the best form of governance.