In-Depth Arena

Global connections: The crackdown on Hizbut Tahrir intensifies

Updated 12 Feb, 2016 04:26pm
Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

Mohammed Zahid was born and raised in the United Kingdom. He moved to Pakistan in May 2014, becoming a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) as part of a programme sponsored by a German organisation, the Hanns Seidel Foundation. In August 2014, he moved to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) as an assistant professor in the political science department. On April 22, 2015, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of the Punjab police arrested him on terrorism charges. Since then, according to his wife, he has been languishing in the Lahore Central Jail without a trial.

An expert on radical Islam and the Middle East, Zahid has written a book on Egyptian politics, The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Succession Crisis: The Politics of Liberalisation and Reform in the Middle East. While working at the ISSI, a government think tank considered close to the military establishment, he also authored a working paper titled Political Islam in Pakistan: Hiz-but-Tahrir and the National Security Dilemma. This is one of the few academic works on the activities of Hizbut Tahrir (HuT) in Pakistan.

Zahid’s wife claims he was at Gulberg Galleria, a swanky mall in Lahore on the corner of Gulberg’s main boulevard and Jail Road, when he was arrested. He was there to interview some HuT activists for a second paper he was planning to write on the organisation, she wrote, in a letter published by the Lahore-based English-language newspaper Daily Times.

The police say Zahid was arrested from outside a mosque in Gulberg where he was doing anti-state propaganda. He has been accused of unspecified crimes under the Protection of Pakistan Act, a recent legislation that gives the state sweeping powers to arrest and detain anyone for 90 days on the mere suspicion of involvement in terrorism. After more than eight months in jail, however, Zahid has neither been released on bail nor has any trial started against him, his wife claims.

A source at LUMS suggests that Zahid was active in promoting ideological divisions between the social liberals and religious rightists within the university’s faculty. Others say they know nothing about that. “I do not know if he was a radical. As an academic, he was quite carefully balanced in his approach,” says a LUMS teacher who knows Zahid as a colleague.

Many others – usually middle-class professionals, college and university teachers, and some students – have been similarly arrested from different parts of Pakistan in recent months and years on the allegation that they are linked to HuT. Last month, authorities in Lahore arrested Ghalib Ata, a teacher at the Punjab University, under the same charge. Two other teachers – Amir Saeed and Omer Nawab – were arrested a week later also for their alleged links with HuT, as was a law student, all from the same university.

In late November 2015, police in Karachi arrested one Siham Qamar. A deputy general manager at Karachi Electric – the firm that supplies electricity to Karachi – he is said to be HuT’s Karachi chief. A couple of months before Qamar’s arrest, Owais Raheel, a teacher at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist) was picked up by law enforcement agencies as he was leaving a mosque in Defence after offering his Friday prayers, his wife wrote in a blog for the Karachi-based English-language newspaper The Express Tribune.

Initially, the Karachi police denied having arrested him, but after his wife filed a habeas corpus petition at the Sindh High Court, a newspaper report claimed that he was taken into custody because he was a “highly-qualified terrorist” with links to HuT. He was shown to have been arrested from Boat Basin, and that too, a month after he had gone missing.

It is impossible to know the scale of HuT’s presence and activities in Pakistan. It is a banned organisation, after all, and has been operating only as an underground movement since 2003.

The government considers its activists as terrorists – as do authorities in many Arab countries – though the organisation is still a lawful entity in the UK where it regularly conducts study circles, organises conferences and brings out a number of publications. Its members claim that they have nothing to do with terrorism and that they are only opposed to the global democratic order backed up by a liberal capitalist economy. They argue that their opposition to democracy and capitalism should be treated the same way the leftist opposition to capitalist democracy is treated — as a legitimate political ideology.

Yet, HuT’s call for an international caliphate continues to create fear that its radicalised cadres could one day pick up arms to achieve their goals or its activists may radicalise those parts of the state and society – such as officers in the Pakistan army and university students – which might, then, want to snatch power and impose a caliphate through a bloody civil war.

It was after General Ziaul Haq had taken over power in a military coup in 1977 that HuT expanded its organisational network and activities in Pakistan. In the 1980s, some HuT activists migrated from the UK and some Arab states to study in Pakistani universities.

The HuT activists claim they have put together a detailed and comprehensive critique of capitalism and liberal democracy in order to replace them with a system of global caliphate. They bristle at being called “radicals”. “Our campaign against Western civilisation is intellectual and political in nature. We would have people debate with us rather than try to silence us by throwing labels such as ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists’ at us,” says Shehzad Shaikh, who claims to be HuT’s deputy spokesperson in Pakistan and who spoke to the Herald from an undisclosed location. 

Writing in his paper on HuT, Zahid noted the organisation – which means the “party of liberation” – describes itself as a transnational Islamist political party. He also pointed out that the state in Pakistan has tried to tackle HuT activities through a twofold strategy of crackdown supplemented by dialogue. Founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, an Islamic scholar of Palestinian origin and a graduate of Cairo’s Al Ahzar University, HuT was meant to be an intellectual and political response to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Zionist movement. It first entered Pakistan in the 1960s, according to Zahid, when it sent a delegation to meet the then military dictator Ayub Khan. The delegation subsequently held several rounds of discussions with the top government officials in Pakistan. 

Nabhani, a former associate of the Muslim Brotherhood, would maintain regular correspondence with Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Nabhani also urged Dr Israr Ahmed – who split from Maududi opposing participation in elections and set up his Tanzeem-e-Islami, a pan-Islamist organisation that also advocates an international caliphate – to continue his work in Pakistan for the establishment of a global caliphate, wrote Zahid.

It was after General Ziaul Haq had taken over power in a military coup in 1977 that HuT expanded its organisational network and activities in Pakistan. In the 1980s, some HuT activists migrated from the UK and some Arab states to study in Pakistani universities, Zahid pointed out. The HuT cadres mainly came from educated middle-class backgrounds and they disseminated their ideology through “lessons in mosques, leaflets, magazines, public meetings, seminars and conferences,” he added.

Sheikh claims that HuT has never wanted to bring about caliphate through violent means and has rejected the activities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He says HuT considers ISIS only as a militant group, not a legitimate global government of the rightly guided Muslims. Setting up a caliphate is more than being a rallying call for sectarian militancy, he says. Unlike ISIS, which takes pride in killing Shias and members of other minority sects, he says, HuT rejects sectarianism and has condemned ISIS atrocities.

When Pakistan banned HuT more than a decade ago, the reason mainly was that the organisation was making serious inroads in the military and was trying to convince senior and middle-ranking military officers that they should stop listening to their superiors who, HuT alleged, were puppets in the hands of international capitalist imperialism. The organisation’s online newsletters and press releases repeatedly condemn the military high command for its participation in what HuT calls the West’s and America’s war against terror.

There is evidence that a few military officers did listen to HuT’s calls and started questioning Pakistan’s role and participation in the war against terrorism as early as 2007-2008. By 2011, the authorities had arrested at least three army officials, including a brigadier, Ali Khan.

A Hizbut Tahrir suspect being brought to the CTD office in Karachi | Courtesy
A Hizbut Tahrir suspect being brought to the CTD office in Karachi | Courtesy

A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report claims that Khan would try to convince his colleagues to support his views years before he was detained, court-martialled and sacked. It was in the backdrop of Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad in May 2011 that he openly argued that the United States had breached Pakistan’s sovereignty to attack bin Laden and that those leading the army were responsible for that breach, says the BBC report.

A few months after his arrest, security and intelligence agencies started a nationwide crackdown on HuT to dismantle its network in Pakistan. The reason for the crackdown was that the army officers converted to its cause had become convinced that they were doing nothing illegal or wrong by raising their voice against what they saw as an American imperialist war imposed on Muslim countries.

The authorities apprehended that HuT could try to subvert the military from within. “The army is a cult in itself, so it’s intolerant towards any other cult within it,” Major General Athar Abbas was quoted as saying by the BBC. At the time, he was working as the army’s spokesperson.

Naveed Butt has been missing since May 2012. Until his disappearance, he had been working as HuT’s spokesperson in Pakistan for over five years. Born in Gujrat, he was raised in Islamabad and belongs to a known business family in the federal capital. Trained as an engineer from the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, he went on to study at the University of Illinois in Chicago. It was there that he joined HuT.

Butt was picked up by unknown men – some of them allegedly in khaki – in front of his three children, outside his Model Town home in Lahore. Since then, his whereabouts have been unknown. No law enforcement agency has accepted having arrested him. He has been presented in no court of law.

Hearing multiple petitions about his disappearance, both the Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court refused to order the registration of an abduction case against the law enforcement agencies on the grounds that there is no evidence to prove that he is in the custody of security and intelligence agencies. The courts have advised his family to approach the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances for further investigation of his case.

The government considers HuT activists as terrorists – as do authorities in many Arab countries – though the organisation is still a lawful entity in the UK where it regularly conducts study circles, organises conferences and brings out a number of publications.

His wife, Saadia Butt, a non-practising lawyer, says she approached the commission many months ago but no hearing has been scheduled so far.

Umar Hayat Sindhu, a former senior vice president of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, recalls meeting Butt in 2003 and 2004. Sindhu has been defending HuT activists in courts of law for more than a decade now. The first briefs landed on his desk immediately after a HuT conference in Lahore, in 2003, which led to a large number of arrests of the organisation’s activists.

Sindhu believes there are many HuT members who, like Butt, have gone missing from across Pakistan in recent years. He feels the crackdown against them is increasing HuT’s popularity mainly because, as he claims, the authorities have failed to produce any evidence linking the organisation with incidents of terrorism. “When people see that a professor is picked up, they start questioning why such a man would do something dangerous,” says Sindhu.

Rai Muhammad Tahir, an additional inspector general of the Punjab Police, is the head of the provincial CTD that became operational only in March last year as a part of the National Action Plan. The main mandate of the department is to prevent and pre-empt terrorist activities as well as investigate the incidents of terrorism. This includes a crackdown on the distribution of material carrying terrorist propaganda, anti-state writings and hate speech, says Tahir.

Tahir cites the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 to define terrorism rather broadly. Anything “designed to coerce, intimidate or overawe the government or the public or a section of the public or community or sect or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society,” is terrorism, according to the act. In the same vein, any activity or threat of that activity aimed at “advancing religious, sectarian or ethnic cause” is also terrorism. “The motive of terrorism can vary from personal to religious,” Tahir explains.

It is in line with these definitions that his department is arresting people with actual or alleged – direct or indirect – links to HuT. The latest crackdown is targeting an offshoot of HuT, says a senior official of the department. This offshoot is called Saut ul-Ummat (the Voice of the Ummah) and consists of professors and other professionals who have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he reveals. “They do not accept democracy [and] were indoctrinating young men [to perpetrate] violence in order to create a caliphate in Pakistan.”

The official says the operational wing of Saut ul-Ummat consists of young people who have been attacking media houses in Lahore. Some of those arrested were at the initial stages of becoming terrorists, he adds.

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.