Tackling Ontological Insecurity: Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Appeal to Sweden’s Muslims

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Sweden has a complicated relationship with immigration, and recent immigrants feel the brunt of failed policies and practices. The pan-Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir is capitalizing on Muslim immigrants’ experiences of isolation and discrimination.

 

On the eve of the 2018 Swedish general elections, the Swedish chapter of the pan-Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) came under the media spotlight when it launched a campaign urging the Muslim population of Sweden to boycott the elections. Worldwide the group is known for its campaign to establish a global Islamic Caliphate. It deems voting to elect secular governments — and democracy in general — an un-Islamic practice.

No precise information is available regarding how many Muslim voters the group successfully persuaded to refrain from voting. Nonetheless, in their analysis of the 2018 elections, Statistikmyndigheten, the statistics agency of the Swedish government, found that, despite the traditional gap of around 20 percentage points between native- and foreign-born Swedes in election participation, the voter turnout rate among the latter group increased in 2018 compared to previous elections (SCB, 2019). 

Based on this evidence, we can conclude that Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden was largely unsuccessful in its mission. It carried out a similar campaign before the 2022 elections. Although the gap between the native-born and foreign-born increased this time, it could not be directly attributed to Tahrir’s campaign. 

Still, we must not forget that, unlike in other European countries, Tahir has only recently established itself in Sweden. Its Swedish chapter was set up in 2012, and the 2018 election boycott campaign was only its first major venture in the Nordic nation. In Sweden’s polarised political climate, immigration from Muslim countries is the most divisive issue. The centre-right coalition government relies on the support of the Swedish Democrats — an anti-immigration party with Nazi roots — to stay in power. Consequently, there are ample opportunities for groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir to exploit the grievances felt by the Swedish Muslim community.

In the Swedish context, even if Tahrir only convinced a meagre number of Muslim voters to abstain from voting, it is still worth knowing how it managed to influence them and what this means for Sweden’s democracy. Current academic research and media reporting primarily focus on violent Salafi-jihadi groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Non-violent Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir receive scant attention. However, as we will see, Tahrir is in many ways similar to mainstream far-right populist parties in Europe.

 

Purveyors of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative: Hizb ut-Tahrir in the West

Founded officially in Jerusalem by Taqiudden al-Nabhani on March 14, 1953, Hizb ut-Tahrir is known for the remarkable consistency in its ideological position, the neutral stance it maintains in the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict, and its non-violent tactics (Pankhurst, 2016). Nonetheless, Tahrir has been found to incite, if not engage in, violence. For example, its Danish chapter has a history of advocating violence against Jews, and individuals with links to the organisation have been charged with plotting terror attacks (CE Project).

 Facing a continuous onslaught from authoritarian governments in the Arab countries, it sought refuge in the non-Arab world, including the West. The group attracted scrutiny from Western media and governments only in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (Pankhurst, 2016: 220).

Although the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has been credited with advancing the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory, it has also been advocated by many non-Western thinkers, including a few pan-Islamist ideologues. Indeed, the theory has been a cornerstone of Tahrir’s ideology. In a pamphlet titled The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisation, Tahir claims that civilisation is ‘‘a collection of concepts about life’’ while adding that a spiritual civilisation, i.e., the Islamic civilisation, has a religious doctrine in its roots, as opposed to any man-made civilisation, i.e., the Western civilisation (2002: 5).

Banned in many Muslim countries for running seditious campaigns, Tahrir’s UK chapter is at the helm of running its global operations. In the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, the British government failed twice in its attempt to ban the organisation (Doward and Hinsliff, 2006). Finding no causal link between Hizb ut-Tahrir and terrorist activities, a ‘conveyor belt to terrorism’ narrative about the group dominates both sides of the Atlantic. It portrays Tahrir as an organisation that does not engage in terrorist acts but one that does not repudiate them either and, in some instances, even encourages its members to wage violence (Hanif, 2012; Pankhurst, 2016: 222–223).

Germany banned the group from public activity for advocating the violent destruction of the State of Israel and its citizens. Tahrir can freely operate in other EU member states and North America. In countries where it is banned, Tahrir limits its activities to personal contacts and occasional distribution of its literature. In more permissive political environments, it uses social media platforms and public spaces to host talks, arrange conferences and protest events, and reach out to target groups from mosques to universities (Pankhurst, 2016: 241).

Since it mainly employs non-violent tactics, Tahrir poses a delicate dilemma for Western governments, who must maintain a precarious balance between upholding the right to free speech and the duty to curb anti-democratic propaganda.

After Sweden’s decades-long failure to integrate immigrants, even parties on the left side of the political spectrum have changed or sharpened their tone about immigration and immigrants. The recent arrivals are facing the brunt of hostile immigration policies even though they are hardly responsible for failed integration efforts. This provides the perfect pretext for Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden to tap into the dread of ontological insecurity felt by minority Muslims. A party or a leader with a different ontological pedigree is portrayed as incapable of representing the interests of Muslim constituents.

 

Hizb ut-Tahrir in Sweden: Exploiting an Ontological Crisis and Projecting an ‘Ontological Other’

As a social movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden strives to shape the immigrant Muslim community’s perceptions of injustices and grievances to reflect its own ideological standpoint. In recent years, it has targeted immigrant-dominated suburbs in Sweden — some of which are officially designated as vulnerable areas by the government — where party activists leave leaflets in letterboxes and rent municipality premises to hold talks (Doku, 2021).

Discrimination, academically understood, is the unequal treatment of persons or groups based on their origin (Pager and Shepherd, 2008). Tahrir, however, accuses the secular Swedish state of being discriminatory for not allowing religious groups to shape state policies in areas such as education, gender roles, and inheritance and thereby maintain a rigid group distinction.

We, humans, seek ontological security — the need to experience one’s self-image as continuous over time — as much as we seek physical security. In other words, we seek a sense of belongingness and acceptance by being part of a social group. We cherish predictability and order to perpetuate a self-identity tied to performing certain social roles. We reinforce this identity by creating a common reality through the language, culture and traditions we share with others.

Croft (2012) identifies four key components of ontological security: it requires a self-identity based on routinely shared biographical coherence; it requires a ‘cocoon’ of trust structures built on social tokens and confidence in experts in order to contain self-identity; it requires self-integrity, a clear awareness of what is acceptable and appropriate across time; it requires a constant dread of ontological insecurity. 

Focusing on how the British Muslim identity has been inseuritised in the post-9/11 period, Croft (2012) finds that a sense of ontological crisis juxtaposed the Muslim identity with the British identity — where restoring White and Protestant ontological security requires framing Islam and Muslims as the ‘Ontological Other’. Furthermore, conjecturing a confrontation between ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ identities paved the way for right-wing groups in Britain to exploit such construction (Croft, 2012).

Ontological insecurity can equally plague members of a minority community and elicit responses similar to those of a dominant majority. Investigating the impact of globalisation on ontological security, Kinnvall (2004) finds that religion and nationalism arise as powerful identity constructions during crises of ontological security. Immigrant communities often address their ontological insecurity tied to uprootedness by employing the homestead strategy, where they create a place for assemblies — such as mosques, temples, and churches — and join an identity-based group during periods of rapid instability, seeking stability (Kinnvall, 2004).

Many of the Muslims in Sweden arrived as refugees from war-torn countries. They experienced a violent rupture in their biographical continuity. They can no longer access the ‘cocoon’ of trust structures that once sustained their self-identity. They often lack the knowledge of what is acceptable and appropriate in a new environment, and their dread of ontological insecurity has turned real. By framing its mobilisation appeal in the language of nostalgia, Tahrir promises them a return to a halcyon past, where all four components that once informed their ontological security in their home country will be restored.

Such an appeal brings the Muslim identity in direct confrontation with the Swedish identity. It frames opinions and judgements from the mainstream media, experts, and professionals from secular and non-Islamic backgrounds as suspects. It identifies self-integrity as tied to invoking group distinction and superiority. It promises ontological security by calling the dread of the ‘Western Other’ into existence.

In a pamphlet titled Demokrati (Democracy), Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden frames democracy as a political ideology and a way of life rooted in secularism. In a brief account of European history, the pamphlet portrays democracy resulting from a compromise between European monarchs, who claimed themselves as representatives of God, and subjects who rejected their authority. With the advent of democracy, religion is relegated to the private sphere. Consequently, decisions regarding regulating society come from elected representatives rather than the revealed scriptures.

Framing all social ills as direct consequences of a democratic order, the pamphlet claims that democracy promises a false perception of political power belonging to the people when it actually resides with a few wealthy, influential individuals. Democracy, as a Western ideology, is alien to Muslims, who should instead consult Islamic precepts that explain all past failures and provide solutions to current and future problems.

Tahrir frames personal freedom, a fundamental democratic principle, as an illusion since even in a liberal society like Sweden, one cannot always do things as one would like. Yet the same liberal society deems the Islamic dress code violates individual freedom.

The idea that democracy is an alien concept foisted upon Muslims is projected by the cover image of the pamphlet that depicts a warplane jettisoning bombs on a mosque, and it is accompanied by a caption that reads: “If you do not accept democracy, it will be delivered to you”.

This image allows Tahir to advance its ‘Clash of Civilisations’ narrative while projecting democracy as an alien concept and those who practise it as the ‘Ontological Other’. At the same time, it facilitates Tahrir’s attempt to forge transnational solidarity by exploiting a common grievance that Muslims share about Western interventions in Muslim nations. As Doerr (2017) finds, far-right actors often deploy images and visual symbols to project an ontological difference and foster transnational solidarity.

In another pamphlet titled Använd din röst men inte till valet! (Use your vote but not for the election), Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden frames voting as only acceptable under an Islamic system on a limited number of issues. Electing secular parliamentarians, governments, and leaders is, therefore, un-Islamic — not only because it is based on Kufr (Secular Democracy) but also because it could lead to electing someone who could possibly attack Muslims. 

After Sweden’s decades-long failure to integrate immigrants, even parties on the left side of the political spectrum have changed or sharpened their tone about immigration and immigrants. The recent arrivals are facing the brunt of hostile immigration policies even though they are hardly responsible for failed integration efforts. This provides the perfect pretext for Hizb ut-Tahrir Sweden to tap into the dread of ontological insecurity felt by minority Muslims. A party or a leader with a different ontological pedigree is portrayed as incapable of representing the interests of Muslim constituents.

The likelihood of political participation increases when an individual has some personal stake in the issue (Goss, 2003). The recent Quran burnings in Sweden have mobilised protests from Muslims across the globe. Tahrir seeks to strike a chord with outraged Muslims by claiming that only an Islamic Caliphate could uphold the sanctity of the holy scripture.

As Olivier Roy notes in Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah in a globalised world, the deterritorialisation of many Muslims has severed their ties to their homelands, while religion has become the primary identity marker that defines the immigrant communities in their new, adapted country.

As a result, a schism has appeared between Islamists tied to a particular country and its domestic politics — the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah — and Islamists who are uprooted and strive to establish a borderless Ummah — the likes of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Roy, 2006). Tahrir thus does not seek recognition from the Swedish or any other secular government since it considers them illegitimate. Its ultimate goal is to institutionalise its ideas transnationally so that it achieves support from a sufficient number of uprooted Muslims who would perceive their ontological security and loyalty tied to their religious identity rather than to their ethnicity, culture, or national identity.

 

Reinvigorating Solidarity in an Age of Identity Politics

How do we nullify the threats posed by Tahrir to the democratic society? It will require us to reinvigorate the ethos of human solidarity. To that end, we must first challenge today’s dominant neoliberal governmentality that has undermined political equality by allowing the concentration of wealth and state power in the hands of a few and fomented an odious identity politics grounded not in universal human solidarity but group identities. The recent resurgence of religion, particularly its invocations to channel grievances about earthly injustices, can also be understood against this background. 

Securing political equality will require us to address the current social and economic inequalities that plague Western societies resulting from the decimation of the welfare state under the neoliberal onslaught. Without political equality, there cannot be any universal solidarity or a well-functioning democracy, and inequalities and injustices across class, racial, and religious divides will intensify — only be exploited by the likes of Tahrir.

 

 

References:

Croft, S. (2012) ‘Constructing Ontological Insecurity: The Insecuritization of Britain’s Muslims’, Contemporary Security Policy, 33(2), pp. 219–235. doi: 10.1080/13523260.2012.693776.

Counter extremism project (no date) Hizb ut-Tahrir, Counter Extremism Project. Available at: www.counterextremism.com/threat/hizb-ut-tahrir (Accessed: 25 June 2023).

Doerr, N. (2017) ‘Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe’, Discourse & Society, 28(1), pp. 3–23. doi: 10.1177/0957926516676689.

Doku (2021) ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir mobiliserar i Stockholms utsatta områden – Doku.nu’, 22 February. Available at: doku.nu/2021/02/22/hizb-ut-tahrir-mobiliserar-i-stockholms-utsatta-omraden/ (Accessed: 17 May 2023).

Doward, J. and Hinsliff (2006) PM shelves Islamic group ban, the Guardian. Available at: www.theguardian.com/world/2006/dec/24/religion.uk (Accessed: 16 May 2023). Duckitt, J. (2006)

Goss, K. A. (2003) ‘Rethinking the Political Participation Paradigm’, Women & Politics, 25(4), pp. 83–118. doi: 10.1300/J014v25n04_04.

Hanif, N. (2012) ‘Hizb ut Tahrir: Islam’s Ideological Vanguard’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 39(2), pp. 201–225. doi: 10.1080/13530194.2012.711037.

Hizb ut-Tahrir (2002) The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisations: Hatmiyyat Sira’a Ul-Hadharat. London: Al-Khilafah Publications.

Kinnvall, C. (2004) ‘Globalisation and Religious Nationalism: Self, Identity, and the Search for Ontological Security’, Political Psychology, 25(5), pp. 741–767.

Pager, D. and Shepherd, H. (2008) ‘The Sociology of Discrimination: Racial Discrimination in Employment, Housing, Credit, and Consumer Markets’, Annual Review of Sociology, 34, pp. 181–209.

Pankhurst, R. (2016) Hizb UT-Tahrir: The Untold History of the Liberation Party. London: Hurst & Co.

Roy, O. (2006) Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

SCB (2019) Analysis of voter turnout in the 2018 general elections, Statistiska Centralbyrån. Available at:

www.scb.se/en/finding-statistics/statistics-by-subject area/democracy/generalelections/general-elections-participation-survey/pong/statistical-news/general-electionselectoral-participation-survey-2018/ (Accessed: 8 May 2021).

 

 

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