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Germany: Court Appeal By Hizb Ut-Tahrir Highlights Balancing Act Between Actions, Intentions

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A date has been set for a German court to hear an appeal by the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir against the ban imposed on its activities almost two years ago. The case illustrates the thin line Germany is balancing in its efforts to combat Islamic radicals who have not been implicated in any terrorist activities but who are nevertheless perceived as a threat.

Berlin, 26 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, the battle to openly convince Muslims in Germany of the benefits of a worldwide Islamic state will be brought to court before the end of the year.

Karin Siebert, a press spokeswoman for the federal administrative court in Leipzig, told RFE/RL that the court, which reviews decisions made by federal ministries, will begin hearing the appeal on 2 December.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's appeal against the ban may affect German officials' handling of those they commonly dub as "hate-preachers" -- Islamic radicals who make virulent public pronouncements against Israel, the United States, and many Western values. These preachers are considered a threat but have never been implicated in any terrorist acts.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, best known for its growing influence as an illegal opposition movement in Central Asia, calls for the establishment of a "caliphate" over the whole Muslim world. While the group is largely tolerated as a nonviolent radical ideological group in the West and in Europe -- except for Germany and, more recently, Russia -- is banned and often persecuted in many Muslim countries.

For Hizb ut-Tahrir, the court date represents a chance to reverse a decision made unilaterally by German Interior Minister Otto Schily in January 2003. Schily said the group was "spreading hate and violence" and was calling for the killing of Jews.

One member of Hizb ut-Tahrir has been expelled from Germany for alleged ties to one of the 11 September attackers. However, German officials admit that the raids and searches in offices and homes have so far revealed little.

The group's representative in Germany is Shaker Assem, an engineer and an Austrian national of Egyptian descent. He rejects the accusations:

"We, the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, are not anti-Semitic," Assem said. "We consequently reject that [accusation]. We do not call to kill Jews. Our call is addressed to the Muslim people to defend themselves against the Zionist aggression in Palestine. And they have the right to do so."

For the same reason, Assem said, he does not condemn the "resistance against the American aggressor in Iraq."

Nevertheless, Assem insists the group is "nonviolent," arguing that its efforts are not directed against Western governments and that the coming of the caliphate "will not necessarily mean bloodshed."

The scandal around Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany erupted over a conference organized two years ago against the looming Iraq war by a student group affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir at Berlin's Technical University. The conference was also attended by several members of the extreme right-wing National German Party (NPD). The meeting provoked outrage in the press against "Islamists and neo-Nazis" uniting to deliver anti-Semitic harangues in a learning institution.

Schily banned the group three months later under new German antiterrorist legislation adopted in the aftermath of 11 September that lifted a privilege protecting religious groups.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is not being prosecuted as a terrorist organization but as going "against the concept of international understanding" contained in the German Constitution, a tactic that has been used in the past against Nazi groups. Two other Islamic groups also were banned under the new law.

Events unfolded in Germany in the context of a country that is still coming to terms with its Nazi past and, more recently, with the embarrassment of having harbored many of the 9/11 hijackers, who had been leading double lives as students in Hamburg.

Uwe Halbach, a researcher at Berlin's respected Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), a think tank that advises the German government on foreign affairs, explained that despite the absence of calls to immediate violence many in Germany see Hizb ut-Tahrir's rhetoric as "evocative of jihad."

Halbach suggested that the ban against Hizb ut-Tahrir in Germany was triggered more by the university conference than by prior evidence. Halbach -- who is a specialist on Central Asia and has studied Hizb ut-Tahrir -- said the group's presence came as a surprise to German authorities.

"In Great Britain, Hizb ut-Tahrir is still not banned and has a surprisingly strong field of action -- a lot stronger agenda than in Germany," Halbach said. "In fact, in Germany, it all came as a surprise. No one really knew what this Hizb ut-Tahrir really was. At first, people were asking around, 'Who are these people, anyway?' "

Assem said he was told by police that the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir was considered a "preventive" measure.

"When the police came into my apartment on the 15 of January 2003 for a second search, and I was informed that the party is forbidden, I asked the police chief why we were banned in Germany, although in other European countries, like Great Britain, where we are much more active and stronger, no one gives us a second thought," Assem said. "This is what he answered: 'We banned you in Germany so that what is happening in England doesn't happen here.'"

Analysts agree that Hizb ut-Tahrir appears to have a strong following in the United Kingdom. Its presence has also been noted with concern by Danish authorities.

In the United States, conservative politicians and analysts have been calling for increased pressure on members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. A recent report by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank called Hizb ut-Tahrir "an emerging threat to American interests in Central and South Asia and the Middle East."

More liberal lobbies warn against efforts to radicalize the group.

Indeed, observers note that Germany's policies will be followed closely well beyond its borders as an "in situ" case of where to draw the line between freedom of expression, radical propaganda, and illegality.

Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, pointed out that some of these organizations are "very smart in walking the very fine line between propaganda and incitement to terrorism."

Wilkinson said this makes national authorities more careful when determining the moment to intervene.