JAKARTA, Indonesia » The chanting crowd at the radical Muslim protest in Indonesia stood out for its normalcy: smartly dressed businessmen, engineers, lawyers, smiling mothers, scampering children.
At a time when al-Qaida seems to be faltering, the recruitment of such an educated, somewhat mainstream following is raising fears that Hizbut Tahrir, an enigmatic global movement, could prove more effective at radicalizing the Islamic world than outright terrorist groups.
Active in 45 countries, Hizbut is now expanding in Asia, spreading its radical message from Indonesia to China. It wants to unite all Muslim countries in a globe-spanning bloc ruled by strict sharia law. It targets university students and professionals, working within countries to try to persuade people to overthrow their governments.
The movement’s appeal to an often influential part of society worries experts. Its goal of an Islamic state may be far-fetched, but it could still undercut efforts to control extremism and develop democracy in countries such as Indonesia, which the U.S. hopes will be a vital regional partner and a global model for moderate Islam.
"Our grand plan over the next five to 10 years is to reinforce the people’s lack of trust and hope in the regime," said Rochmat Labib, the group’s Indonesia chairman in a rare interview with a Western reporter. "That’s what we are doing now: converting people from democracy, secularism and capitalism to Islamic ideology."
Hizbut Tahrir, which means The Party of Liberation, is also raising its profile in the U.S. after operating largely underground since the 1990s. Its first major event was a 2009 conference, followed by another one in Chicago this June.
Starkly conflicting views swirl around Hizbut. It has been described as both a peaceful movement to restore one-time Islamic glory and a breeding ground for future suicide bombers, "a conveyer belt to terrorism," in the words of Zeyno Baran, an expert on Islam in the modern world.
Banned in most countries, Hizbut remains legal in others, including the United States, Great Britain, Australia and Indonesia, where its leaders say it has spread to all 33 provinces. It is closely monitored everywhere, and often operates on the knife-edge of legality.
"The rhetoric they have goes to the fringe of democracy," said Hans Joergen Bonnichsen, the former head of Denmark’s intelligence service. But the Danish Justice Ministry has twice asked the nation’s top prosecutor if Hizbut could be banned under Danish law, and both times the answer was no.
Its new frontier in Asia ranges from Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia to Pakistan and China, where Beijing has accused it of inciting violence among Muslim Uighurs in the remote west. It has also become the most widespread, and persecuted, radical Muslim group in Central Asia.
The Indonesia chapter is believed to be the largest, with a following estimated in the hundreds of thousands, according to Sidney Jones, an expert on Islam in Southeast Asia.
"They are a real force here. They are a greater long-term threat to Indonesia than people who use violence," said Jones, a Jakarta-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. "Collectively, hardline civil society can have a bigger effect than jihadists and terrorists."
Her words are echoed by anti-terrorism expert Zhang Jiadong of China’s Fudan University, who said Hizbut is "more harmful than terrorist organizations, because it has more influence on ordinary people." The group, estimated at up to 20,000 members in China, is more likely to foment riots or rebellions than terrorist attacks, he said.
Ismail Yusanto, the group’s urbane spokesman in Indonesia, insists that "we are a peaceful Islamic movement."
"We believe people can be influenced by their environment, so so-called terrorists could be influenced by everyone, not just us. But Hizbut itself is committed to not being violent. There is no evidence," he says, when asked whether some adherents later veer to violence.
The claims of nonviolence contrast with the movement’s fiery rhetoric, which calls for the annihilation of Israel — that’s what led to it being outlawed in Germany in 2003 — and exhorts Muslims to fight coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. One flyer shows a decapitated Statue of Liberty with New York City aflame in the background.
The U.S. State Department says the group "may indirectly generate support for terrorism but there is no evidence that it has committed any acts of terrorism."
Hizbut followers may later "graduate" to terror under the tutelage of other groups. Often cited are the first British suicide bombers, Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, who attacked a Tel Aviv bar in 2001 and had past Hizbut links.
Reports have also linked Hizbut to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11 mastermind, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al-Qaida chief in Iraq, but they have never been proven.
Hizbut calls for the establishment of a caliphate, uniting all Muslim nations under centralized Islamic rule in emulation of such entities that flourished in the past.
This is to be attained by changing Muslim mindsets to think beyond national borders, then pressing the message among political leaders, the armed forces and other power brokers until governments crumble.
Taquiddin an-Nabhani, a Palestinian lawyer who founded the movement in 1953, didn’t rule out violence during the last stage of creating the caliphate, or the possibility of fighting Western nations to protect it or expand it into non-Muslim countries. In earlier days, Hizbut staged failed coups in Jordan, Syria and Egypt, and it is now largely banned in the Middle East.
In Indonesia, Jones said, Hizbut appeals to those who believe that neither the country’s earlier dictatorship or present democracy has worked.
She said it has been able to infiltrate the top cleric body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, and local governments and exercises some clout on issues such as introducing sharia law, banning non-mainstream Muslim sects and opposing the operations of Western companies in Indonesia.
Unlike many Islamist groups, it welcomes women, who make up about a third of the membership, according to Ratu Erma, the head of its women’s organization. It also enjoys a following among parts of the elite.
"Some of them work by day in Jakarta’s main business district making the wheels of capitalism turn and after work talk about overthrowing the country’s infidel system. It’s one of the conundrums about the HT," says Greg Fealy, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University who is adamant that at least in Indonesia the group is nonviolent.
In Malaysia, young hard-liners disillusioned with the moderating stances of mainstream political parties have turned to Hizbut because "they feel it is sticking to Islamic principles more closely," said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Nawab, an expert on the group in Asia, said that Hizbut, which barely filled a meeting room in Malaysia in 2004, recently drew more than 1,000 to a conference and is present in every state but one.
Leaders and followers interviewed in both countries dodge questions about their numbers and inner workings, even the whereabouts of the current global leader, Ata Khalil Abu-Rashta, except to say he is based in the Middle East.
Behind its public face, Hizbut is built along Marxist-Leninst lines with secretive cells as key building blocks. Nawab says "students" may go through up to five years of arduous training and indoctrination to prove their commitment and become members. Some 60 percent don’t make the grade.
Hizbut members have been imprisoned in Russia, Central Asian nations and elsewhere, but some experts say the broad definition of terrorism in these countries — rather than any acts committed — landed many of them in jail, and sometimes before execution squads.
Within the U.S., opinion is divided. The State Department doesn’t name Hizbut as a terrorist group, but the New York City Police Department, in a document obtained by The Associated Press, identified it as a "tier one extremist group" in 2006.
The British government came close to banning the group after the 2005 London bombings, and government officials say membership has shrunk to fewer than 2,000 members. But Britain remains an important base for fundraising, propaganda efforts and recruiting senior members. Many leaders in Indonesia and Malaysia were once asylum seekers in the U.K. who got an education and made connections and then returned home.
Ed Husain, who described his time as a British member in the 2007 book "The Islamist," said that globally the movement is "strong, robust, growing."
"I still believe that the message and ideology of Hizbut Tahrir is as potent as ever," he said in an interview. "Their antidemocratic, anti-West, anti-Israel and anti-Muslim governments stance remains firm. As such, they implant confrontational, radical ideas and thus attitudes among young Muslims."