Uthman Badar didn’t know who published the magazines. But they contained answers to questions he wasn’t finding anywhere else. They were for sale outside the Macquarie University prayer room, where his dad would worship on Fridays.
Years later he realised they were produced by Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic political movement Australia’s current government said it would ban when it was in opposition. Badar is now the group’s spokesman in Australia.
Badar has been stopped from delivering a speech titled “Honour Killings are Morally Justified” as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas held at the Sydney Opera House, after widespread condemnation.
He says the decision is Islamophobic and that it’s ludicrous to think he would actually advocate for honour killings at the festival, which celebrates dangerous ideas as a way to expand the audience’s understanding of an issue.
This comes as radical Islam is thrust to the centre of Australia’s political debate once again, with the revelation that, per capita, its citizens make up the largest contingent of foreign fighters waging war with Sunni militants who have overrun northern Iraq.
Islam is a peaceful religion but its message has been used to corrupt thousands of young people, driving them to violence and voluntary social exclusion. Today there’s a risk Australians fighting in the Middle East could return as radicalised and experienced fighters.
I spoke with Badar for a broader piece about Islam in Australia, along with dozens of Australian Muslims who, for the most part, have seen their religion hijacked by fanatics. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global political organisation. Last November 600 people attended one of its conferences in Sydney. The crowd was told the Australian government was trying to “brainwash” their children in a “war on Islam”.
During the election campaign, the Coalition said it would outlaw the group – which many people in the Australian Islamic community describe as radical – if it was elected. The Attorney-General’s office wouldn’t say if this was still being considered.
“It is longstanding practice of successive Australian Governments not to comment on whether it is considering listing any organisations under the Criminal Code Act 1995,” a spokesperson said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has a long association with violence and is already banned in many countries. In Australia it has toed the line, never giving authorities a big enough reason to take action. But it is hard at work in Islamic communities, championing its virulent goal of forging a new Caliphate, governed by Sharia law.
Badar’s story demonstrates the power of the group’s message. Governments fear Hizb ut-Tahrir because it is subtle enough to ensnare young, educated Muslims, while remaining a beacon for radicals. When he was reading the magazines, when he didn’t know who published them, he was a student at the well-regarded Malek Fahd Islamic College in Sydney.
“They were talking about things most Muslims would shy away from,” he says. “What attracted me was the narrative, the comprehensiveness, the power of that narrative.”
While he was still at high school, a family friend decided to start a prayer group. A Hizb ut-Tahrir member was enlisted as the teacher, and Badar’s parents suggested he attend.
He thought it would be another round of boring religious classes. He had already spent years at an Islamic school. Grown up in a Muslim household. But he went along. He only had to go once. That was the deal. Along with the other 17 and 18-year-olds who turned up, he was sceptical. After the first class he was enthralled.
“There was this young guy,” he says of the teacher. “He hardly had a beard.”
The first question the teacher asked was what proof they had that god existed.
“We had done 12 years of an Islamic school and we were lost for answers.”
It was only after several sessions that Badar learned the classes were run by Hizb ut-Tahrir. The connection wasn’t advertised. Later, when he told his parents he wanted to become actively involved with the group, he says even they were sceptical.
But he was set. The message resonated and he had found his place in a cause. In an Auburn café last month, he explained why some Australians had an issue with Islam and the group.
“This religion is extremely, and proudly, non-secular. What defines western society is secularism and democracy,” he says.
“Islam, and the Muslim world in particular, challenge secularism. It seeks to express itself politically and economically, as it does in all other aspects of life.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir is not an active political party in Australia, as it is in other countries around the world. Here it fosters Islamic ideals, through very effective grass-roots campaigns. It also makes no apologies for its ideology.
“Islam is the way of life from god and it’s the best from everyone,” Badar says.
“I would expect socialists to expect socialism for everyone, because they believe it’s the best. Otherwise its hypocrisy.”
Many Australian Muslims don’t like Hizb ut-Tahrir because it fosters hatred, using a religious message to corrupt young minds in the process. Badar says the group is just presenting the facts. For example, it shows members videos of violence from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t providing a catalyst for retribution, he says, and is simply about awareness, and that decades of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan have radicalised people more than any sermon ever could.
“But you’re [the West] the ones who are doing it in the first place. To sell war to your public, you have to sell to them the idea that there’s a threat, that there’s a problem,” he says.
“How are you going to do that? You’re going to say, well these guys are Islamists… they’re extremists.”
It is a matter of perspective, he says. Those countries are at war. The United States and its allies – which includes Australia – attacked, and Muslims are simply defending themselves.
“We don’t say Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s all too fuzzy. We’re not pacifists.
“As a political party we don’t take [sic] violence. But if you attack we will defend. We uphold the right of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine to defend themselves militarily.”
Badar says Australia is a peaceful country and so the actions of the group here are different. But Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global movement. Its primary aim is to erase borders, to unite the world under a new caliphate. Its assurances need to be weighed against this reality.
And for the most part, it is. It’s the reason the group hasn’t experienced an “explosive” growth in Australia.
“You’ll have a young guy who’s convinced, and his parents are stopping him. Not because they have a strong argument, countering what we are saying, but because it’s purely a matter of caution,” Badar says.
Badar said it is ludicrous to think he would actually advocate for honour killings and labeled the public outcry that led to the decision as Islamophobia.
“I anticipated that secular liberal Islamophobes would come out of every dark corner, foaming at the mouth, furious at why a Muslim ‘extremist’, from Hizb ut-Tahrir no less, was being allowed a platform at the Sydney Opera House to speak,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“What’s interesting is that I’m being attacked left, right and centre without having opened my mouth yet.”
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