Hizb ut-Tahrir: compete not ban
29 Oct 2014|
The limits of free speech?

Emma Alberici’s recent Lateline interview with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Australian spokesperson, Wassim Doureihi, prompted the Prime Minister to state he’s reviewing the Islamist group after calls for it to be banned. The group’s spokesperson repeatedly dodged questions about whether Hizb ut-Tahrir supported the campaign waged by Islamic State extremists.

The group isn’t currently listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia. But Abbott has made clear his recent views on the organisation, in particular in a radio interview with Neil Mitchell in the wake of the Lateline program. There he condemned the group as ‘un-Australian’ and said the interview confirmed his concerns about Hizb ut-Tahrir. He described the group as ‘very careful to avoid advocating terrorism but [which] is always making excuses for terrorist organisations’. Interestingly, he drew on the work of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair:

He made the point that there is the fringe—a small minority of people who engage in terrorism—and then there is the spectrum—a much larger group of people who support an ideology—who have a set of beliefs which justify terrorism. Now, they are not practitioners of terrorism but they have an ideology which justifies and explains terrorism. The point that Tony Blair…is making is that while we must resist fiercely terrorists themselves, do everything we can to defeat the terrorists, we also have to intellectually wrestle and grapple with the spectrum of thinking which supports terrorism.

Asked about the laws currently before parliament, Abbott said that the government wanted ‘to make it an offence not just to engage in terrorist activity, but to engage in terrorist advocacy’. He accepted that it would be a question of law as to whether Hizb ut-Tahrir was doing that, but was especially critical of ‘preachers of hate’ coming to Australia to ‘stir up trouble’.

The proposed Counter–Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 is set to be passed this week. The bill would make it illegal, subject to a five-year prison term, to counsel, promote, encourage or urge a terrorist act.

Some of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s statements and literature could well fall under the proposed offence of ‘advocating terrorism’: if incitement or propaganda influences an individual or group to perpetrate an act of terror, it’s difficult to argue that one bears no responsibility, especially in a time of mass and rapid communication through social media.

The Prime Minister has said the current law doesn’t allow the government to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, but he has now stated that he’ll have another look at this question once the ‘advocating terrorism’ law passes, (ASIO would have the lead here). A court may also find a group to be a terrorist organisation as part of the prosecution of a terrorist offence. Listing Hizb ut-Tahrir under the Criminal Code Regulations as a terrorism organisation would send a clear message that the group is associated with terrorism and make it illegal to donate to the group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir would no doubt argue that individuals involved in terrorism have deviated from the group’s path. But the organisation operates in that grey area between advocacy of terrorism and free speech. While it maintains a public commitment to non-violent change at this stage, its threat comes from the ideology that drives the group. Its literature and speeches often seem close to praising terrorism.

Still, a ban might make it harder to track the group’s activities. Its legal status means it has a public platform, but that also makes it easier to observe. The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen recently argued (paywalled) that ’if we keep asking questions of the extremists in our midst, we will defeat them. Along the way we will bolster our commitment to free speech’.

I agree: we should be competing with the group for the support of its potential recruits. Banning the group isn’t going to assist in the war of ideas. So it was disappointing to learn early last week that several ANU academics had declined the opportunity to debate Hizb ut-Tahrir in a forum organised by the ANU’s student newspaper. As Tony Blair and Tony Abbott have said, we should be willing to wrestle intellectually with arguments we oppose deeply.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, ASPI and co-author of Responding to radical Islamist ideology: the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mikael Altemark