Oak Lawn, Illinois - Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the international movement to re-establish an international Islamic state or Caliphate - kicked off a new campaign to win American recruits Sunday afternoon in this Chicago suburb. Nearly 300 people packed the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel for its Khalifah Conference on "The Fall of Capitalism and the Rise of Islam" to listen to HT ideologues blame capitalism for World War I and World War II; the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown; the current violence in Iraq and Afghanistan; world poverty and malnutrition and inner-city drug use.
A speaker identified as Abu Atallah even blamed capitalism for the late singer Michael Jackson's decision "to shed his black skin."
Hizb ut-Tahrir aims to restore the Caliphate that existed during the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk abolished it in 1924 in an effort to create a secular, Europeanized state.
Security at the conference was very tight. Oak Lawn police maintained a checkpoint outside the Hilton, and local police and HT's own security people had a substantial presence inside the hotel. In the ballroom where the conference took place, men and women were largely segregated, with men in the front and women in the back. This became a significant point of contention between HT supporters and several members of the audience who objected to this arrangement. At one point, an unidentified Hizb ut-Tahrir speaker became flustered over this line of questioning.
"Men and women," he blurted out, must be kept separate "to prevent people from behaving like animals."
A woman in the audience responded: "How does intermingling between men and women make you animals?" HT panelists didn't have a persuasive answer, and soon adjourned that session.
The conference was sometimes poorly organized. There was no list of speakers, forcing reporters to sometimes guess at the spelling of speakers' names. But HT certainly appeared to be serious about working for the larger goals of the conference: abolishing capitalism and imposing Caliphate rule over the world.
According to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the world's social and economic problems will not be fixed until the world is governed by Shariah and the government controls all major industries. Lenders would no longer be able to charge interest, which one speaker decried as a "poisonous concept." Charity, or zakat, was advertised as the way to alleviate "economic inequality."
"Secular capitalism has made me devalue my skin" and "has kept my family in ghettos," said one speaker, an African-American who went on to blame it for the fact that he smoked marijuana and his grandmother played the lottery. Capitalism, he added, is a form of economic "terrorism" and "causes us to be sent to mental hospitals." Barack Obama's presidency, he said, "is only a scheme or con" to trick people into thinking that things will get better under capitalism.
But time and again on Sunday, Hizb ut-Tahrir officials seemed to be playing slippery rhetorical games of their own - particularly when it came to the behavior of despotic Muslim regimes and terrorists. When a few skeptical audience members pressed speakers over the fact that Islamic governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia are despotic, conference speakers claimed those weren't "authentic" Muslim governments and that the CIA (and by implication, the capitalist U.S. government) was to blame for the problems in those countries. In an interview with WBBM-TV in Chicago, HT deputy spokesman Mohammad Malkawi refused to specifically condemn Al Qaida and the Taliban.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has not been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government and it insists it is only interested in instituting radical change by nonviolent means. But HT's alumni include 9/ll mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the late Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi and would-be Hamas suicide bombers, and the group's pro-jihadist rhetoric has led critics to label it a "conveyor belt for terrorists."
One Muslim American group issued a statement in advance of the conference condemning Hizb ut-Tahrir's radical ideology and challenging others to follow suit.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir preaches an ideology that calls for the destruction of the principles that America is founded on," said Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy. "While their words are protected by our First Amendment, their actions and movement must not be allowed to take hold. The silence of American Islamist organizations like [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] CAIR and [the Islamic Society of North America] ISNA in condemning the ideologies of Hizb ut-Tahrir and their agenda of insurgency in America speaks volumes to their own, albeit, more camouflaged Islamist agenda."
HT's efforts to rehabilitate its image won't be helped by the menacing tone on display Sunday. One late-afternoon panelist suggested that modern industrial powers could fall to Muslims the way Mecca fell to Mohammed nearly 1,400 years ago.
A speaker identified by conference organizers as Imam Jaleel Abdul Adil said that "if they offer us the sun, or the moon, or a nice raise, or a passport, or a house in the suburbs or even a place to pray at the job, on the condition that we stop calling for Islam as a complete way of life - we should never do that, ever do that - unless and until Islam becomes victorious or we die in the attempt." (To see the clip, click here.)
Later, the following dialogue ensued between the imam and a member of the audience over whether Shariah or the Constitution should be the supreme law of the land in the United States (click here to see the clip):
Audience member: "Would you get rid of the Constitution for Shariah, yes or no?"
Imam: "Over the Muslim world? Yes, it would be gone."
Audience Member: And so if the United States was a Muslim world, the Constitution would be gone?"
Imam: "If the United States was in the Muslim world, the Muslims who are here would be calling and happy to see the Shariah applied, yes we would."
Audience Member: "And the Constitution gone. That's all."
Imam: "Yes, as Muslims they would be long gone."
While Hizb ut-Tahrir's controversial message attracted demonstrators and some media attention, the group at least is open about its ambitions. It not only is determined to destroy capitalism -- it would shred the United States Constitution as well in favor of Shariah law.