Thu, Sep 30, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Case weighs Islamic talk against acts

BAN CHALLENGED A German court faces the task of weighing a Muslim group's peaceful history against its anti-Semitic and `violent propaganda'


Very few Germans have heard of it, but there is a case slowly working its way through the administrative courts that could strongly influence the nation's strenuous and popular efforts to deal with what officials consider a threat from Islamic militants living in Germany.

The case was filed by Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an Islamic group with members in many European countries. Its overriding -- if far-fetched -- objective is to unite the entire Muslim world under a single caliph, or supreme theocratic leader, reviving a system that has not existed since the early decades of Islamic history.

While the group freely operates in several European countries, with its largest membership, its supporters say, in Britain, it was banned two years ago in Germany by the interior minister, Otto Schily, who accused it of "spreading violent propaganda and anti-Jewish agitation." The group is seeking to overturn that ban in Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig.

But whether it succeeds or not -- and some officials in Germany concede that it may be able to make a strong legal case -- the case illustrates a vexing aspect of the struggle against Islamic terrorism in Europe. There are certainly groups in Europe that see Osama bin Laden as a hero, and support jihad, or holy war, against Christians, Jews and Western civilization.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir's members say that they disapprove of al-Qaeda and its methods, that their goals concern only Islamic countries, not European ones, and that they are largely intellectuals who do not resort to violence or violate the laws of their host countries.

In other words, Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to be very different from, say, the radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was arrested in Britain a few months ago. Masri's fiery sermons at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London are said to have attracted many Muslims -- including Richard Reid, who was sentenced to life in prison for trying to blow up a plane with explosive-laden sneakers -- to take part in a holy war against the West.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir and groups like it fall into a gray area, which leads to the question: Should they be taken at their word and given the benefit of the doubt, or should they be seen as German intelligence sees them, as hiding jihadist goals behind an apparently legal facade?

"The British government obviously accepted that al-Masri was a threat, that he was inciting vio-lence," Gary Saymore, a terrorism expert at International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said in a telephone interview.

"But the European countries that have large Muslim communities face a challenge, because they have to monitor what these guys are saying and make a difficult determination whether what they say goes over the line from religion to criminality," he said.

Germany, the country that unwittingly provided a base for the lead figures in the Sept. 11 plot, has been especially vigilant against the possibility that other groups here could foment new attacks or recruit for terror operations.

The only person known to have been expelled for ties to militant Islam, Nizar al-Saqeb, a Yemeni engineering student, was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and he was believed by the German authorities to have had contacts with Ramzi Binal-shibh, one of the main Sept. 11 planners. The Germans have served expulsion orders on several other Hizb ut-Tahrir members, who so far have all managed to stay in Germany by claiming political asylum.

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