On the day in February 2003 when a million tramped through London against the impending war on Iraq, I happened to be one of the first protestors to arrive at Hyde Park, which was the end-point of the march. My job had been to steward the very front, co-ordinating a long chain of yellow-bibbed volunteers: Muslims, CND members, socialists, Christian pacifists, trade unionists, arms interlinked, all in furious high spirits, stretching every sinew to keep the monster march inching forward. As I approached the area of the park where the rally was to take place, I was taken aback at the sight of the black shahada emblazoned flags of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) planted on either side of the stage. Which was annoying, given that they had not been on the march itself, indeed they had been handing out leaflets as we assembled on the Thames Embankment with the absurd headline ‘DON’T STOP THE WAR – except through Islamic politics’ along with a fatwa forbidding Muslim participation in the march as haram. The HT flag-wavers had obviously jumped on the tube as the march set off, ridden to Hyde Park and opportunistically installed themselves in the prime location by the stage, so as to catch the lens of the forest of news cameras covering the biggest demonstration in British history. Before long, however, the HT members had been persuaded to remove their flags out of sight of the media. They ended up as miniature dots on the horizon, far away figures on the edge of the crowd that packed out the park that day.
Sadek Hamid, in his authoritative and enlightening new book Sufis, Salafism and Islamists, describes HT’s doctrine as ‘political literalist Salafism’. In February 2003 its aggressively rigid stance proved, in the face of events in the real world, to be its weakness. Its ‘uncompromising ideology and methodology’ wrapped in the vague promise of a re-born Caliphate, shattered in the face of a genuine mass movement, its behaviour reinforcing the growing perception that it ‘was merely a talking shop’. One ex-HT activist later admitted to a journalist that the February 2003 Stop the War protest ‘did overthrow some of the arguments of HT – that they hate Muslims, that they demonise Islam. If so, then why is everyone out there (on the march)?’