This interview was published on Asia Times Online.
By Mahan Abedin
Osman Bakhach is the deputy chairman of the Executive Committee of Hizbut Tahrir (HT) in Lebanon. Prior to 2007 he was in the media office of HT Lebanon. He was born in 1960 in Tripoli, north Lebanon. He joined HT in 1977 when he was at high school. Bakhach completed his university studies in medical engineering and is currently the head of the biomedical engineering department at a major hospital in Beirut.
Hizbut Tahrir was founded in 1953 in Palestine by Sheikh Taqieddin Nabhani. Since then the party has spread all over the Muslim world and amongst Muslim communities in the West and according to conservative estimates it has hundreds of thousands of members worldwide. As a trans-national and Pan-Islamic party HT is committed to re-establishing the Islamic Caliphate and as such it regards all the nation-states and regimes in the Muslim world to be illegitimate.
Mahan Abedin: What is HT's analysis of the recent Lebanese elections (June 2009) and its aftermath?
Osman Bakhach: Lebanese politics is intermixed with the regional politics of the Middle East, which, in turn, reflects the chess game of international politics and the major power's quest for domination and influence in the region. The June 2009 election was the latest episode which showed that Lebanon has never been a viable independent state since its creation by the colonial French in 1920. Lebanon is the place where conflicting political interests in the Middle East clash. Lebanese politics has always been shaped by regional and international players, and the latest election merely confirmed this fact.
Although the so-called 14 March coalition [led by Saad Hariri's Future Movement] won the elections they have been unable to form the government while the losers, the so-called March 8 coalition [led by Hezbollah] continue to wield their veto power, which is the continuation of the status quo forged by the Doha Agreement of May 2008. This balance of power - which flies in the face of notions of a national unity government - reflects competing geopolitical interests in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Lebanese people continue to put up with tough economic conditions and in fact their living conditions are steadily deteriorating.
MA: Conventional wisdom in the West regards the March 14 coalition as pro-Western and conversely views the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition as anti-Western. Does HT subscribe to this analysis?
OB: No, we don't. We consider both camps to be aligned with the West. On the surface the opposition is regarded as anti-Western because of its regional backers, namely Iran and Syria. Notwithstanding Syria's role as a major power-broker in Lebanon, we need to bear in mind that when Syria moved into Lebanon in 1975 it did so with the full backing of the United States government. Since then the Syrian role in Lebanon has been coordinated with that of the United States, and has fully served American interests.
MA: There has never been a conflict of interests between Syria and the United States in Lebanon throughout this period?
OB: Not a bit!
MA: What about Iran's strategic and ideological relationship with Hezbollah?
OB: Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran has striven to become the dominant player in the region. Iran has given full support to Hezbollah and recently even to Hamas. The question that we have for the Iranian regime, which claims to be Islamic and supportive of Islamic interests on a global scale, is where they stand vis-a-vis the American presence in the Middle East. Our position is that without active Iranian complicity, the United States would not have been able to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, and on that basis we don't see any conflict between Iran and America.
MA: Does that mean that you don't see a deep rift between Hezbollah's role in Lebanon and American interests in this country?
OB: We don't say that Hezbollah is fully aware of the grand games being played out in the Middle Eastern setting. Hezbollah has heroically resisted Israeli aggression in Lebanon. No one can deny the sincerity of their sacrifice. But at the end of the day Hezbollah is no more than an instrument in the hands of the Iranian and Syrian regimes in their complex strategic positioning and deal making with the Americans.
MA: But surely you can't deny the fact that the Americans wish nothing but ill-will towards Hezbollah. They would like nothing better than to see the group disarmed and, better still, disbanded altogether.
OB: The Americans will have no problem in disarming Hezbollah when the group's mission expires. For now and until further notice, Hezbollah is a useful instrument in the hands of the Iranian and Syrian regimes and ultimately the Americans' requirement to balance Israeli hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.
MA: Most experts believe that American and Israeli interests in the Middle East are virtually indistinguishable and your analysis flies in the face of all conventional wisdom.
OB: Indeed! Israel is useful as a springboard for the Western colonial project. Let's not forget that Israel was created by the British to serve a distinct colonial agenda. With the eclipse of British colonial interests in the Middle East, the Israelis served US colonial interests. But we need to bear in mind that the US has vast interests stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, in the so-called Greater Middle East. In this vast geo-strategic space Israel is merely a small player and American interests go far and beyond securing the Zionist entity. This point has been underlined more brazenly in recent years by senior American politicians and strategists who are concerned that unconditional American support for Israel is damaging long-term American interests in the so-called Greater Middle East region. The bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton report (also known as The Iraq Study Group Report) of December 2006 was a case in point. Indeed, none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski  has openly called for the US Air Force to shoot down any Israeli planes crossing Iraqi air space to attack Iran.
MA: There is broad international support - in the form of United Nations resolutions - for the disarmament of Hezbollah. Where does HT stand on this issue?
OB: We place Hezbollah's weapons within the greater context of fighting the Israeli aggression. We maintain that Israel is an illegal and usurping entity and must be eliminated. In this regard any and every force that counters the Israeli threat is legitimate and we are against their disarmament. In short, we are against the disarmament of Hezbollah.
MA: But Hezbollah has shown a propensity to use its weapons against internal political actors in Lebanon. Where does HT stand on the armed conflict that erupted in Beirut and elsewhere in May 2008?
OB: Sadly, the events of May 2008 exposed the Achilles' heel of Hezbollah. Hezbollah suffers from myopic strategic vision. The events of May 2008 exposed Hezbollah's weakness and brought its dependence on Iranian and Syrian strategic maneuvering into sharp relief. We hope that Hezbollah learns from its mistakes and develops a more comprehensive long-term strategy. A strategy based upon the reversal of the colonial legacy of the Sykes-Picot mutilation of the Muslim nation. We maintain that any other vision is doomed to fail, and is no more than knee-jerk reaction to the rules imposed by the Western colonial order. From the Islamic perspective, nothing can justify Hezbollah sitting idle during the last Israeli aggression against Gaza in December-January 2009.
MA: To what extent did the events of May 2008 heighten sectarian tensions in Lebanon?
OB: Not surprisingly, Hezbollah's blunder re-opened old wounds and divisions. We at Hizbut Tahrir completely reject sectarian notions of Shi'ite and Sunni, especially insofar as they militate against Islamic unity.
MA: How can you call it a blunder when you consider the fact that Hezbollah's armed intervention achieved the movement's goals, at least in the short-term? They managed to annul two controversial government decisions and more importantly won the veto concession at Doha. Most people would say that is a resounding success.
OB: On the surface your analysis is trenchant. However, when you look at the reality and dynamics of Lebanese politics, the [Fouad] Siniora government did not have the ability to enforce the two decisions. They were just ink on paper. Hezbollah committed a strategic blunder to secure an empty tactical victory. It traded its reputation as a fearless and heroic anti-Israeli movement for a pyrrhic tactical victory. Even the Doha agreement did not give anything substantial to Hezbollah since Hezbollah has had a veto power all along.
MA: You mentioned earlier that HT rejects sectarianism in Lebanese politics. But does HT reject sectarianism on wider religious and ideological levels as well?
OB: HT categorically rejects any sectarian and nationalistic categories and descriptions. We refuse any such distinctions between Muslims. Our position is that such categorizations serve the interests of the enemies of Islam and the Muslim Umma [community]. It is no secret that the colonial West has used the "divide and conquer" strategy to split the Muslim nation into dozens of feuding mini-nations. The recent catastrophes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and Palestine are vivid examples of this strategy.
MA: How does HT propose to bridge the deep religious divide between Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims?
OB: We have successfully bridged this gap within our organization. We have Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in our ranks. Indeed, the chairman of HT's Executive Committee in Lebanon (the effective leader of the organization in Lebanon), Dr Mohammad Jaber is a Shi'ite Muslim.
MA: But HT is widely regarded as a predominantly - if not exclusively - Sunni organization.
OB: It depends where you are; in Iraq that may not be the case.
MA: But take Lebanon where Shi'ites and Sunnis are evenly balanced; what percentage of your members in Lebanon are Shi'ite Muslims?
OB: We don't base our statistics on such categories.
MA: HT was born in Palestine, which is in the Sham [Levant] region; would you say that more than 50 years later this region remains your center of gravity?
OB: In a way you could say so, without at the same time belittling the impact and strength of our mission throughout the Muslim Umma. We have a strong presence throughout the Muslim Umma, from Indonesia to Morocco. To give you an example, we planned for a major conference in Turkey on July 26, yet two days before that the Turkish government launched a massive crackdown on HT members and arrested more than 200 members of the party in 23 Turkish provinces.
MA: Why has the Turkish government been harsh to HT lately?
OB: The Turkish police made a childish allegation when they arrested some HT members on weapons charges. This was a childish gimmick, especially since everyone knows that since day one HT has been recognized as a completely non-violent party. In the atmosphere created by the so-called war on terror, the Turkish government has tried to present HT as a security threat in order to justify a crackdown. However, it has only succeeded in relinquishing its last fig leaf of legitimacy by claiming to be a democratic state led by a supposedly "Islamic" party.
MA: Would you agree that the project to re-create the caliphate is further away than ever?
OB: You should review HT's last global conference, held on July 21, 2009, in Indonesia  where 5,000 scholars and Ulama [legal scholars of Islam] from all corners of the Umma issued a call to Muslims everywhere to work for the re-creation of the caliphate. This is strong evidence that the party's work is strengthening and day by day we are getting closer to achieving our goal.
MA: It is one thing to hold a conference in Jakarta, but what resonance does that have on national politics in different Muslim countries?
OB: Islam supersedes any national reference. The conference in Indonesia gathered scholars from most countries in the Muslim world. It is part of the party's annual global drive to commemorate the collapse of the caliphate in 1924. In 2007, the conference in Jakarta attracted over 100,000 participants, with many not able to participate due to the stadium reaching full capacity. Other conferences were held in Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sudan. In Turkey, the conference was scheduled to be held on July 26 but the Turkish government aborted it by the massive crackdown it unleashed on July 24, 2009. Hizbut Tahrir also held an international conference in February 2009 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to address the international financial and economic crisis.
MA: There is a growing academic discourse in the West that Islamism and Islamist groups are in crisis and decline. How do you counter this argument?
OB: The fact that local regimes in Syria, Saudi Arabia and even Turkey, which is supposed to be a democratic state, resort to harsh crackdowns to stem the appeal of the Islamic message, clearly demonstrates the growing appeal of this message. If Islamist groups were really in decline then there would be no need for these brutal and costly police and security tactics.
MA: HT has been known to have a dogmatic and unfavorable attitude towards other Islamist groups. Have you revised your opinions and are you now willing to consider some of these groups as equal partners in the grand project of re-establishing the Islamic caliphate?
OB: The project to re-establish the caliphate is not a monopoly of HT; this is the mission of the Muslim Umma. As such we call on every Muslim, at an individual and group level, to join in the effort. We believe that recent geopolitical events, namely the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the on-going Israeli occupation of Palestine, have strengthened the unity of the Umma and driven home the urgency to create a global state that can protect Muslims from their enemies. Surely we would have preferred for the Muslim nation to accept our vision decades ago, without going through the endless suffering and humiliations. Events over the past few decades have proven both the correctness of our diagnosis of the ills besetting the Muslim Umma and our vision to restore her dignity and pride. Once the idea of Muslim unity is deeply entrenched nothing can prevent its manifestation in reality.
1. See How Obama Flubbed His Missile Message
2. For more details see Conference of the Ulema - Indonesia
Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant to independent media in Iran. He is currently based in northern Iraq, where he is helping to develop local media capacity.