The bearded young Muslims strode in silence until we reached the threshold of a nondescript mosque in this middle-class town on the edge of Ramallah. "Now we'll see if we can convert you," he said with a sudden smile.
He laughed, but it wasn't entirely a joke. There's nothing a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir takes more seriously than trying to convert others to their particular brand of Islam. The party's goal is the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate, a global Islamic empire. We're all welcome to join the umma, or Islamic nation, and become its subjects.
Founded in 1953, Hizb ut-Tahrir has for decades troubled governments from the United Kingdom to Uzbekistan with its calls for peaceful Islamic revolution and the establishment of strict sharia law. But it wasn't well known outside of intelligence circles until now.
In recent weeks, a newly assertive Hizb ut-Tahrir has been showing its strength across the Muslim world, most impressively by drawing 100,000 people to a soccer stadium in Indonesia earlier this month. They noisily called for a return to the time of the caliphs, a line of centuries of Islamic rulers that ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire more than 80 years ago.
Now the rapidly growing movement has been emerging from the shadows in the Palestinian territories as well, capitalizing on public unhappiness with the recent bloodshed between the mainstream Hamas and Fatah movements that has split the Palestinian cause in two. A recent rally in the West Bank drew a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands. Days later, the centre of Ramallah is still covered in dark red posters praising "The Caliphate: The Coming Force," and Palestinians are flocking to mosques to hear preachers with an angry message.
"Why are we watching infidels prosper in this world and not stopping them?" Sheik Abu Abdullah, a young-looking man sporting a black turban and a neat black beard, asked a silent crowd of 50 people gathered at the al-Faruq mosque in Kfar Aqab last night. The audience, all men, most middle-class professionals, sat in silence as a battery of ceiling fans sliced through the humid night air.
"Muslims in China, Indonesia, Pakistan and everywhere in their thousands are asking for God's government through the Caliphate. They demand the return of God's rule on Earth," the preacher continued. He acknowledged the road to a global Islamic empire would be a long one, but told the worshippers to "please be optimistic."
The scene at al-Faruq mosque was one that's now repeated nightly at mosques all around the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hizb ut-Tahrir even offers such post-prayer "lessons" at Jerusalem's iconic al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
The message they're selling is one that resonates with Palestinians who feel betrayed by both the secular, corrupt Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the often senseless violence perpetrated by Hamas, which recently seized military control of the Gaza Strip.
"Our numbers have increased and most importantly, the ones who are coming are the younger generation," Sheik Abdullah, who works as a health-care administrator during the day, said after the mosque had largely emptied. "People have tried other political parties and are fed up with them."
But Hizb ut-Tahrir won't try to capitalize on its new popularity in the next Palestinian elections. It teaches members that there should be no democracy, because democratic systems are a tool of Islam's chief enemy, the United States.
Nor does Hizb ut-Tahrir see value in Hamas's policy of using violence against Israel. Sending poorly armed Palestinians to fight the Israeli army is "fruitless," Sheik Abdullah said. The Jewish state and its occupation of Palestinian lands will be dealt with later by the combined armies of Islam.
"The solution is not to send 10,000 people from Gaza into Israel or to remove some military checkpoints," said Abu Abed, a 36-year-old physics teacher and senior Hizb ut-Tahrir member who attended last night's lesson.
"Even if a Palestinian state was established under the best conditions, what kind of country would it be? A country like Yemen or Jordan?" he continued, listing off two Arab regimes with repressive, secular, governments that Hizb ut-Tahrir wants to overthrow.
The movement also shrugs off Hamas's recent takeover of the Gaza Strip, charging that Hamas is not Islamic enough because it pursues the goal of a Palestinian state instead of a borderless caliphate. Other fundamentalists who seized power, such as Afghanistan's deposed Taliban, are also dismissed as not having gone far enough.
Hizb ut-Tahrir's members often sound robotic as they repeat their answer that the return of a centuries-old system is the answer to all ills (questions about how Palestinians should live their lives while waiting for the caliphate were brushed aside as impertinent), but their following is growing nonetheless.
"Before this year, they were a group of elites that wasn't seen a lot. [The Ramallah rally]showed they have tremendously increased their strength this past year," said journalist and political analyst Hani al-Masri.
Dissatisfaction with Hamas and Fatah, as well as Israel's ongoing occupation of the West Bank and military operations in Gaza, is creating ever more fertile ground for Hizb ut-Tahrir and other extremist groups, Mr. al-Masri said. Hamas, he added, had lost the respect of many religious Palestinians by getting involved in a civil war situation with Fatah, driving many to join Hizb ut-Tahrir.
While Hizb ut-Tahrir professes non-violence, many experts believe that it serves at least as a "conveyor belt" for groups including al-Qaeda, radicalizing young Muslims who are later recruited by more violent groups. Its members have been subjected to severe repression by nervous regimes in Russia, Central Asia and the Mideast.
The movement is banned in most Arab countries, but operates with relative freedom in the Palestinian territories. However, Hizb ut-Tahrir members say the new government of prime minister Salaam Fayyad has started to target them as well, arresting members and announcing a campaign to rein in radical preachers.
The movement's rise, Mr. al-Masri said, puts added pressure on internationally backed peace talks to deliver real progress soon. "If Israel does not solve issues through negotiations with [Mr. Abbas]and Fayyad, then Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Qaeda will continue to rise."
Hizb ut-Tahrir at a glance
Founded Its name means Party of Liberation, and it was started in Jerusalem in 1953 by a Palestinian cleric and judge dissatisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aims It wants to unite the Islamic countries and eventually the entire world in a single Islamic state - known as a caliphate - governed according to the laws of God, as set out in the Koran, rather than by the laws of man.
Methods Its first step toward achieving this is to educate Muslims about its philosophies and goals. The second is for adherents to spread these views among others, especially members of government, the military and other power centres. The final step is to cause secular governments to crumble because loyalties will then lie solely with Islam - not nationalities, politics or ethnicities.
Beliefs It doesn't support violent methods, but calls for the end of Israel and the withdrawal of all Western interests in the Middle East. It totally opposes democracy, saying that it is incompatible with its goals because it means voting for parties that do not subscribe to sharia law.
Banned There have been efforts to ban it in Britain and Australia, but it remains legal there and in Canada and the United States. It is banned in Germany, Russia, many of the former Soviet republics and most of the less liberal Arab countries.
Source: New York Times, Global Security, BBC