Chicago Tribune: Oak Brook hotel backs out on Muslim group's conference

The controversial American arm of an international Islamic group has been bounced from the Marriott in Oak Brook, where organizers were set to host the group’s second annual conference this Sunday.

Organizers of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Muslim activists who publicly advocate peaceful government reform, hope to find another venue for their meeting before the end of July.

Critics believe the conference, dedicated to reviving the prevailing system of rule that immediately followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad, is an effort to turn American Muslims against the U.S. government.

“We’re not attacking or bringing anybody down or humiliating,” said Ayman Hamed, a conference organizer who lives in Chicago Ridge. “It’s just not about that. We’re talking about Islam the way it should be understood.”

But a Washington-based interest group called Responsible for Equality and Liberty, or REAL, said that although Hizb ut-Tahrir explicitly condemns violence, its ideology suggests otherwise. Speakers at previous conferences have denounced democracy and condoned the death penalty for people who leave Islam, said the interest group’s founder, Jeffrey Imm. He said he contacted the Marriott corporation last month when he saw the conference on the Oak Brook hotel’s calendar.

“I wanted to educate (the Marriott) about (Hizb ut-Tahrir’s) anti-democracy position,” Imm said. “I’m not looking to have their event canceled. I wanted them to be aware of who they are so they could have the appropriate security. These hotels have a right to know when there are groups that have been involved with or threaten violence against other people.”

Hamed said the group signed a contract with the hotel in mid-May that explicitly stated the hotel could not cancel unless there was a catastrophic event or it was discovered that conference participants would engage in illegal or criminal activity. A month later, Hamed said he received an e-mail telling him the conference could not be held at the hotel. He later received a letter and refund check in the mail, he said.

The Marriott did not return calls for comment. But Hamed said his group had been transparent with hotel management since a Muslim school in Bridgeview backed out of hosting the conference last year. He thinks venues should know whether protesters will show up on their doorstep, which happened last summer when the group moved its meeting to the Hilton in Oak Lawn.

Hamed acknowledges the group’s message could be controversial. Founded in 1953 by a Palestinian judge, Hizb ut-Tahrir calls for an end to Israel and an end to Western intervention in the Middle East. Hamed encountered the group in his community when he was 14, but did not get involved until college, when his father could no longer prohibit it.

“We’re talking about changing the system. This is not going to make a lot of people happy,” Hamed recalled. “They were scared for me.”

He argues that the group’s intentions are widely misunderstood. The group has no interest in overthrowing the U.S. government, he said. In fact, Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in some Muslim countries because those are the very governments they want to replace with an Islamic republic or caliphate, the first system of governance established in Islam.

That system includes a penal code that, under certain circumstances, imposes the death penalty for leaving Islam — a point of contention for critics. But Hamed said it is not up to him to question the rules of a caliphate, which he believes come “from the creator, God.” It also would have no bearing in the U.S., he said.

“The change we’re looking for is a change that is focused on the countries where a majority of people are Muslims, for example Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt,” he said. The group is banned in Egypt.

Hamed said it’s important to schedule the conference during the month of Rajab on the Islamic calendar to commemorate the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate.

“It’s reminding Muslims of the time when their dignity was most,” Hamed said. “We were one Islamic state. The whole Muslim world was united under one rulership. On that date that rulership was broken. … Since then we are humiliated, we are occupied, we are colonized.”

Mohamad Nasir, executive director of the Council for Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said the group’s audience pales compared with other Muslim organizations that traditionally meet in Chicago. Last year’s Hizb ut-Tahrir gathering drew about 900 participants. On July 4 weekend, the Islamic Society of North America drew about 30,000 participants.

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, said he doesn’t agree with the principles of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but believes the group is entitled to freedom of speech and assembly like any other group in the U.S.

“They are a minority group among Muslims and their ideology is considered sensational by mainstream communities,” Rehab said. “Despite their best efforts, they are neither persuasive nor effective.”

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