The activities of a Garden Grove grocery store owner, who has been identified as the U.S. leader of a little-known radical Islamic group, are under scrutiny by the FBI, an agency spokeswoman said.
Iyad K. Hilal, an Islamic author and philosopher, has lived in Orange County for more than a decade with little attention to his writings or his role in the group.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, which means Party of Liberation, has been banned in parts of Europe and the Middle East. After the July 7 bombings in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed banning the group there.
It advocates a return to the days when all Muslims were governed by a religious leader known as the caliph.
The Orange County businessman is apparently not suspected of any terrorist acts, but local FBI terrorism investigators have launched an inquiry into the activities of him and his group. An FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, Cathy Viray, declined to call it an investigation but confirmed that “we’re looking into the matter.” She declined to comment further.
Southern California Muslims who know Hilal, 56, said he was an Islamic scholar whose writings argued that the religion was incompatible with democracy. They said he had a small group of followers, mostly university students. People who know Hilal said he had lived in the United States about 20 years.
Georgetown University professor John Esposito, author of “Unholy War on Terror in the Name of Islam,” said the group saw most Muslim countries as not following Islamic law.
“Theirs is a rigorous, hard-line view of the kind of government they want to see implemented in Muslim countries,” he said.
“To them democracy is a good thing for the West, but Islam doesn’t need it.”
Hilal lives quietly in a duplex off the Garden Grove Freeway and owns a market in a Stanton strip mall that caters mostly to Latinos. He did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
Most local Muslims who know him declined to be interviewed for fear that they would attract FBI attention, even if they disagree with his message.
In a 1992 essay, Hilal wrote that Western countries contradicted the teachings of Islam.
His book “Studies in Usual Ul Fiqh,” in which he explains Islamic law, has been used in courses at universities in the Middle East and Britain, according to an Internet search.
Hussam Ayloush, head of the Southern California Council on American Islamic Relations chapter in Anaheim, said Hilal was once a frequent speaker at local colleges and universities, including Cal State Fullerton, but his group took a lower profile after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hizb ut-Tahrir does not promote violence in the United States, Ayloush said.
“Their message is not very appealing to American Muslims,” Ayloush said. “They’ve attacked me for promoting assimilation and participation in the democratic process.”
Salam Al-Marayati, spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said he also did not believe Hizb ut-Tahrir advocated terrorism in the United States, but said he was not surprised the FBI was looking into the group.
“People in Washington think that those who want an Islamic state are terrorists. That’s not always the case,” Marayati said.
Hilal came to the FBI’s attention this month when Fox News identified him as leader of an Orange County-based terrorist cell that had connections to the London bombings.
Radical cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, former head of Hizb ut-Tahrir in England, identified Hilal as leader of the U.S. branch in a 2004 interview with the Terrorism Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian who has praised the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 and London attacks, fled England this month, and officials there said he would not be allowed back into the country.
Bernard Haykel, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, said the group was small and nonviolent, and had its greatest popularity in England and Central Asia. He said members were mostly educated and middle class.
“They are a conveyor belt to more radical groups like Al Qaeda,” he said. “Hizb ut-Tahrir introduces members to a more politicized aspect of Islam. Then Al Qaeda approaches them because they are already predisposed to act politically and religiously.”
Esposito said that although the group purported to be nonviolent, Middle East governments had accused it of terrorism.
He said that after Sept. 11, it was easier for Hizb ut-Tahrir to be seen as a threat to the U.S.
“People find it very easy to say that groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir don’t like us. They are against American foreign policy. They are nondemocratic. Therefore they are dangerous,” Esposito said.