Islamic Group Quietly Builds Support in Kyrgyzstan
The Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir is going from strength to strength in southern Kyrgyzstan, where many analysts say it is winning the struggle for hearts and minds despite an official ban on its activities. The Kyrgyz government’s tactics of arresting members and blocking public events staged by the group appear to be helping it find new recruits rather than sapping its strength, as it positions itself to articulate the discontent and social concerns of broad swathes of the population.
Some observers are now calling for a more sophisticated response, including training mainstream Muslim clerics to a higher standard so that they are equipped to deliver counter-arguments to Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s claims, and offering people other channels through which to express their concerns.
A RESILIENT AND INCREASINGLY CONFIDENT FORCE
Hizb-ut-Tahrir originated in the Middle East and gained a foothold in Central Asia in the Nineties after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It first took hold in Uzbekistan, where it remains strong despite the arrest of thousands of alleged members in recent years. It then spread to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan, initially through the ethnic Uzbek communities there but subsequently gaining ground among other population groups.
The group advocates the replacement of secular governments by a Caliphate governed by Islamic precepts. Although it insists it does not advocate violence as a means of achieving its aims, regional governments have accused it of being behind a number of attacks, and have prohibited its activities and arrested suspected members on a regular basis.
Unlike other regional states, the Kyrgyz criminal code does not explicitly ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir membership, although the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling prohibiting the group from operating in 2003, and the constitution prohibits faith-based political parties in general.
Despite sweeping arrests in Uzbekistan, and smaller numbers of detentions in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the group still seems to attract members, in part because its message speaks to socially and economically marginalised groups in a way that government seems unable to do.
In southern Kyrgyzstan, it is thriving and finding new ways of engaging with an overwhelmingly Muslim population on issues that concern them rather than on its own specific agenda.
A few years ago, Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s standard medium of communication was leaflets stuck up in public places by activists. These days, they put out the word on CDs and DVDs. A boom in Chinese imports has created a glut of DVD players that are inexpensive even for southern Kyrgyzstan, the worst-off part of a poor country. IWPR was told by locals that most families had a DVD machine and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir films were watched “with interest”.
HIJACKING OR HELPING BUILD COMMUNITY SPIRIT?
Members say their next DVD release will contain footage of Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan in the southern town of Nookat. Islam is strong here as it is across the Kyrgyz south – Nookat district has 150 mosques, compared with 110 schools.
The group’s role in this event, and the response of local government, provide an object lesson in how the authorities struggle to find an adequate response – they do not want to allow Hizb-ut-Tahrir free rein, but using tough tactics to stop it can prove counterproductive.
Abdygany Aliev, head of the Nookat district administration, said officials would have been happy to support the Eid celebrations but drew the line when they felt Hizb-ut-Tahrir was hijacking the event.
He said the trouble began on October 12, when about 300 party supporters turned up on the main square in Nookat along with ordinary Muslims keen to mark the end of the fasting period with a traditional feast.
“At first, we welcomed the initiative to hold a big celebration of the Muslim feast,” said Aliev. “But Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists started using this event for their own ends.
Before the Eid festival, about 1,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to fund the celebrations, and also to pay for a new state school for girls who want to follow the Muslim dress code.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir members told IWPR they helped with logistical arrangements for the party.
“When we announced the holiday, ordinary Muslims responded, with some giving rice and others [cooking] equipment,” said one of the organisers, 66-year old Jibek Asanova from the village of Kara-Oy.
A member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir who gave his name as Khalil, added, “Over 10,000 invitations were distributed, tightrope walkers were brought in from a neighboring district, a free lottery was held, and we decided to treat people to pilaf cooked outside,” says other person who also
However, police stepped on and blocked the street celebrations. “The police wouldn’t let the tightrope perform do their act, and made us cook the pilaf at home and bring it to the square.”
“When the Muslims went off for Eid prayers, the police took away our pilaf cauldron, foodstuffs and other items,” said Khalil. “Several young men involved in preparing the event were detained and beaten up.”
Aliev confirmed that police stepped in but said they only did what was necessary and acted “within the bounds of the law”.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir says the authorities’ actions caused widespread discontent among Nookat residents, and the event transformed into a demonstration involving some 15,000 people.
“Ordinary Muslims and even schoolchildren condemned the actions of government,” said Khalil. “They protested openly and cursed the officials. After all, pilaf and other kinds of events are allowed during other holidays.”
Activists say that having lost control, the local officials had to call in a different kind of authority – known Hizb-ut-Tahrir members – to pacify the crowd.
The protest had tapped into a complex set of locally-felt feelings of resentment.
“People should be aware of the shameful behaviour of our authorities who defaced a sacred holiday,” said another Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist, who did not want to be named.
“These officials are Muslims as well, so why are they putting pressure on us?” asked Asanova. They celebrate the Christian holiday [sic] of New Year and they gave a prize of 50,000 soms [1,400 US dollars] for the best tree…. Why don’t they give us that money?”
MOVING INTO LOCAL POLITICS
Local government chief Aliev insists Muslim celebrations are being exploited for use in Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s propaganda campaign.
It is a view shared by Dilmurat Orozov, the director of the Centre for Islamic Education, who added that on another occasion where local officials did attend a similar event, Hizb-ut-Tahrir turned this to its advantage, too.
“They filmed one of the Muslim festivals that was attended by the local authorities,” said Orozov. “Later they used the footage to suggest that the festival had been organised by Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the local authorities came along to it.”
Observers have noted how Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which a few years ago was a covert group whose only visible presence was its covertly-circulated leaflets, is now using issues that have broad public appeal to reposition itself as a legitimate force in the political mainstream. Last year, for example, as Kyrgyzstan was discussing the need to revise its constitution, Hizb-ut-Tahrir sent a draft of its own – outlining the foundations of an Islamic state – to the national newspapers, which did not publish it.
Arkarbek Sadabaev, deputy head of the government’s State Agency for Religious Affairs, told IWPR earlier this year that that activists “openly travel around and make speeches in all parts of the country…. collect money, lay on meals and hold charity campaigns to draw people in”.
Sadabaev noted that the group was careful to avoid anything that might get them into legal trouble. “They know that unless they openly campaign to change the constitutional system, they cannot be charged solely for belonging to the party,” he said.
PARTY SEEN AS A THREAT TO THE KYRGYZ STATE
Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ultimate aim remains the removal of the current secular state. On an official website it describes itself explicitly as a “political party” which will restore the Caliphate of the early days of Islam.
“Officials have always tried to keep people in awe and talk to Muslims from a position of strength, but they have not won people’s trust. People are disappointed with democracy and the government,” said Khalil.
Kyrgyz officials insist Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a real threat, and that it is funded from abroad
“The more pressure the state puts on them, the more money they receive from abroad,” said Aliev. “It hasn’t been proved, but they do get money from abroad. How else would they have the money to stage such celebrations?”
Despite Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s stress on non-violence, Kyrgyz officials allege that weapons have been found during raids on members’ homes, and also that the group is linked to another radical group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU
The IMU is a guerrilla group which mounted a series of armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan between 1999 and 2001. It lost the capacity to mount such raids after the United States-led Coalition entered Afghanistan in late 2001, sweeping the Taleban and their IMU allies out of the north of the country. The IMU’s forces are now believed to be concentrated in Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, from where its leader Tohir Yuldash makes occasional videoed statements aimed at people in Central Asia.
In the case of both Hizb-ut-Tahrir and IMU, the situation is complicated by the cross-border connection with Uzbekistan, where the government has taken a much tougher line on suspected Islamic radicals and has urged its Kyrgyz counterparts to do the same. This pressure intensified after the Andijan violence of May 2005, in which security forces shot down several hundred people on the city’s central square. Many people fled across the nearby border to southern Kyrgyzstan, and Presdient Kurmanbek Bakiev’s administration came under strong pressure to cooperate with Uzbek security servuces seeking to snatch alleged militants among the refugees.
Several leading members of both Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU were killed in Kyrgyz police operations last year, some of which involved the Uzbek secret service. In perhaps the most notorious incident, Kadyr Malikov, a prominent Islamic cleric in southern Kyrgyzstan, Mohammadrafiq Kamolov, was shot dead with two other men in what Kyrgyz security sources said was a counter-terrorism operation conducted jointly with their Uzbek counterparts.
“PRISON IS UNTILLED SOIL FOR US”
Orozaly Karasartov, head of public affairs in the Jalalabad regional administration, admits that apart from police methods, the state lacks the tools to counter the Hizb-ut-Tahrir phenomenon.
“In terms of ideology, the state cannot do anything against them because there are so few experts in the state and security bodies,” said Karasartov. “I see no way of fighting them other than punitive measures based on criminal law”.
Karasartov insists that tough action will not lead to Hizb-ut-Tahrir recruiting more members.
Many analysts disagree. Valentina Grizenko of Spravedlivost (Justice), a human rights group which has taken up cases of Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists alleging police mistreatment, said using force against the group was counterproductive.
Grizenko recalled a case from 2004 when the police brutally beat up four Hizb-ut-Tahrir members as well as another man who was not a member. The result, she said, was that this fifth man went on to join the party.
She noted that the men filed a law suit against the police but lost the case despite the existence of forensic medical reports stating that they had been beaten up.
Party activists told IWPR that repressive measures and demonstrably flawed legal processes only proved their case and boosted their recruitment
“Let the government prevent us from conduction of holidays, persecute us and put pressure on us. They only help us by doing that,” said one man, who claimed that thanks to government repression, membership was on the rise. He said the group only had about 2,000 supporters in the south of Kyrgyzstan ten years ago, but now there were 30,000 of them.
“We consciously chose this path and agreed to the risk of death,” said one activist. “We fear only God.”
Other party members said the threat of imprisonment was no deterrent. “Prison is untilled soil for us,” he said. “There, too, we will do what we do.”
TRADITIONAL CLERGY UNABLE TO FEND OFF HIZB-UT-TAHRIR MESSAGE
Hizb-ut-Tahrir belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam that is practiced in Central Asia. But its radical stance, vigorous proselytising, and fragmented cellular structure all mark it out from the normal practice of faith in Kyrgyzstan, where the Islam is officially the preserve of a Soviet-era hierarchical institution called the Muftiate which maintains close ties with the secular state.
Many observers say the Muftiate and lower-level clerics are simply not up to the job of confronting a new radical religious strand with its radical, dynamic language.
Observers say Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists deliver their message in clear and simple terms, citing chapter and verse from the Koran and other literature. A police investigator who did not want to be named said half in jest that if he questioned a detained Hizb-ut-Tahrir suspect for a couple of months more, he himself might get recruited into the party.
Meanwhile, the traditional clergy – the mosque prayer-leaders or imams – are not sufficiently versed in the finer points of theology to be able to explain things clearly to their congregations and take the intellectual and moral high ground against Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
“Unfortunately, our imams are unable to resist them,” said Nookat local government chief Aliev.
Orozov, now director of the Centre for Islamic Education, formerly headed the Muftiate’s department in Jalalabad for nine years, and says that even the national-level body is short on competence, while local imams are worse.
“These [Muftiate] people are unqualified and lack authority… never mind the imams,” he said. “We need to replace our imams with young, educated people.”
Toygonbek Kalmatov, director of the government agency in charge of religious affairs, said in September that of the 12,000 imams in Kyrgyzstan, 70 per cent have had no formal theological training. That may, however, be partly because only two theological faculties are currently entitled to issue nationally recognised diplomas, while the Islamic University and other teaching institutions are not.
ANOTHER CONTEST, ON HIZB-UT-TAHRIR’S TERMS
Khalil, one of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir members interviewed for this report, said that the group is already looking forward to the next big date in the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Adha, known here as Kurban Bairam, which will fall in January.
During the run-up to last year’s festival, Hizb-ut-Tahrir mounted a campaign for the abolition of the secular New Year holiday, which in Kyrgyzstan is of Soviet origin.
Now they are viewing the next Eid holiday as an opportunity for a new trial of strength with the Kyrgyz authorities. It looks like a win-win situation whether officials opt to pay for the celebrations or not.
“If they prohibit [sic] this holiday again, it will cause mass discontent among even average Muslims,” said Khalil. On the other hand, “If they will organise the celebrations themselves, they will have to admit they made a mistake during the last one.”
Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad, southern Kyrgyzstan.