While working on a report about the impact of propaganda by Tahir Yoldash, the exiled leader of the banned religious group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, in southern Kyrgyzstan, I came across members of another underground Muslim organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation).
The Hizb ut-Tahrir activists I met proved to be highly knowledgeable about Yoldash and his ideological messages, which are distributed via CDs and DVDs, although those interviewed for the report said that they didn’t agree with his radical views.
Originating in the Middle East in the Fifties, the group advocates the creation of a worldwide Caliphate, or Islamic state. The spread of the movement’s ideas in Central Asia go back to the early Nineties, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Members first appeared in Uzbekistan and later spread into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan.
Hizb ut-Tahrir members say poverty and social injustice can be eradicated if current secular governments are replaced with Islamic rule. However, they claim they will use only non-violent methods to achieve this aim.
Since their activities have been officially banned in Kyrgyzstan, members of the organisation have become more cautious about communicating with journalists, although they remain media-savvy.
While looking for people to interview for the report on Tahir Yoldash, I was not able to contact Hizb ut-Tahrir activists directly as I used to do a couple of years ago. However, I was still able to get in touch with them through my colleague, a journalist who knows some of them personally.
When I arrived in a village in the southern region of Osh, a Hizb ut-Tahrir representative met me at a location we had agreed in a phone conversation beforehand, and brought me to his home where the interview took place. Only then did he tell me his real name.
When he learned that I was fasting for Ramadan, I sensed that his trust towards me increased. During our conversation, he made several calls to other members informing them that I had arrived, and that I was a practising Muslim.
This encounter led to further meetings, mostly with rank and file members. One middle-ranking representative I hoped to talk to refused to give me his phone number, although he passed a message on that I could reach him through a journalist colleague.
The fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir were pleased that I was a practising Muslim does not mean that they shun journalists who are not. A female colleague told me that she met them for an interview even after she warned them she is not “traditional” – she does not cover her head, she smokes and wears miniskirts. I see this as a sign that they tolerate the lifestyles of other people.
The members I met gave an impression of being open and friendly. Many were lively with a good sense of humour. As for their backgrounds, several were involved in small-time trade or earned their living as craftsmen.
The activists lived very modestly. The houses I visited were quite cold, as their coal-heated stoves did not generate enough heat.
I saw no evidence to support claims by police that the group receives significant funding from abroad, or that members have access to expensive technical equipment.
An incident that illustrated this point was when some activists in Osh promised to make me a copy of a video showing a religious celebration at which police are alleged to have forcibly dispersed a crowd of believers. Although they enquired at several places to see about the possibility of getting a copy, they failed to do so in the end.
I also came across very few members who used the internet or email.
When I met members of the group, I told them I found their ideas unrealistic and Utopian, and that they should not count on my help to spread their message. In most cases, they tried to persuade me, albeit in a tactful way.
They were eager to answer any questions about their organisation as long as they did not concern their local leadership or the organisational structure of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia.
It is clear that they want to use media coverage to remind people of their existence, to show how unfairly they feel the authorities have treated them, and to reject official statements linking Hizb ut-Tahrir to extremism and terrorism.
The impression I got when interviewing them is that unlike many officials, they have a good understanding of how journalists work and accept that a reporter’s aim is to give balanced information.
When I was reporting about beatings that allegedly took place during Eid celebrations in Osh, some Hizb ut-Tahrir members offered me a car with a driver to collect information for my report.
I refused, saying that accepting a favour from them would compromise my work. I explained that I would have to visit hospitals and also talk to officials and police, who would almost certainly make accusations against Hizb ut-Tahrir members and accuse them of disturbing public order.
They agreed that my article should reflect the views of all sides, and one of them said, “Write what you hear from us and from the authorities. Let the reader make up his own mind.”
As I often say to the Hizb ut-Tahrir members I interview, it is difficult to agree with everything they preach, and whatever they say has to be verified from other sources. But that is part of my work as a journalist.
For reporters like me who write extensively on religious issues and religious groups, Hizb ut-Tahrir members are a very important source of information, and not just that related to their own activities.
What must be noted is that Hizb ut-Tahrir members have close ties to ordinary people and are fairly influential when it comes to the way they talk to devout Muslims, who make up the majority of people in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Their activists are good speakers and know how to approach and communicate with people. As a result, they know a lot about what is happening on the ground. Many of them can offer a sound analysis of current political events in the country.
I think we journalists should treat them with respect, in exactly in the same way as we would with any other source - be honest with them about the purpose of the interview, tell them when the article will be published and protect their identity if they request it.
Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad, southern Kyrgyzstan.