Hizb ut-Tahrir Emboldened in Kyrgyzstan

Islamic group uses various tactics to seek publicity despite being under a ban.

Hizb ut-Tahrir Emboldened in Kyrgyzstan

Islamic group uses various tactics to seek publicity despite being under a ban.

The outlawed Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir is engaging in increasingly sophisticated actions to raise its public profile in Kyrgyzstan and fend off the authorities’ attempts to curb its influence.

The latest case involves a group of men who were arrested on charges of belonging to the banned organisation after arriving in Naryn to help rebuild an area hit by an earthquake on December 26. More than 5,500 buildings were damaged by the tremor measuring seven on the Richter scale.

In February, Hizb ut-Tahrir sent a press release to Kyrgyz media saying it was sending a team of builders to Naryn and would also be handing out aid to people who had suffered in the quake.

On February 15, police arrested 11 men who had just arrived in Naryn region. The men detained are still being held at the local offices of the National Security Committee, which deals with such sensitive cases relating to Islamic groups.

About 20 relatives around held a demonstration in Naryn on February 26 to demand their release. Seven of the wives had earlier approached the Kylym Shamy human rights groups for help.

They may be successful. Commentators including Arkarbek Sadabaev, deputy head of the government’s State Agency for Religious Affairs, note that Hizb ut-Tahrir members are increasingly aware of the finer points of Kyrgyz law.

The 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.

“They know that unless they openly campaign to change the constitutional system, they cannot be charged solely for belonging to the party,” said Arkabaev.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, which originated in the Middle East but gained a foothold in Central Asia in the Nineties, advocates the replacement of secular governments by a Caliphate governed by Islamic precepts. It does not advocate violence as a means of achieving this, although regional governments have accused it of being behind a number of attacks.

Despite the arrest of thousands of members in its stronghold Uzbekistan, and smaller numbers of detentions in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the group still seems to attract members, in part because its fragmented cellular structure makes it resilient to police surveillance, and because its message appeals to socially and economically marginalised groups.

Hizb ut-Tahrir now appears to be exploiting the relatively liberal climate in Kyrgyzstan to engage with the wider public at various levels.

Jenishbek Ashirbaev, spokesman for the police in the southern Osh region, said, “They don’t like the fact that our constitution separates religion from the state, and they say they want to be heard by the authorities. They also want to participate in politics. They accept only shariah, Islamic law.”

Last year, the group entered the debate on a new constitution by sending its own draft – outlining the foundations of an Islamic state – to the national newspapers, which did not publish them.

In late December, at a time when Kyrgyz Muslims were celebrating the Eid Al Adha festival, the group campaigned for the abolition of the secular New Year holiday, which in Kyrgyzstan is of Soviet origin.

As part of this strategy, Hizb ut-Tahrir is attempting to expand its base from southern Kyrgyzstan, which is near Uzbekistan and had many ethnic Uzbeks, to the predominantly Kyrgyz north.

Since January, police have made several arrests and confiscated leaflets and other publicity material in the capital Bishkek and the surrounding Chui region.

As political analyst Orozbek Moldaliev told IWPR, “Previously, they were active only in the south, emerging first near the Uzbek border in Karasuu, Uzgen, Osh, Jalalabad and Batken. Subsequently, they have moved to northern regions such as Issykkul and Bishkek, and now they are in Naryn.”

Another other area of expansion is the recruitment of women, say local experts.

“They have a focused and wide-ranging policy of attracting women into their ranks, forming a women’s wing,” said Sadabaev. “When women with babies take part in protests, the law enforcement agencies cannot resort to strong-arm measures. Hizb ut Tahrir is exploiting this factor.”

Sadabaev drew a sharp distinction between the increasing public visibility of Hizb ut-Tahrir members nowadays and the time a few years ago when the group operated completely underground, broken up into cells of three to five people who would know little about the rest of the organisation. “Now they openly travel around and make speeches in all parts of the country, showing who they are. They freely collect money from people to hold [Muslim festivals], lay on meals and hold charity campaigns to draw people in.”

Sadabaev believes all these changes in tactics are less a reflection of a growing strength than of a more nuanced approach by Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders to negotiating their way around the ban.

“If you calculate the number of Hizb ut-Tahrir members who are totally devoted to the cause, there are only 2,000 of them. They are fanatical people, and they do present some threat. But they don’t have the capacity to resort to violence or mount acts of terrorism. Substantial funding would be needed for that.”

Sadabaev said police had so far been unable to prove that Hizb ut-Tahrir relies on foreign funding. “There is information that Hizb ut-Tahrir is financed from inside Kyrgyzstan. They use commercial organisations – they run businesses.”

Ashirbaev agreed that there was only a small core of committed members. “Most of them are educated people. In Osh region there are 600 registered Hizb ut-Tahrir members out of a population of 1.3 million,” he said.

But he added that there was a broader rank-and-file membership who, in his view, are only there because the group pays them a fee for distributing material and other work.

An Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist interviewed by IWPR insisted that the party remained steadfast to its non-violent line, and he denied suggestions that have been made in Kyrgyzstan that a more aggressive splinter group has emerged.

“Our party will never take part in mass disturbances, looting or acts of intimidation,” said the activist, who gave his first name as Artyk. “The party’s tactics for achieving its primary goal of establishing an Islamic state… worldwide, not just in Central Asia, have remained unchanged since 1953, and will not change under any circumstances. This is not out of fear of the authorities or because we lack the money or people, but because the Prophet only used political and ideological methods in Mecca. of combat.

“There is no split within the party ranks, let alone a shift to armed struggle, and this is quite impossible.”

Artyk said the actual number of Hizb ut-Tahrir members had to remain “confidential information”.

Sadabaev and other commentators point to the economic problems and unemployment that drive people to consider alternatives to the kind of government they have now.

“They [party recruiters] say, ‘See, we have corruption everywhere and the courts are unjust, but if there was a Caliphate, these problems would resolve themselves’, he said. “And people are forced to believe it; the realities here drive them to join Hizb-ut-Tahrir.”

Many analysts suspect the authorities are beginning to lose the argument with Hizb ut-Tahrir, since police methods alone are inadequate, the state has not come up with its own clearly-defined ideology as a response to anti-government propaganda, and the clergy have failed to defend the position of mainstream Islam.

“Essentially, you could put all the party’s supporters in jail, but then they would simply conduct propaganda in jail,” said Sadabaev. “People need to be made aware that this ideology is mistaken.”

Tolkun Sagynova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kyrgyzstan

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