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Jihad Calls in Kazakstan

Islamic radicals are expanding their propaganda campaign in southern Kazakstan.
By Olga Dosybieva

The Islamic radical party Hizb ut-Tahrir has been issuing aggressive new statements as it tries to extend its reach into southern Kazakstan. In a new development, the banned party is trying to capitalise on local concerns about the war in Iraq.


Police in the South Kazakstan region have reported an upsurge in leafleting by Hizb ut-Tahrir activists.


In just three days in April they collected dozens of leaflets. Many were passed to them by concerned citizens who found them in their letterboxes and lying in stairwells. Police fear that the material gathered represent just the tip of the iceberg, and that many more were not handed in.


Until recently Hizb ut-Tahrir appeared to operate mainly in the towns of Kentau and Turkestan, despite government crackdowns there. The latest spate of leaflets shows that it is now active in other towns and in Shymkent, the administrative centre of South Kazakstan region. And leaflets have been found in neighbouring regions such as Almaty, Jambyl and Kyzylorda.


The police arrested a number of people in their sweep, but none in Shymkent itself.


The leaflets call on people to begin a jihad, or holy war, against countries that have waged war on Iraq. Police say this is a new direction for Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda. Previously the organisation voiced hostility to governments in Central Asia and to Israel. The new leaflets are anti-American and anti-British. Police experts say they are probably reprints of material from the Middle East - and that they are well put together.


Police officers are making a direct link between the rise in Hizb ut-Tahrir activity and the war on Iraq, a Muslim country.


Hizb ut-Tahrir has roots in the Middle East, where it was founded in 1953, but appeared in Central Asia only after the collapse of communism. It has most followers in Uzbekistan, where its Islamic rhetoric, secretive operation and calls for the overthrow of the government have resulted in mass arrests of its followers.


Hizb ut-Tahrir calls for the establishment of a caliphate - an idealised vision of a perfect Islamic state. Its message that the secular governments in Central Asia are corrupt and repressive finds a receptive audience, especially on impoverished young people who have few prospects and fewer channels for expressing their grievances.


Islam has stronger historical roots in Uzbekistan than in Kazakstan. The Uzbek government has a track record of arresting anyone it suspects of Muslim activism - but this policy has proved counter-productive in the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The organisation seems to thrive on adversity, and its dispersed organisation and lack of visible leadership has made it resistant to the toughest of crackdowns.


Islam is the main religion in Kazakstan, and belief is strongest in the south. Although Hizb ut-Tahrir began by recruiting ethnic Uzbeks there, many of the people arrested since 2001 have been local Kazaks. The new leaflets are aimed at Kazak speakers.


Nevertheless, Hizb ut-Tahrir has found it hard to make rapid progress in spreading its ideology in Kazakstan. It may be that the party thinks the war on Iraq offers new avenues for recruiting support. The Kazak government supported the US military action, but many people remain sceptical.


Anvar, a university student in Shymkent, found one of the Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets in his letterbox. "I don't share the organisation's ideas about the creation of a caliphate, and I prefer to live in a secular society, " he told IWPR. "But I think the war with Iraq has shown once again that the US is becoming the world's policeman. I agree with Hizb ut-Tahrir's assessment of the US. But I don't intend to fight with anyone."


Gulnara, a secondary school teacher, thinks young people in Kazakstan are vulnerable to the Islamic ideology propagated by the leaflets.


"Unemployment and a low living standard may push them into a life of crime or to join radical Islamic organisations which say that in a caliphate everyone will live according to sharia law, and that there will be no corruption, unemployment or other negative aspects of modern society," she told IWPR.


The local branch of Kazakstan's National Security Committee has issued its staff with a handbook outlining what is known about Hizb ut-Tahrir's aims. The document, seen by IWPR, says that the party "theoretically advocates non-violent forms of struggle. However, in a worsening international climate, the practical activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir show a trend towards a rise in extremism".


It is uncertain whether Hizb ut-Tahrir's new message will go down better with Kazaks than the old one. For the moment there is little the police can do but gather up leaflets and arrest anyone they catch distributing them.


Olga Dosybieva is an Interfax correspondent in South Kazakstan


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