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Tajikistan: Islamic Radicals Lying Low

An anticipated escalation in the government's campaign against Hizb ut-Tahrir has prompted the Islamic radicals to scale down their operations.
By Aleskender Ramazanov

The US-sponsored war in Afghanistan has put a brake on the activities of the radical Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir in neighbouring Tajikistan.


The Islamic extremists fears the authorities in Dushanbe will take advantage of the American war terrorism to step up their attempts to drive them out of the country.


In recent months, the flow of fundamentalist literature has dried up and although the interior ministry continues to round up activists, numbers are down on last year as most have gone into hiding to escape the dragnet.


Hizb ut-Tahrir, the only fundamentalist Islamic party operating in Tajikistan, received financial and moral backing from the Taleban in Afghanistan. The collapse of the student militia and Washington's international war against terrorism has left members of the group feeling vulnerable.


But experts say the Islamic radicals still have several thousand supporters in Tajikistan, and that they will re-emerge as soon as the official anti-fundamentalist sentiment dissipates.


The Dushanbe authorities admit that they will continue to have problems with Hizb ut-Tahrir, not matter how hard they try to undermine them. "The struggle still lies ahead of us and we are ready for it," a Tajik security ministry official told IWPR.


The United Tajik Opposition, essentially an Islamic party that seeks power through the ballot box, is also concerned at the threat presented by the Muslim radicals. "Our party is now undertaking measures in order to prevent the spread of the influence of this party amongst Tajik Muslims," United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri told journalists at the beginning of April.


Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Sunni fundamentalist group founded in 1952 by a Palestinian sharia court judge in Jerusalem, took root in Uzbekistan in 1981-84 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It has been active for about 10 years in Tajikistan, and stepped up its activities there in 1999, as a result of the growing confidence of their Taleban backers.


During that period, the movement worked hard in rural communities, organising underground schools where, during studies of the Koran, the aims and goals of Hizb ut-Tahrir were promoted.


Leaflets and religious books were distributed on the streets, at markets, in schools and institutes. One youngster in northern Tajikistan was arrested outside a prison trying to smuggle in leaflets hidden inside a loaf of bread.


The central idea of the movement - the creation of a united theocratic Muslim state, the Caliphate - commands support among millions of people across post-Soviet Central Asia. It calls on Muslims to return to a righteous way of life through the unification of the "umma" - the Islamic nation.


Experts say support for Hizb ut-Tahrir is fuelled by the persistent economic crisis, widespread unemployment, overbearing bureaucracy and the tightening of the country's porous borders.


Hizb ut-Tahrir has been accused in Tajikistan of stirring up national and ethnic discord and of calling for the violent overthrow of the authorities. The government has kept up constant pressure on the party, and over 200 members were arrested and tried between 1996 and 2001. Tens of thousands of leaflets and books have been seized and destroyed.


Punishments for membership of the organisation are very severe - from five to 15 years' imprisonment. As yet, there has been no convincing evidence that party functionaries or rank-and-file members have ever taken part in any act of violence or terror.


Most of those arrested have been young, aged between 18 and 30, and of Uzbek nationality, living close to the northern border with Uzbekistan and in the suburbs of the Leninsky region of Dushanbe.


The organisation's most recent leaflets, seized in September-October last year, are anti-American propaganda, focusing on Washington's military campaign in Afghanistan. The party has always been stridently opposed to the US, believing it to be the main enemy of Islam.


Hizb ut-Tahrir railed against the offer by Central Asian leaders of air space and bases for American armed forces sent to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. "The fact that you allow your rulers to fulfil the wishes and demands of the US is a serious sin. You must demand of your rulers that America be driven out of all Muslim countries," its leaflets said.


Aleskender Ramazanov is a political analyst and Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan


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