asiaNet Human Rights
The government effort to neutralize the northern-based opposition alliance, which centers on the El and Ar-Namys parties, has received considerable attention in the international arena. The arrest of Feliks Kulov -- the head of the Ar-Namys Party who was detained on March 22, and has been dubbed a "criminal abuser of power" by the government -- has developed into a cause celebre in the West, as highlighted by Madeleine Albright during her recent visit to Bishkek. [For background see Eurasia Insight Archive] In sharp contrast, the crackdown on the southern-based political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, including the arrests and intimidation of dozens of people over recent months, has attracted little international and domestic concern.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been charged with inciting ethnic hatred under section 299 of the Kyrgyz criminal code. The wording of the law leaves it open to broad interpretation and manipulation. The charge stems from the distribution of leaflets that call for the restoration of the Caliphate, the Pan-Islamic institution abolished by Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk in 1925. The leaflets distributed by Hizb ut-Tahrir also have been critical of state-supported Islamic clerics in Uzbekistan, and of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's heavy-handed policies.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir movement spread in the early 1990s throughout southern Kyrgyzstan following the collapse of the Soviet Union, helped by the work of foreign missionaries. Initially, Hizb ut-Tahrir activists concentrated their efforts on building a grassroots support base amongst common people, proselytizing during the winter months when farmers and craftsmen were idle. More recently, the movement has been distributing printed matter, including political critiques of western-supported Islamic states. Uzbekistan's human rights practices have been a particular target.
The movement, which sprung up in the 1950s in Palestine and Syria is trans-national in character. Its aim, stated in its official literature, is "to change the situation of the corrupt society so that it is transformed into an Islamic one" under a restored Caliphate. Intellectually, it represents an anti-colonial critique of nationalism as an alien ideology imposed upon the Islamic world by the West. Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology is essentially non-violent. It rejects the use of force, identifying the weapons of what it calls its "intellectual and political" struggle as the use of "thought, conviction and proof."
In its campaign to discredit Hizb ut-Tahrir, Kyrgyzstani officials have engaged in the arbitrary interpretation of the country's legal code, and have grossly misrepresented the group's aims, describing its members as 'fundamentalists.' The term "fundamentalist" has come, in common parlance, to represent a dogmatic religious bigot who refuses to accept change. Within a strictly Central Asian context, the term conjures up a picture of a bearded, gun-totting Muslim terrorists.
Incumbent authorities not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in other Central Asian regions, have not hesitated to tar opponents as fundamentalists. They have used the alleged fundamentalist threat as justification for state repression of individual liberty. In this spirit, Kyrgyz authorities have attempted to conflate the Hizb ut-Tahrir with the guerrillas who instigated the Batken hostage crisis of 1999. This has been done in speeches which cleverly switch between the terms 'Wahhabi', 'terrorist', 'religious extremist,' 'fundamentalist' and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Because the term has developed such strong resonance by playing on certain North American and European fears and prejudices, the West has been cautious about opposing human rights abuses committed by Kyrgyzstan under the cover of combating fundamentalism.
The lack of attention given in the West to the persecution of the Hizb ut-Tahrir has potentially harmful implications for the development of civil society in Kyrgyzstan. The attacks may be a precursor to an assault on the freedom of other groups. For example, a recent article in the leading government ideological newspaper 'Kyrgyz Tuusu' combined a polemic against these two movements into an attack on Christian, Bahai and Krishna groups in Kyrgyzstan. In describing leaders of these peaceful faiths as' criminal abusers of power' and 'religious extremists' it combined both the discourses it has used to delegitimize Hizb ut-Tahrir and Ar-Namys. It ended with a chilling call to bring these people to criminal prosecution. Even though they have broken no laws, their labeling as 'fundamentalists' and 'religious extremists' may well prove enough for the state to justify persecuting them. One can only speculate with alarm at who will be the next target after them.