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Islamic Radical Group Bides Time on the Sidelines of Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution

Islamic radicals, namely those associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, remain on the sidelines of Kyrgyzstan's revolution, preoccupied with internal squabbling over the underground group's strategy and tactics. Nevertheless, Hizb leaders remain hopeful that the revolution will ultimately lead to the expansion of the Islamic movement's influence, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Publicly, Hizb remains committed to the non-violent overthrow of Central Asia's existing political order and its replacement with a pan-regional Islamic caliphate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Kyrgyz revolution on March 24 has yet to produce a noticeable change in the group's pattern of activity, now largely limited to the clandestine circulation of leaflets containing Hizb's position on current affairs. However, political observers in southern Kyrgyzstan -- the focal point of Hizb's actions in the country -- believe revolutionary developments in Bishkek are intensifying an ongoing internal struggle over the group's strategic and tactical direction.

One thing is already clear: the Hizb leadership is not about to support the new government, as it does not differentiate between interim leaders and former president Askar Akayev's administration. Hizb members view the events of March 24 as a reshuffle of power, lacking any radical policy departure. "We will support people and the government representatives only when they defend the interests of Islam. Disputes between the people and [President Askar] Akayev's government were part of a democratic ideology which is alien to Hizb-ut-Tahrir," Dilyor, a Hizb activist in Kara-Suu, told EurasiaNet.

Hizb, which has an estimated 3,000 hard-core members in Kyrgyzstan, has long shunned the established political process. During the run-up to Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary election in late February – the event that triggered the revolution – Hizb called on devout Muslims to boycott the vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The group's only high-profile action during the campaign came on February 9, when about 50 Hizb supporters protested outside government offices in Osh demanding the release of jailed activists. The group also remained aloof during the revolution. Hizb leaders announced that the group would support only those politicians who met stringent conditions, including the renunciation of capitalism and support for the establishment of a Central Asian Islamic caliphate. Virtually no Kyrgyz politician is willing to publicly meet such conditions.

Some political observers say Hizb's low political profile is not solely due to the choices made by the group's leadership. Public support for the group, they add, has slackened in recent months. One reason for the decline is an intensive government crackdown. Another important factor is the rise in political activism in the country associated with the parliamentary election, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan. People discovered that they could seek redress of economic, social and political grievances through political channels, rather than joining Hizb, which must operate underground, observers say. In addition, mainstream Muslim leaders succeeded in putting spiritual issues on the political agenda, enabling public debate on religion's role in society. This significantly reduced Hizb's appeal as an outlet for discussion of spiritual issues.

The ebb in interest in Hizb reportedly prompted vigorous discussion within the organization over strategy and tactics. To revive interest the organization, some members started urging an ideological shift away from advocacy of a global Islamic revolution to support for the revolution-in-one-country theory. Already, at least two splinter groups have formed, based on the revolution-in-one-country concept -- Hizb-an-Nusra and Akramiya in the Ferghana Valley. In addition, some Hizb members say the group should disavow its current, non-violent strategy, and instead embrace the use of forceful means to achieve political and social ends.

In a debate that bears a striking resemblance to the wrangling among Marxists during the early 20th century, Hizb members find themselves consumed by doctrinal disputes. Hizb ideology holds that the process of the formation of an Islamic state and/or caliphate must go through three stages. The first stage is mainly a proselytizing or recruitment phase in which the party builds its support base. During the second stage, Hizb consolidates its support base while spreading its message to a broader audience in the Muslim world. Only after these two stages are complete can the third stage -- the actual establishment of an Islamic government – supposedly occur.

At present, many Hizb members believe the movement in Kyrgyzstan remains in the first stage of development, arguing that the group needs to expand its base before it can seek to influence the country's political, economic and social development. But a few Hizb activists believe that the group is at a more advanced point, and, thus, it should seek to exert influence over events right away. Ikbol Mirsaitov, a Kyrgyz Institute of International Studies' researcher based in Osh, told EurasiaNet: "There are disagreements among members of this organization [Hizb]. For example, the disagreements between Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in Osh and Kara-Suu have divided them into two groups. And they have difficulty uniting."

As they struggle to sort out internal problems, Hizb leaders believe that the implementation of their agenda could receive an unintended boost from the Kyrgyz provisional government. In the weeks since the revolution, the political situation in Bishkek has remained unsettled amid a scramble for power among interim government members. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Hizb leaders hope that prolonged political infighting will produce heightened sense of disillusionment for the democratic process among the population. That, in turn, could prompt a growing number of Kyrgyz to turn to Hizb as a possible political solution for the country.

Interim President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has seemed dismissive of Hizb's ability to influence Kyrgyzstan's political future. Meanwhile, Bakiyev's chief apparent rival for power, Feliks Kulov, appears far more wary of Hizb's capabilities. In an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Kulov warned that Hizb was prepared to take advantage of the "vacuum" created by Akayev's sudden departure from power.

Alisher Khamidov Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. Alisher Saipov is an independent journalist based in Osh and a frequent contributor to Ferghana.Ru information website

Islamic Radical Group Bides Time on the Sidelines of Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution

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