Almost a year after the United States launched its campaign against terrorism in Central Asia, Islamic radical activity in the region remains vigorous. While operations by armed Islamic militants have effectively ceased, the non-violent radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir has expanded its support base. Regional governments have struggled to contain Hizb-ut-Tahrir's activity, failing to develop a message that can counter the Islamic group's appeal to impoverished Central Asian citizens for social and economic justice.
Despite being officially banned by Central Asian governments, Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists are operating in most countries in the region. In recent months, Kyrgyzstan, a country buffeted by political turmoil [for additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive] has emerged as a particular target for Hizb-ut-Tahrir agitators. On September 3, the Interfax news agency quoted Kyrgyz National Security Service Director Kalyk Imankulov as saying Hizb-ut-Tahrir has allied itself with drug traffickers and other Islamic militant groups to emerge as a "third force" that seeks to destabilize Kyrgyzstan.
Officials estimate that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has about 3,000 active members in Kyrgyzstan, according to local media reports. Some observers say the number of adherents is much higher. The Chairman of the Kyrgyz State Commission for Religious Affairs, Omurzak Mamayusupov, indicated that Hizb-ut-Tahrir agitators are emerging from underground in many areas of the country, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan, according to an August 7 report aired by Kazakh commercial television. The movement's printed propaganda materials, for example, are widely available in many southern markets.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir advocates the peaceful overthrow of existing Central Asian governments and the reestablishment of a caliphate in the region that is guided by Islamic law. In promoting the group's goal, the movement is seeking to take advantage of the Kyrgyz government's inability to address long-standing economic troubles.
Imankulov, the Kyrgyz Security chief, says Hizb-ut-Tahrir's power base is found among the country's vast pool of impoverished citizens. Over 80 percent of Kyrgyz live at or below the poverty line, according to Imankulov, who asserted that the group likely is financed by radical foreign organizations and individuals.
"Although the party is nonviolent, its rhetoric is very aggressive," added a human rights activist based in Jalalabad.
Local political analysts say Hizb-ut-Tahrir's ability to establish itself in southern Kyrgyzstan should not be surprising given the region's rising antipathy to President Askar Akayev's government in Bishkek. Anti-government protests buffeted southern Kyrgyzstan throughout the summer, led by Akayev's mainstream political opponents, including MP Azimbek Beknazarov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many southerners are upset that Akayev's administration, which is dominated by northern-based interest groups, is increasingly excluding other clans from access to the spoils of power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
An early August incident involving the arrest of a Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist illustrates the extent of the anti-government mood in the South. A mob surrounded police in the town of Arslanbob in the same Jalalabad Region that was the scene of a March riot that left at least five dead after officers took the Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist into custody. Ultimately, police opened fire, wounding one young man.
Muhamedjan Urumbaev, an Osh-based political analyst who visited Arslanbob following the clash, told EurasiaNet that the incident confirmed a trend that Hizb-ut-Tahrir's support is crossing ethnic lines. Support for the group has traditionally been strongest among Uzbeks, many of whom are found in southern Kyrgyzstan. But, as Urumbaev pointed out: "Many Kyrgyz in [towns] Nooken, Tash Kumir, Shamaldi Sai have joined the group for various reasons. The movement's membership in Arslanbob is also [ethnically] mixed," told Urumbaev.
In the early 1990s, southern Kyrgyzstan was the scene of fierce inter-ethnic rioting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, centered on Osh. Today, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is emerging an a unifying force. "It [the Arslanbob incident] brought Uzbeks and Kyrgyz together against the police brutality," said Tolibjon, a Jalalabad Region resident who maintains close links with the party.
The movement has effectively cast itself as an outlet for those disaffected by political and economic developments over the last decade. Many poorer Kyrgyz have come to equate the country's political and economic transition with official corruption and abuse of power. "The appeal of Hizb-ut-Tahrir is mainly rooted in the call for rule of law in society," a Jalalabad-based political observer said in a telephone interview.
"Unemployment, declining living standards and vague prospects for the future lead both ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to back the movement's goal of establishing" Islamic law, said the observer, who, citing the possibility of government harassment, requested anonymity.
Some political experts believe that authorities are exaggerating the security threat posed by Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Nevertheless, the government's efforts to diminish the spread of the group's influence have proven ineffective. Many contend the government's reliance on repressive measures is actually aiding the radicals' attempts to recruit new members and fan popular discontent.
The Jalalabad human rights activist said a change in government strategy was necessary. "Officials must fight an ideology with an ideology," he said.
According to Urumbaev, authorities have already made adjustments in their approach. "An indiscriminate and widespread crackdown on anyone who has links with the group has stopped. Now police are targeting individual leaders and taking them to court. And the courts are often imposing large fines
Alisher Khamidov is currently Muskie Fellowship sponsored Intern at the NEH Summer Institute on Eurasian Civilizations at Harvard University.