Economic adversity and aggressive government action in Kyrgyzstan have placed Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamic radical group, on the defensive. The underground organization now is struggling to regain traction as its membership dwindles.
The turning point for the group occurred in October 2008, when authorities targeted Hizb members for allegedly stoking riots in the southern town of Nookat. The unrest began after local authorities banned the public celebration of Orozo Ait (Eid al-Fitr), a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Based on tenuous evidence, authorities prosecuted and convicted 32 individuals for fomenting the unrest. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which seeks to replace existing governments in Central Asia with an Islamic caliphate through non-violent means, has long been banned by the Kyrgyz government. Prior to the Nookat events, Kyrgyz courts tended to impose relatively small fines or a suspended sentence on those prosecuted for supposed Hizb-ut-Tahrir membership. But now affiliation with the group can result in a prison term of 15 years.
Information on the inner workings of Hizb-ut-Tahrir is sketchy, but there is evidence that public support for the group is seriously eroding. In May 2008, the Kyrgyz State Agency for Religious Affairs put the number of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members at around 15,000. A year later, after the Nookat convictions, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior claimed that membership was decreasing and said there were only 118 members in the country.
Economic hardship appears to be playing a role: unable to generate income in Kyrgyzstan, Hizb members, like many other men in the country, have left in search of work. A large percentage of these labor migrants have headed to Russia and Kazakhstan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The hardening of the government's tactics, however, has put the most pressure on Hizb members. "What can you do in this [repressive] environment? After Nookat there are no controls on police and prosecutors," complained a Hizb member from Kara-Suu, a town in southern Osh Province, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
"They can arrest and torture anyone; they can put anyone they suspect in jail," the Hizb member continued. "[President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev gave them [unlimited] powers."
Another Kara-Suu-based Hizb activist claimed that the government was indiscriminately targeting devout Muslims for persecution, including many who are not radically inclined. "They [government officials] claim they are Muslims, but their policies punish Muslims," the activist said.
Yet another factor in Hizb-ut-Tahrir's decline is ideological/theological competition. In recent years the Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana Valley has witnessed the growth of other religious convictions, a trend that appears to have weakened Hizb's appeal. According to some local analysts, mainstream Muslim leaders who have emerged in many Kyrgyz towns who have been more successful than Hizb activists in putting spiritual issues on the political agenda. This, according to observers, has significantly reduced Hizb's allure as an outlet for the discussion of spiritual issues.
"Hizb was a fad for many [Kyrgyz] Muslims when they were rediscovering and reestablishing ties with the Muslim world [after independence]. The same trend happened in other Muslim-populated countries. But things change and fads pass," said Ulugbek Sokin, an Osh-based analyst.
Under the current circumstances, Hizb leaders are advising members to keep a low profile and avoid activities, including leafleting, that might put them at risk of arrest, according to a Kara-Suu activist.
At the same time, the ebb in public interest is prompting internal debate among Hizb leaders on strategy and tactics. A significant number of members believe that restoring Hizb's membership base will require a shift in the group's activities, with a more localized approach replacing the old focus of promoting of a regional caliphate. In some cases, Hizb activists have already moved in a local direction. An Osh activist, for example, organized a collective effort to purchase an expensive electrical transformer for his neighborhood. Another member from Nookat raised funds from local entrepreneurs to buy food and clothing for a local orphanage. And in Aravan, several members organized a micro-finance scheme that lends without charging interest.
Despite the changing in focus, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members say they are not abandoning the drive for an Islamic caliphate. Some continue to stress that their non-violent process will take time. "We just have to do more work in the initial stage without claiming [unwanted] attention," one of the Kara-Suu-based Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists said.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir's apparent decline is prompting a policy discussion among competing Kyrgyz government agencies. Believing that danger posed by the underground group is receding, some officials in Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry now favor easing up on the crackdown on unsanctioned religious activity, according to a source in Osh who is familiar with the Interior Ministry's policy position.
But the Kyrgyz National Security Service (SNB), successor to the Soviet-era KGB, continues to view Hizb-ut-Tahrir as a major security threat. "The situation in the religious sphere of Kyrgyzstan is explosive and requires immediate adequate measures and the mobilization of society," Rustam Mamasadykov, deputy chairman of the SNB, said in his October 29 testimony to the Kyrgyz parliament. He added that the SNB has arrested 62 Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists since the beginning of 2009.
Sokin, the Osh-based analyst, told EurasiaNet that because the SNB traditionally carries more weight in security matters than the Interior Ministry, the government crackdown on religious dissent is likely to continue.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in southern Kyrgyzstan.