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Kyrgyzstan: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Many observers are concerned the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has created instability that could be used by Islamic extremists to gain influence. Russian media say radicalization of Islamic groups is inevitable in Kyrgyzstan. Western journalists have focused specifically on the country's south, where the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has traditionally been most active. Many Kyrgyz experts, however, see the situation differently.

Prague, 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Before the parliamentary elections that triggered Kyrgyzstan's March revolution, Hizb ut-Tahrir had called on voters to boycott the ballot.

The group has also rejected the new interim government, for the same reason it rejected that of ousted leader Askar Akaev: Neither is Islamic.

“Our position has always been the same. No matter who it is, a peasant or a head of state, our appeal remains unchanged -- we urge them to do good and to avoid evil; we call on them to follow Shari'a [Islamic law]," Dilyor Jumaboev, a Hizb ut-Tahrir member, told RFE/RL from the southern Kyrgyz town of Kara-suu. "[The Kyrgyz revolution] was a democratic process based on a democratic ideology. Muslims didn’t play any role in it. It wasn’t a victory of Muslims or of Islam."

But it is precisely that democratic process that some say might have weakened the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Until recently, Hizb ut-Tahrir's popularity was partly based on its role as an outpost of dissent in the authoritarian countries of Central Asia.

But the revolution gave many Kyrgyz an alternative channel for voicing their discontent. It also gave them a rare opportunity for legitimate political participation.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, has openly sought to create a regionwide Islamic state, or caliphate. It disavows the current political regimes in Central Asia, as well as Western capitalism, as "kufr," or systems devised by nonbelievers.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has traditionally claimed to endorse no violence in pursuing its goal, and it has never been officially linked to any terrorist act. But the group is outlawed in Russia and most Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan.

Analysts say Kyrgyzstan's March revolution, in addition to dampening Hizb ut-Tahrir's appeal, has also deepened an already existing internal split in the group.

There have been suggestions that Hizb ut-Tahrir is no longer united in the goal of nonviolent methods to achieve its ends. One branch still advocates a peaceful, global Islamic revolution. But another is pressing for a shift to more forceful means and focusing on revolution in a single country rather than regionwide.

“Experts say this split started 1 1/2 to two years before the revolution, when opinions changed within Hizb ut-Tahrir," said Alisher Saipov, an independent journalist from the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh. "These groups emerged after internal squabbling. At present, some Hizb ut-Tahrir members say the debate over the method of fighting is ongoing -- as are the splits."

Is Hizb ut-Tahrir likely to become a jihadist group?

In a 21 April commentary, Stratfor, a leading intelligence consultancy, focused on the issue of Islamism in Kyrgyzstan. It noted that one of Hizb ut-Tahrir's founders, Asad Bayoud Tamimi, went on to establish the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, thus setting a precedent for the radicalization of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The West has expressed concern about potential radicalization of Islam in Central Asia.

“If Kyrgyzstan becomes very unstable, it could become a territory that would allow existing Islamist-related groups in the region to thrive," Tanya Malcolm, a Central Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, told RFE/RL. "I don’t want to exaggerate the problem of Islamist extremist activity, but there have been some anti-government violent attacks possibly in Uzbekistan, although we are not quite sure who was behind them, and various movements in Kyrgystan and elsewhere. I think there's a genuine international concern that another weak spot in Central Asia would allow those types of movements to thrive. And the reason that they might thrive is because other governments in Central Asia, most importantly in Uzbekistan, are becoming more and more authoritarian, which is in itself fueling this problem of extremist activity and anti-government violent activity."

Russian media are also discussing a possible rise in Islamic radicalism in Kyrgyzstan. The prevailing opinion in Moscow appears to be that Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of a civil war bred by Islamic extremism. There are also worries that such instability in Kyrgyzstan could easily spill over into other Central Asian countries.

But Ganijon Kholmatov, an Osh-based independent political analyst, dismissed such speculation. He told RFE/RL the views of the Russian media are politically motivated.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s policy failed in Ukraine and Georgia. [In Kyrgyzstan], now, they use the same old reasoning, like Islamic extremism, and say that Central Asia is going to be embraced by Islamic extremism," Kholmatov said. "They continue the old propaganda. However, it is an indication of nothing more than the fact Russia sustained another shock after the Kyrgyz events. I think it's a sign that Russia's policy has failed once again -- this time in Kyrgyzstan."

Both Kholmatov and Saipov said most people in southern Kyrgyzstan remain secular. Those who are devout Muslims typically follow conventional and more moderate Islamic practice, rather than the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology.

Kholmatov said the revolution has made it easier for Muslims in Kyrgyzstan to gather at state-controlled mosques to discuss political and economic problems -- something that was restricted during Akaev's rule and impossible in neighboring Uzbekistan.

With a loosening of such religious restrictions, he said, the appeal of an underground outlaw group like Hizb ut-Tahrir is bound to fade.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir member Jumaboev denied the rumors of an internal split within the group, and said the group hasn't changed its methods.

“Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activity is very well planned; it cannot be based on any methods that go against Shari'a and are determined to fail," Jumaboev said. "Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activity is based on a fight using only ideas and political methods. Using military or financial force is 'haraam' [unlawful and prohibited by Islam]. As for the opinion of the Russian journalists, it reminds me of the Russian saying: 'Whoever wants to get rid of his dog, declares it rabid.' Maybe they are following this rule now."

Journalist Saipov said problems like poverty, overpopulation, and unemployment have peaked in recent years in the Ferghana Valley, where Hizb ut-Tahrir is most active. As long as governments continue to ignore these problems, he said, it is possible that any opposition force, including Islamists, might eventually radicalize.