Hizb ut-Tahrir: Defying Characterization
As previous issues of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" have documented, Uzbekistan witnessed a series of explosions and shoot-outs in late March-early April, and then three suicide bombings on 30 June. The first spate of violence claimed 47 lives by the official total -- 33 alleged terrorists, 10 policemen, and four civilian bystanders. The more recent attacks, in which suicide bombers targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, killed the three bombers and four Uzbek police and security officials.
Fifteen people are now on trial for involvement in the first series of attacks. Eurasianet reported on 5 August that Uzbek authorities arrested 85 people, including 17 women, after the most recent blasts. Uzbek officials have maintained that the attackers were members of an Islamic extremist group inspired by the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a transnational organization that advocates the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate and the enforcement of Islamic law, albeit by nonviolent means. Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov provided the canonical statement of this thesis at a 9 August briefing reported by Fergana.ru: "The investigation can state on the basis of irrefutable evidence that behind these terrorist acts stand international radical and extremist organizations, including HT. All of the terrorists involved in the explosions that took place in the spring and on 30 June were members of this organization, which is confirmed by the case materials and the criminals' own testimony in court."
For its part, HT has denied any involvement in acts of terrorism, whether in Uzbekistan or elsewhere. HT spokesman Imron Vohid repeated this denial to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 2 August, at the same time expressing HT's extreme distaste for the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and suggesting that the organization enjoys growing support within Uzbekistan. According to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, "Vohid told an RFE/RL correspondent that [HT] had nothing to do with the attacks and that [Uzbek President] Islam Karimov's insistence on blaming HT is an attempt to discredit this respected group in the eyes of the international community."
The report goes on to quote Vohid as saying, "Karimov's regime is failing. HT continues to gain recognition among the people of Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Because of this, Karimov wants to discredit our group in the eyes of the international community. But HT has never supported violence in Central Asia, and people are well aware that it is an intellectual-political organization."
Not everyone agrees with Vohid's characterization of HT as a nonviolent intellectual-political organization. Skeptics point to a latent contradiction between the group's stated aim of restoring the caliphate and implementing Islamic law, which would imply the overthrow of Central Asia's secular regimes, and its commitment to nonviolence. At times, the group's calls for change stop just short of outright incitement to rebellion. The following excerpt from a 20 March 2003 Uzbek-language HT leaflet discusses the assistance Muslim leaders, including Uzbek President Islam Karimov, rendered the U.S.-led war in Iraq:
"These leaders are well aware that the American force now in the process of seizing a Muslim land depends on the favorable conditions they have created for it by providing bases, airspace, and waterways for warships to launch bombers and missiles. If this had not been the case, America would not have been able to achieve its goal and it would not have established its influence.
"These rulers are the cause of the ailment and the source of the misfortune. Do not leave them on their thrones.
"Cast off these traitorous quisling leaders, who have befriended the colonialist infidels and neglected jihad, which is the apex of Islam."
With an eye to this bellicose rhetoric, the skeptics go on to argue that HT's clandestine structure smacks of an eventual plan to move on to violent methods. In an article in "Demokratizatsiya" (Vol. 10, Fall 2002), Ariel Cohen, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, sketched a worst-case scenario, noting that many Western observers (whose views we will examine in more detail below) underestimate the threat. Cohen wrote, "If constituted, a Central Asian caliphate could serve as a platform for the takeover of all Muslim areas within Russia and expansion into the Middle East. However, because HT does not openly call for armed struggle, and because the rulers of Central Asia often persecute and prosecute its supporters, it often is defended, not only by the NGO community but also by some U.S. congressional committees dealing with religion. In the longer term, radical Islam could threaten the Volga-Urals region, as the Russian-Kazakh border is not patrolled, and new generations of Tatars and Bashkirs find themselves torn between Westernization and Islamic fundamentalism."
An investigative report by Russia's "Moskovskii Komsomolets" on 19 July appeared to confirm this dire prediction. The author spent six months under cover as an HT "recruit" in Moscow. She wrote, "Five students form a unit, or a halqa [Arabic for "circle," or "link"]. Each teacher has under him up to 10 carefully concealed groups of five. Members of one group do not know others and do not talk to them. The teachers themselves are subordinate to higher-ranking members. This goes all the way up to the amir [commander] of the caliphate in Jordan."
The author noted that "in the Moscow Oblast alone there are 31 HT cells." More worrisome still, "HT's structure most closely parallels the army. As one might expect, the military wing is the most secret. It has its own snipers and explosives experts." She quoted her mentor, Ali, as saying at a clandestine HT gathering in Yakhroma, outside Moscow, on 18 November 2003, "We need to raise the peoples of Central Asia in an armed uprising, seize power, and proclaim the caliphate....We need to gather weapons, explosives, and wait for the signal." According to the author, HT's plans extend to Russia as well. A meeting in Jordan in September 2003 allegedly discussed "the division of Russia along the line of the Volga and the establishment of the Great Caliphate in 'originally Muslim' lands." The report seems especially ominous in light of the large number of supporters sometimes claimed for HT in Central Asia. For example, Erkin Tukumov, who heads the Department of Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Institute of Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, told "Novoe Pokolenie" in a 6 August roundtable that "[HT] is the largest organization in Central Asia, with 50,000-60,000 people. It will be a force to be reckoned with."
There are, however, compelling reasons to treat such reports with caution. For one thing, we lack independent confirmation of the number of HT supporters in Central Asia. (The organization is banned in all countries except Kazakhstan, where it lacks official registration, rendering any activity on its behalf illegal.) More specifically, the "Moskovskii Komsomolets" expose is open to question on several levels. The Russian press in general, and "Moskovskii Komsomolets" in particular, has a marked penchant for poorly sourced sensationalism. Moreover, paid-for placed articles -- known as "zakazukha" -- are a staple in many newspapers. A 9 June 2001 report by "The Moscow Times" described zakazukha as a "multimillion-dollar industry" and cited data from Lobbynet, a press monitoring organization, as indicating that "Moskovskii Komsomolets" raked in $270,000 a month for made-to-order articles. With numerous interested parties keen to demonize HT -- Central Asian governments, for one -- the possibility of a paid-for expose should at least be noted. But even if one takes the report at face value, it seems unlikely that a journalist would be able to infiltrate a truly clandestine organization with such apparent ease and discover details about its military wing and future plans. Such an organization would hardly stand a chance against even the most minimally competent security services. As things stand, without further confirmation, the report alone provides insufficient basis for far-reaching conclusions.
Many observers take an entirely different view of HT, describing the harsh measures the Uzbek government has taken to contain it -- imprisoning, by most accounts, several thousand alleged adherents -- as the root of the problem, rather than the solution. Martha Brill Olcott, a noted specialist on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in "Demokratizatsiya" (Vol. 11, Winter 2003), "[T]he [Uzbek] government is unrelenting in its attack on HT, Central Asia's most popular radical Islamic group, which has vowed to create an Islamic caliphate in the region through peaceful means. The Uzbek government is behaving much as did its Soviet predecessors, believing that it can dampen the fires of religious fervor through state regulation of religious practice and pushing extremist groups underground through its efforts. Given Uzbekistan's current demographic and social situation, the potential for new recruits remains high."
While stressing that they do not share HT's vision for the future of Uzbekistan, human rights groups insist that the government's repressive measures are counterproductive, and that only reform can stem the tide of radicalism. The "Los Angeles Times" quoted Alison Gill, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), on 17 April as saying, "HT's ideology is not democratic. It's anti-Western, it's anti-Semitic, a lot of it is hateful. It's not that we protect the content of their speech. We protect their right to speech...less repression and more democracy is the way to promote peace and stability in Uzbekistan." Robert Templer, the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, told the "Ottawa Citizen" on 11 April that the government's anti-HT fervor has victimized ordinary Muslims. He said, "[Imprisoned Islamists are] mostly just people engaged in normal worship and normal expression of political views who didn't advocate anything or do anything violent." A 10 August HRW Briefing Paper on the UN Security Council's approach to human rights violations in the global counterterrorism effort summed up the case, arguing, "In essence, Uzbekistan has criminalized legitimate religious practice and belief in a way that casts individuals' exercise of their rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association as attempts to overthrow the government. In its report to the [U.S.] Counter-Terrorism Committee, it is characterizing instruments of gross and widespread abuse of human rights as a legitimate counter-terrorism response."
Writing in "Foreign Affairs" (Vol. 82, March-April 2003), Charles William Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation, carried this argument to its logical conclusion: "HT, despite some objectionable features of its platform, does propose to reach power peacefully. The West should urge the region's leaders to open local government to electoral challenge and to allow all parties seeking peaceful change to take part. Perhaps it will turn out that the radical Islamists enjoy little support. Even if they do garner electoral support, however, Islamic forces may gradually develop a stake in the system, so that when they do finally enter national government, it will constitute an act of inclusion, not revolution."
Meanwhile, Central Asian observers of HT have at times suggested that things may not be quite as they seem at first glance. Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a representative of "official" Islam during the Soviet period and now a deputy prime minister in the Tajik government, told "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" on 4 August that HT is nothing more than a Western-sponsored bogeyman. He said, "A more detailed analysis of HT's programmatic and ideological views and concrete examples of its activities suggests that it was created by anti-Islamic forces. One proof of this is the comfortable existence this organization enjoys in a number of Western countries, where it has large centers and offices that develop its concept of an 'Islamic caliphate.'" Turajonzoda's view fits in with a broader conspiratorial strain popular in the post-Soviet world, and nowhere more so than in Russia, where adherents sometimes argue for the existence of a nefarious American-inspired plot to remake Central Asia. To wit, columnist Mikhail Chernov argued in RBCDaily.ru on 4 August that the most recent outbreak of violence in Uzbekistan presages the end of the Karimov regime. He wrote, "Tashkent will come under military pressure from the Islamists, and diplomatic pressure from the United States and international NGOs. In all likelihood, President Karimov will not be able to stay in power.... The fall of the regime in Tashkent will lead to the destabilization of Central Asia." Chernov cited supporting arguments from Aleksandr Sobyanin, director of the Strategic Planning Service in the Association for Border Cooperation: "The pressure will come on three levels -- from the opposition (primarily, the Muslim party of HT based in Kyrgyzstan), American diplomats and American-controlled NGOs, and militants, whose main training camps are in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Another, equally conspiracy-minded, school of thought dismisses the importance of HT and places the onus on the Uzbek government. Tolib Yaqubov, who heads the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 10 August, "Our position, the position of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, is clear, and we've expressed it since October 2000. All three terrorist acts, in 1999 and in subsequent years, are the work of Uzbekistan's own security services." Uzbek opposition journalist Anvar Usmanov expressed a related, albeit much more cautious, viewpoint, saying, "Note that [the Uzbek authorities] constantly accuse HT. For all practical purposes, the scapegoat has been found. Their agents have surely managed to infiltrate HT. Karimov is apparently taking advantage of this to incite anti-Islamic, anti-terrorist hysteria. That's why it seems to me that we should look at when the most recent series of explosions took place: when the Karimov government and the president himself came in for harsh criticism all over the world."
As the debate over HT shows, serious disagreements persist among observers and analysts on the sources of political violence in Uzbekistan and the potential for further unrest. One group holds that Islamic fundamentalism represents a profound and growing threat to Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia; a second group charges that the government's repressive policies are at the root of the problem; a third group sees various conspiracies at work. While these differences defy neat resolution, they support two tentative conclusions.
First, these basic issues have arisen before in the context of debates over Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere. For example, in "Face to Face with Political Islam," the French scholar Francois Burgat examines at length the interplay of state-sponsored violence and Islamic violence, as well as the radicalizing effect of throttled political expression, in such countries as Egypt and Algeria. Burgat is harshly critical of Arab regimes and their Western supporters, and he provides sympathetic insight into figures derided elsewhere as dangerous fanatics. Whether or not one agrees with Burgat's conclusions, his attempt to reveal the diversity of modern Islamist thought as expressed by its proponents in a variety of settings and his insistence on a hands-on familiarity with a region's languages, cultures, real-world socio-political concerns, and sense of its own history could serve as a valuable lesson in methodology for students of the problem in Central Asia. Similarly, research on Central Asia can surely benefit a broader community of scholars whose primary focus may lie elsewhere, but whose primary interest might well extend farther than they think.
Second, the entrenched views on Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan have grown somewhat hidebound. Though the threat of an expansionist caliphate resurgent in the heart of Asia may make for stirring op-eds, precious little evidence suggests so great a peril. Even if all the anti-government political violence in Uzbekistan in 2004 was indeed the work of a single group motivated by a single Islamist ideology -- a supposition that remains to be proved -- that group has shown mainly that its lack of combat readiness is matched only by its seemingly total inability to convey any sort of meaningful ideological message or political platform. Given the obvious disparity in forces, analysts who have shown their acute awareness of the Islamic threat may well turn their acuity to other ills that afflict Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek government's critics have long urged political liberalization in the face of mounting evidence that such liberalization is simply not in the cards. The necessity of reform, no matter how convincingly it is demonstrated, can never in and of itself guarantee reform. In order to avoid falling into pat diagnoses and unrealistic prescriptions -- "things are bad, and the government needs to do something to make it better" -- critics may want to consider alternative approaches to engagement, or a focus on other issues where fresh insights are more likely to emerge.
The conspiracy theorists can hardly be expected to take an earnest recommendation at face value. They can, however, perform a useful function by rushing in, where others fear to tread, to sketch the outer limits of political possibility.