Prague, 17 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It is hard to say how many members Hizb ut-Tahrir has in Central Asia. Some experts say there are thousands who share the group’s main goal -- creating a caliphate, or an Islamic state. Hizb utTahrir’s members say they are as many as tens of thousand.
In Tajikistan, 99 purported Hizb ut-Tahrir members, including 16 women, were arrested in 2005 alone. As the country’s authorities announced on 16 January, 38 of them have already been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for “extremist activities.”
Security Ministry official Abdulqader Mohamadiev alleged that two of those arrested were Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders.
“It has been established by the investigation that one of them is the deputy leader of this party's cell [in Tajikistan], and the prosecutor's office of the Soghd region [in northern Tajikistan] is investigating this case now," Mohamadiev said. "The other person, whose investigation is coming to an end, is a cell leader in the Soghd region. Both of them have been in detention and their cases are in the final stages."
Calling For A Caliphate
The Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, was established in the 1950s in the Middle East. It has only been known in Central Asia since the mid-1990s.
Representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir say their activities are peaceful and claim they do not engage in political violence, but only instruct and convince Muslims of the need to establish a caliphate.
But the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia regard the group as an extremist organization. And hundreds of accused Hizb ut-Tahrir members are now in jails across Central Asia as “religious extremists” who pose a danger to law and order.
Uzbekistan blamed religious extremists for the deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, as well as for the bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara in the spring and summer of 2004. The Uzbek authorities were also quick to accuse Hizb ut-Tahrir of involvement in violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005.
But many human rights groups are not convinced all those arrested are guilty of trying to overthrow the state. They charge the Uzbek government is cracking down on all forms of political dissent and say even peaceful Muslims practicing their faith outside state-controlled religious establishments risk persecution.
Support On The Rise
Still, despite the jailings, the number of members and sympathizers of Hizb ut-Tahrir seems to be on rise in all the countries of the region.
Observers say religious groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, sometimes become an avenue for expressing discontent with government policies in countries where human rights are often violated and economic conditions are hard.
Outlet For Dissent
Hizb ut-Tahrir has been most active and reportedly has the largest number of supporters in Uzbekistan – even though it is there the group has suffered the harshest crackdowns. Experts say the Hizb ut-Tahrir’s success in Uzbekistan is partly due to the lack of a secular platform in the country for expressing dissent.
But the group has also been more active recently in Kyrgyzstan, where room for political opposition has grown after former President Askar Akaev was ousted from power in March 2005.
Michael Hall is the director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asia Project. Speaking from Bishkek, he tells RFE/RL about the reasons behind Hizb ut-Tahrir’s support in more open societies like Kyrgyzstan.
“Political expression," Hall says. "Yes, I think that’s certainly part of it. But I think the key really is justice, accountability, and fairness. When people feel they don’t have enough of these under the current system, it makes them, I think, susceptible to arguments which suggest that a caliphate would provide this kind of accountability, and justice, and fairness. In Kyrgyzstan, where state institutions are very weak, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future, I think this also plays very nicely into the hands of Hizb ut-Tahrir.”
Last week, as Kyrgyzstan celebrated Eid Al-Adha, or the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, authorities detained several people in the southern city of Osh and accused them of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The arrests came as those detained where cooking pilaf, an Uzbek national dish, and attempting to distribute it among the needy and poor, an activity in line with Muslim practice during the holiday.
The detainees denied membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and outraged local people protested against the authorities’ actions against what they said were charitable activities.
Rafiq Qori Kamoliddin is a Muslim cleric from Osh.
“The authorities did something that spoiled people’s celebratory mood, outraged and insulted them," Kamoliddin told RFE/RL. "They did it so simply because they don’t understand people. It was a serious political mistake. They violated Muslims’ rights.”
Kamoliddin says this kind of action on the government’s part increases sympathy for Hizb ut-Tahrir among ordinary people.
Michael Hall of the ICG says that unless citizens’ perceptions of unfair political systems across the region change, support for Hizb ut-Tahrir will continue to grow.
He adds that governments’ lack of political will and resources for solving problems like unemployment among youth only risk making the problem worse.
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
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