With reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been dealt a blow by the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, the fight against radical Islamic groups in the region has shifted its focus. Hezb ut-Tahrir, which aims to build an Islamic caliphate, has now become a prime target of Central Asia's law-enforcement organizations. The Uzbek government recently declared that its tough policies have paid off and that the group's activities in Uzbekistan have been weakened. RFE/RL talks to an official in the Uzbek Interior Ministry about the crackdown and compares Uzbekistan's methods against such groups with neighboring Kyrgyzstan's approach.
Prague, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hezb ut-Tahrir is a movement advocating the creation of a region-wide Islamic caliphate and a return to Islam in its pure, original form. Unlike the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, recognized by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, Hezb ut-Tahrir denounces violence. Hezb ut-Tahrir says it wants to achieve its aims through dialogue and debate, by leading a strong propaganda campaign against secularism and enlightening Muslims about the advantages of living under Islam.
The Uzbek government believes such descriptions are deceitful and that it is wrong to think of Hezb ut-Tahrir as a peaceful ideological organization. Uzbek officials accuse Hezb ut-Tahrir, whose ideological and financial center is suspected of being in Jordan, of wanting to overthrow the secular states in Central Asia and take power by any means, including violence.
Dr. Imran Waheed is a spokesperson for Hezb ut-Tahrir in London and takes issue with this statement. "Certainly, when our members in Uzbekistan have been tried [on charges of] trying to overthrow the state, nobody had denied that we are working to establish an Islamic state in the Islamic world, whether that be in Uzbekistan or in another country in the Islamic world. This is not something secret. We believe the people of Uzbekistan and our support in Central Asia and Uzbekistan is a clear reflection of that fact that people desire to live under the rules of Islam, not under the rules of secularism," Waheed said.
Ilya Pyagay is deputy head of the antiterrorism department in the Uzbek Interior Ministry. Pyagay says the reality in Uzbekistan is different, that Uzbeks do not want an Islamic state. He also notes a decrease in the number of arrests of Hezb ut-Tahrir members, a clear indication, he says, that the group's activities have been weakened due to the government crackdown. "They themselves [members of Hezb ut-Tahrir] admit that their activity has declined. Arrested and detained members with whom we talk [are] giving such evidence. People don't want them. People understand that this is wrong and absolutely alien to us in Uzbekistan. [Those who were] mistakenly involved with them [are] now refusing them," Pyagay said.
Nevertheless, members of Hezb ut-Tahrir say the intensity of their fight for an Islamic caliphate has not diminished in Uzbekistan or elsewhere. "I would say that this is a propaganda. It does not reflect the truth. I think the interior minister of Uzbekistan needs to start living in the real world. The reality on the ground is that the ideas for the return of the Islamic khilafe, caliphate, are growing every day. The number of supporters and the carriers of this call is growing every day. The repression of the Uzbek government against the members of Hezb ut-Tahrir is evidence of that. It's evidence that the Islamic call is a threat," Waheed said.
Furkat Yakvalkhodyaev, an independent journalist in Uzbekistan, has been monitoring the Uzbek government's fight against radical Islamic groups. In an interview with RFE/RL, Yakvalkhodyaev said that the mass arrests of members of Hezb ut-Tahrir have, indeed, impacted the visibility of the group's activities. Conservative estimates by human-rights groups say that some 7,000 activists, the majority of them members of Hezb ut-Tahrir, have been put in jail in the past three years in Uzbekistan.
But Yakvalkhodyaev believes the Uzbek government is far from claiming victory over the group. "The current government, to some extent, was able to isolate members and supporters of Hezb ut-Tahrir from society by mass arrests. But this does not mean that all members or supporters of Hezb ut-Tahrir are isolated from society. If you have a clear enemy in front of you, you may destroy and then claim a victory. But the difficulty of the situation is that in front of us is not a foreign enemy, but our own citizens," Yakvalkhodyaev said.
How can a government fight religious extremism orchestrated from outside but implemented from within? This is a dilemma not only faced by Uzbekistan. The government of Kyrgyzstan is facing similar threats to its secular statehood.
If Uzbek authorities believe its tough measures have paid off, the Kyrgyz government is taking a softer approach toward Hezb ut-Tahrir. In Uzbekistan, members of Hezb ut-Tahrir convicted of being members of a banned group or for distributing antigovernment leaflets are often sentenced to long prison terms of 10 to 25 years. For the same charges in Kyrgyzstan, members might receive a maximum of five years in jail, but in most cases are only fined.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of Kyrgyzstan, Joldoshbek Busurmankulov, explained the difference in strategy. "I don't think that we will live 20 years without any Hezb ut-Tahrir, if we give them [members of Hezb ut-Tahrir] 30 or 40 years of imprisonment or arrest all of them. It will not happen. I think we may fight by alternative ways, different methods. We should prove their destructiveness. We should fight for the hearts and minds of the people. Because Tashmat was arrested for 20 years, Eshmat will not stop doing the same activities. Quite the opposite. He will think quietly about why Tashmat was jailed and will look for the same literature," Busurmankulov said.
Busurmankulov added that when members of Hezb ut-Tahrir abuse the more tolerant attitude of the Kyrgyz government and break laws regulating their activities, they are subject to criminal penalties. He cited recent arrests of its members in the Osh, Batkent, and Chuy regions as examples.
Nevertheless, he said he believes Central Asian governments have to find more effective methods in the fight against Hezb ut-Tahrir other than arrests and repression.
In 1999, Uzbek President Islam Karimov suggested that ideas should be fought with ideas. Independent Uzbek journalist Furkat Yakvalkhodyaev says the Uzbek authorities soon showed, however, that they preferred the use of force. "The problem is, fighting thought with thought is much more difficult than using force and requires constant efforts and patience. That's why not everybody [in the government] wants it. As Russians say, 'If you have force, there is no need for brains.' But the most important thing is in order to deny the claims of Hezb ut-Tahrir, the current government, in practice, has to prove to the people that its overall policy is wise and the only right way out. Only then will society itself, not the government, deny any radical calls," Yakvalkhodyaev said.
There is no sign, however, that the Uzbek government intends to change its attitude. Ilya Pyagay of the Uzbek Interior Ministry says law-enforcement bodies will not allow radical groups to destabilize the country.
Pyagay says that, just as harsh punishments against car thieves have almost eradicated such crime in Uzbekistan, tough measures can also achieve the same result in the fight against extremist Islamic organizations.