How big a threat is Hizb ut-Tahrir?
As Central Asian governments continue their crackdown on unsanctioned Islamic groups they say pose a threat to regional security, the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which advocates a return to “pure” Islam and the creation of a region-wide Islamic state, is an elusive and mysterious target. Among the most feared Islamic networks in Central Asia, it is also, seemingly, the least understood. Operating in three-person groups, with only limited contact with other such “cells,” Hizb ut-Tahrir’s members are nearly impossible to tally, and their goals in the region are unclear. But hundreds, and possibly thousands, of them are filling the jails of Central Asia, despite little evidence the group has ties to more militant Islamic groups in the region. In the first part, RFE/RL looks at the origins of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia.
No one can say with any certainty how many members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement are active in Central Asia. But leaflets and other materials advocating the establishment of a vast Islamic caliphate, or empire, have appeared in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and, most recently, in southern Kazakhstan. For the governments of Central Asia — deeply concerned over possible incursions by Islamic militant groups into the region — the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda is a worrying trend.
John Schoeberlein, the director of Harvard University’s Central Asia program, described Hizb ut-Tahrir’s goals and appeal in the region. “First of all, it’s a political organization primarily. And perhaps, secondarily, a religious one, although it’s certainly on their agenda to promote the revival of religion and ultimately to achieve a caliphate — that is, an Islamic state — across the region. The goal is to work in the underground in opposition to the existing governments and ultimately to eliminate them. It’s certainly the most influential, most widely popular political Islamic group in Central Asia,” Schoeberlein said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir — or “Freedom Party” — has its roots in the Middle East in 1950s. Its original members were mainly Palestinians from Jordan and Syria, although the movement quickly found supporters in Egypt and North Africa as well. It is an orthodox movement that believes the sanctity of Islam was shattered soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and aims to return the religion to its original state of spiritual purity. Among its goals is the elimination of modern forms of government and imposing Sharia Islamic law throughout the Islamic world. But unlike other movements, like the Taliban and Wahhabism — which likewise advocate a strict interpretation of Islam — Hizb ut-Tahrir does not oppose modern technology, and uses VCRs, CDs, and the Internet to spread its message.
The movement first appeared in Central Asia in the early 1990s. Its penetration of the region is unclear, and its organization — based on networks comprising three-person “cells” with only limited contact among one other — make it difficult to estimate its size. Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to have upwards of 100,000 members in the area, but more modest assessments place the number at some several thousand. But regardless of its numbers, the group’s impact is undeniable.
Journalist Ahmed Rashid, in his recently published book Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, writes that there are more members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the region’s prisons than of any other movement. The movement even appears to have spread beyond Central Asia to the Caucasus: An Azerbaijan court last month sentenced six Hizb ut-Tahrir members to prison terms.
Peter Sinnott of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs said the defining characteristic of Hizb ut-Tahrir — and the reason it inspires such fear in the governments of the region — is its secrecy. “The main characteristic of this organization is that it is very secretive. And people should keep in mind that in many ways that’s the way Islam was preserved in the Soviet period,” Sinnott said.
In their crackdown against radical Islamism in the region, the governments of Central Asia have consistently linked Hizb ut-Tahrir with groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. The IMU, which in recent years has staged armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, has already demonstrated it is prepared to use violence to achieve its goals, which, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, include the creation of an Islamic state.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has no such record of violence in Central Asia. But, Sinnott said, its shared goal of an Islamic caliphate makes it easy for the region’s governments to link it to more radical groups like the IMU.
“What [Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU] are espousing in terms of Islam is more alike than different, and they are espousing, as I understand it, the renewal of an Islamic caliphate. And I think that this factor, which is similar to what the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were very much about, is the factor people are focusing on,” Sinnott said.
There is little to demonstrate that Hizb ut-Tahrir advocates violent means to achieve its end of creating an Islamic caliphate. The U.S. State Department, which last year included the IMU in its list of world terrorist organizations, did not list Hizb ut-Tahrir. Schoeberlein of Harvard University agreed there is no reason to believe Hizb ut-Tahrir poses a danger, at least in any direct sense, to the governments of the region.
“The governments of the region have declared [Hizb ut-Tahrir] to be bent on violent overthrow of the government, but there’s actually no good evidence that any Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been involved in violent acts,” Schoeberlein said.
In fact, Schoeberlein said, Hizb ut-Tahrir “quite explicitly disavows violence as its means for achieving power.”
Governments react to uncertain threat of Hizb ut-Tahrir
International rights groups have watched with concern as the countries of Central Asia crack down on Islamic groups branded by governments as extremist or violent. Among the targeted groups is Hizb ut-Tahrir, a movement advocating the creation of a region-wide Islamic caliphate and a return to Islam in its pure, original form — a goal shared by demonstrably radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. But to date, Hezb ut Tahrir has staged no acts of violence and its goals in the region remain unclear. Nonetheless, scores of its members have been arrested and sentenced to terms in prison. In the second part, RFE/RL reports on how individual Central Asian governments are reacting to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and what the group’s members see as their aims in the region.
The governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are united in staunchly defending their crackdown on outlawed Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir as part of the broader campaign against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. But reaction to the perceived threat varies from country to country.
The sense of danger is felt most keenly by the government of Uzbekistan. This may be because — judging by the names of Hizb ut-Tahrir members put on trial throughout Central Asia — the group comprises mainly ethnic Uzbeks. Human-rights organizations also say that prisons in Uzbekistan hold more Hizb ut-Tahrir members than those in any other country in the region.
Acacia Shields is a Central Asian researcher for the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. She said many Hizb ut-Tahrir members find themselves in Uzbek jails because of their group’s superficial resemblance to more radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which have proven records of violence.
“This is something that is very troubling, that is, the conflation of really disparate Islamic groups in the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a distinct organization, separate from Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a militant group, it’s an armed organization based outside of Uzbekistan, whereas Hizb ut-Tahrir is a group with members inside the country who avow that they are nonviolent, who have never been accused of any specific violent act, and have never made any statements suggesting that they are in league with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Shields said.
But Hizb ut-Tahrir cannot be said to invite the understanding of regional governments. Its structure is so secretive — estimates of the group’s Central Asian membership range from several thousand to more than 100,000 — that most people learn of the group’s members only once they are arrested and put on trial, most often for distributing leaflets and other types of propaganda material.
In Uzbekistan, sentences for such activity can be stiff, ranging from 10 to upwards of 20 years. Moreover, rights groups say, members of banned religious groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir can suffer severe beatings at the hands of police officers once in detention. The issue of police torture has recently been spotlighted in Uzbekistan, where four officers this year were convicted for their role in the beating death of a detainee.
Tajikistan, like Uzbekistan, has arrested, tried, and convicted dozens — possibly hundreds — of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members. The Tajik Interior Ministry reported last month it had apprehended more than 20 members since the start of the year. Although Tajik courts hand down comparable sentences to those in Uzbekistan, their legal system is regarded as more transparent, if not necessarily more fair.
RFE/RL spoke to several Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Tajikistan. One, speaking under the pseudonym Safar Jonmahmadov, said many of his fellow members have suffered severe abuse — and even death — while in police custody.
“There was Arobidin, an agitator for Hizb ut-Tahrir. In the prison of the [Tajik] Interior Ministry, or somewhere else, he was tortured and died because of this torture,” Jonmahmadov said.
Another Hizb ut-Tahrir member, using the pseudonym Navruz Soliev, described his own arrest. He said Tajik police regularly violate proper legal procedure when arresting members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. “The means they used against us were barbaric, even by the standards of their own ‘laws.’ First, they should come with a document. Second, they need an order from the prosecutor, and third, they should have evidence of a crime [before making an arrest],” Soliev said.
In Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir faces a unique problem. The government itself includes members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRP, a splinter group that has allied itself with some of the region’s radical groups. But IRP’s leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, labeled Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremists and added his party is doing all it can to limit the group’s influence.
A third Hizb ut-Tahrir member, who spoke under the name Kurban Adhamov, said his group differs from groups like the IRP. “We do not agree with those who go by the means of the IRP. We think that we will follow peaceful means until the time when we form an Islamic caliphate, and therefore we can not be with [the IRP]. But we are their brothers. They understand things differently. They think they are right,” Adhamov said.
Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the mildest in its treatment of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Sentences are no longer than 10 years, and are typically much less. Some Hizb ut-Tahrir members, usually those caught distributing or possessing the group’s leaflets, are simply fined after a brief detention.
A member of Hizb ut-Tahrir living in southern Kyrgyzstan, who asked not to be named, offered a possible explanation for why Kyrgyz authorities have been relatively tolerant of the group’s activities. He said his group has no intention to overthrow the government nor does it bear any ill will toward the country’s president, Askar Akaev. But, he said, his group does believe that sooner or later the system must change.
“We are opponents of the democratic system. We are not against individuals if they embrace Islam and return to Allah. If a person wants to live according to Sharia [Islamic law], he is our brother. If he wants democracy and to live by the laws of the ‘kufr’ [nonbelievers], he is then our enemy. Kufr are our enemies. If Akaev willingly accepts Islam, and if he imposes Islamic laws, he can sit on his throne,” the Hizb ut-Tahrir member.
Such militant remarks may be on the rise among Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Bakhtiyar Bobojonov, an Islam specialist at the Tashkent Academy of Sciences, said the group has undergone a philosophical shift since the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign began in neighboring Afghanistan.
“After the campaign against terrorists started in Afghanistan, the position of Hizb ut-Tahrir changed and they became much more radical. They are spreading leaflets and literature calling for war and martyrdom in the war for Islam,” Bobojonov said.
Analysts have noted that the recent growth in radical Islamic movements in Central Asia — particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan — may be explained in the chronic poverty and lack of basic freedoms that continue to plague the region.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir member speaking in Kyrgyzstan seems to confirm this. Asked what role his group can play in Central Asia, he said: “The people are tired of democracy. [All around you,] you see unemployment, immorality. Our people are Muslims and they all yearn for Allah and to live by his laws.”
This article in two parts was first published on 30 May 2002 by RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty). Posted on RELIGIOSCOPE with permission. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a private, international communications service to Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East, funded by the United States Congress. RELIGIOSCOPE highly recommends the RFE/RL website, with its informative daily newsline and various other reports: http://www.rferl.org/