February 4, 2003 – Over the past several years, Uzbekistan has severely curtailed freedom of religious expression, arresting thousands of individuals, nearly all of them Muslims, for allegedly engaging in the propagation of radical Islamic ideas.. Now it appears that authorities in neighboring Central Asian states are ready to follow Tashkent’s lead in cracking down.
Official concern about increasing Hizb-ut-Tahrir activity was underscored by the January 30 discovery by authorities in northern Tajikistan of an underground printing press. During the raid, in Tajikistan’s Soghd Province, authorities discovered high-tech desktop publishing equipment and confiscated over 31,000 copies of books, pamphlets and leaflets. Three men, alleged Hizb members, were taken into custody in connection with the illicit publishing operation.
The focal point of Hizb activity is the Ferghana Valley, Central Asia’s most fertile region, which is shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Poverty in the overcrowded valley is widespread. Gauging Hizb membership and support in Central Asia is difficult. However, Hizb activists have claimed that up to 100,000 Muslims have been interned in Uzbekistan on the basis of their religious beliefs. But such claims have not been independently verified.
The Hizb advocates the non-violent overthrow of existing governments in Central Asia and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the region. There are indications that since the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US-led campaign against terrorism, the Hizb is becoming more confrontational in its approach. Pamphlets recently confiscated by Tajik authorities contained anti-American slogans and voiced support for a potential jihad against the West.
In recent months, Tajik security officials have clamped down on religious expression in Soghd, which is located in the Tajik portion of the Ferghana Valley. In addition to the January 30 raid, officials have moved to exert control over imams in the region, removing those deemed to have radical religious opinions.
The crackdown has centered on the Isfara District, where authorities have taken action against mosques and religious schools that lack proper registration documentation. In addition, prosecutors have launched investigations into 63 clerics accused of administrative violations, the Tajnet web site reported in late 2002.
Tajik security officials say Hizb members have been active in Tajikistan for the past four years. During that span, over 120 individuals have been arrested in connection with alleged Hizb-related activities.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, authorities have been waging a similar struggle. Hizb activity is concentrated in the southern portion of the country, in an around Kyrgyzstan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley. Hizb activists are “complicating the socio-political situation in the [southern] Osh Region,” the Vechernii Bishkek web site reported January 19. About 20 Hizb loyalists were arrested in 2002, according to official data.
Kyrgyzstani leaders have moved forcefully to control the spread of Islamic radical ideas in recent months. For example, the country’s foremost spiritual body for Islamic affairs, the Ulema Council, adopted in November a strict licensing system governing the publication of religious printed matter. Critics have cast the move as the introduction of censorship into religious life. Sadijan Kamaluddin, an Ulema Council member, defended the licensing rules, but expressed concern that they may be manipulated by officials in the future to ban non-seditious Islamic literature, Keston News Service reported.
In the coming weeks, the Kyrgyz State Commission for Religious Affairs is expected to release a revised set of regulations governing religious expression. Local observers expect the new guidelines will be designed to discourage the work of Islamic radicals, and also of Christian evangelical groups. In addition, state security officials, working in conjunction with the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, are developing brochures “exposing the extremist doctrine of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir radical religious party,” according to AKIpress.
Hizb activists are also reportedly expanding into Kazakhstan. Political commentator Andrei Gubenko, writing in late December in the Almaty newspaper Novoye Pokoleniye, suggested that difficult socio-economic conditions increased the attractiveness of Hizb’s message in southern Kazakhstan. “Illiteracy and poverty … and the proximity of trouble spots allow various types of ‘teachers’ to act very freely there,” Gubenko said. He went on to characterize the radical group’s growth in Kazakhstan as hydra-like: “One head cell that is cut off is replaced by several new ones.”
The commentator asserted that the government’s reliance on force to meet the challenge posed by Islamic radicals did not have a good chance for success. “As our rich historical experience shows, operational and punitive measures as a whole cannot stand in the way of extremism,” Gubenko said. “An idea can be defeated only with an another, more attractive idea.”
Editor’s Note: Alexei Igushev is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Tajikistan.
© 2003 Eurasianet. Posted on Religioscope with permission.
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