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Radical Islam in Central Asia: Responding to Hizb ut-Tahrir

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (The Party of Islamic Liberation) stands apart from better known radical Islamist movements by its apparent opposition to the use of violence. But its views are highly radical, advocating the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an Islamic state in the form of a recreated Caliphate. It has grown quickly in Central Asia and been met with a heavy-handed repression that threatens to radicalise members still further and sow the seeds of greater Islamist extremism in the region.

Hizb ut-Tahrir first emerged among Palestinians in Jordan in the early 1950s. It has achieved a small, but highly committed following in a number of Middle Eastern states and has also gained in popularity among Muslims in Western Europe and Indonesia. It began working in Central Asia in the mid-1990s and has developed a committed following inside Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Estimates of its strength vary widely, but a rough figure is probably 15-20,000 throughout Central Asia. Its influence should not be exaggerated – it has little public support in a region where there is limited appetite for political Islam – but it has become by far the largest radical Islamist movement in the area.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a religious organisation, but rather a political party whose ideology is based on Islam. It aims to re-establish the historical Caliphate in order to bring together all Muslim lands under Islamic rule and establish a state capable of counterbalancing the West. It rejects contemporary efforts to establish Islamic states, asserting that Saudi Arabia and Iran do not meet the necessary criteria. According to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic state is one in which Islamic law – Sharia – is applied to all walks of life, and there is no compromise with other forms of legislation.

Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to reject violence as a form of political struggle, and most of its activities are peaceful. In theory, the group rejects terrorism, considering the killing of innocents to be against Islamic law. However, behind this rhetoric, there is some ideological justification for violence in its literature, and it admits participation in a number of failed coup attempts in the Middle East. It also has contacts with some groups much less scrupulous about violence. But despite the allegations of governments, there is no proof of its involvement in terrorist activities in Central Asia or elsewhere.

Government responses have been contradictory and often ineffective. In much of the Middle East, the organisation is banned from acting openly, and many of its members have been imprisoned. Central Asian governments have taken particularly harsh stances, with Uzbekistan leading the way by arresting and sentencing thousands of members to long prison terms. In some other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Hizb ut-Tahrir acts more or less openly, as it does in much of Western Europe.

Wider policies of governments in Central Asia have probably contributed to the growth of Hizb ut-Tahrir, particularly in Uzbekistan. Repression by the Uzbek government has given it a certain mystique among some of the population, and the lack of alternative forms of political opposition or expression of discontent has ensured that it has attracted members from the mass of those opposed to the regime for political reasons. Poor economic policies have further undermined support for the government, and induced discontent among traders – a key Hizb ut-Tahrir constituency. Uzbekistan’s restrictive border regime has also increased support for a group that advocates a universal Muslim state, with no national distinctions.

For a small but significant group of predominantly young men, Hizb ut-Tahrir gives an easy explanation for their own failure to achieve change in their personal lives, in society or in the state system. It provides young men with some meaning and structured belief in an era of otherwise confusing and difficult social change. It also offers occasional material benefit and social support in states characterised by extreme poverty and social breakdown.

Repression of its members, and often of those merely associated with them, has radicalised the movement, and had an impact on wider societies. Given the radical ideas of the group and the conspiratorial nature of its political struggle, it is understandable that governments are concerned about its impact on stability. But too often governments in the region, particularly in Uzbekistan, use Hizb ut-Tahrir as an excuse for their own failure to carry out political and economic reform and for continuing suppression of religious activity outside narrow official structures. Too often the international community has turned a blind eye to this repression. The West, and the U.S. in particular, is in danger of damaging its reputation in the region by close association with Central Asian dictatorships.

The international community has a key role to play. It should resist temptation (and requests from Central Asian governments) to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir since driving it underground would only make it more secretive and conspiratorial and probably more radical. Rather, it is in Western interests to press states such as Uzbekistan to take urgent measures to change the environment in which Hizb ut-Tahrir thrives. Closed political systems, lack of freedom of speech, lack of economic progress, and unreformed and brutal security services all contribute to the growth of radical opposition groups. It is in the security interests of the international community to ensure that political opposition to unpopular regimes does not by default coalesce into a more militant group, with a more violent and dangerous agenda than the present-day Hizb ut-Tahrir.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Uzbekistan:
  1. Undertake with the participation of specialists on Islam and independent experts a major review of policy towards religious groups and the political opposition.
  1. Legalise secular opposition groups such as Birlik and permit other political groups, particularly those working with youth, who recognise the existing constitutional order to operate freely.
  1. Allow legal channels for expression of discontent by opening the media todiscussion of religious and political issues and permitting criticism of the government and security forces.
  1. Repeal restrictive decrees on cross-border trade and small business, which have provoked wide popular discontent and further support for radical opposition to the state.
  1. Allow the muftiate and imams greater freedom to teach Islamic theology and permit authoritative figures to emerge who are capable of challenging Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideas from the stance of orthodox Islam.
  1. Take serious measures to reform the security sector, limiting the powers of the police and the procuracy and enhancing the independence of the courts.
  1. Implement the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to end the systematic torture and killing of prisoners, which increases sympathy for Hizb ut-Tahrir and radicalises prisoners.
To the government of Tajikistan:

  1. Open up the political system by permitting opposition parties to operate more freely, allowing more freedom of expression in the media, and ending harassment of the Islamic Renaissance Party that is likely to drive supporters of political Islam to seek more radical alternatives.
  1. Avoid excessive reliance on the security forces to deal with Hizb ut-Tahrir, develop more understanding of the issue among religious leaders, NGOs and community groups, and actively encourage them to work with vulnerable young people.

To the government of Kyrgyzstan:

  1. Reject calls for more severe measures against Hizb ut-Tahrir members, which will merely increase their radicalism and gain them sympathy.
  1. Reverse the slide into authoritarianism of the past two years and end policies designed to limit the influence of secular opposition parties.
  1. Take active measures to reform law enforcement structures, including more ethnic balance in recruitment and increased education in religious matters for police officers and officials;
To the U.S. and other members of the international community:
  1. Avoid close identification with the repressive policies of Central Asian regimes against Muslims and take a firmer line against abuses of human rights, torture and unfair judicial processes with regard to Hizb ut-Tahrir members;
  1. Prioritise in public diplomacy human rights, religious freedoms and disagreement with those Central Asian government policies that undermine long-term stability and living standards.
  1. Press governments of the region to take active measures to open the political system, further economic reform, liberalise cross-border trade and fight corruption within elites.
  1. Improve information-gathering and sharing on Hizb ut-Tahrir.
  1. Resist calls to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir in Western countries, which would reinforce repressive policies in Central Asia and push the party underground and into more radical positions.

Osh/Brussels 30 June 2003



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