The IMU and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir: Implications of the Afghanistan Campaign
The attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 and the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan have intensified the scrutiny of Islamist movements across Central Asia. Of such movements, two – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (“Party of Islamic Liberation”) – have been of greatest concern to the governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and to the broader international community.
This briefing considers how the allied military action in Afghanistan has changed the dynamic regarding these two organisations in Central Asia and impacted their memberships, leaderships and structures. How Central Asia deals with these two very different movements is critical. Far too often, the region’s non-democratic leadership has made repression its instrument of choice for dealing with religion and civil society as a whole, thus creating greater public sympathy for groups whose agendas, methods and rhetoric are deeply troubling. There is a danger that the international community, in its understandable eagerness to combat terrorism, will give the regions’ governments a free hand to continue and expand repression of all groups that are viewed as political threats – a dynamic that will only boomerang and further destabilise the region over time.
Far more to date has been written about the IMU , which U.S. President George Bush cited as a terrorist organisation of particular concern following 11 September, than about the Hizb-ut-Tahrir. This was likely done, at least in part, to help secure Uzbekistan’s cooperation in the military campaign in Afghanistan. But the IMU has received much greater scrutiny also because of its military activities, including cross border incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan during the last three years, and allegations by the government of Uzbekistan that it was behind bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. The IMU was also involved in high profile kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan during 1999 and 2000. The IMU and its leadership have frequently used Afghanistan as a base of operations, and the organisation has close ties to both the Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Given this record, it is no surprise that the IMU has found itself in the crosshairs of regional governments and the international community since 11 September.
The Hizb-ut-Tahrir has received less international scrutiny, in part, because it has advocated a non-violent approach toward its goals. However, it shares many broader aims with the IMU, primarily the institution of an Islamist political order in the region. While the IMU tends to stress more short-term political objectives, focusing on overthrowing the government of Uzbekistan, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir has the more utopian aim of re-establishing a caliphate that would encompass all Muslims. Many Hizb-ut-Tahrir members do at times speak in ways that suggest the organisation, or at least part of its base, has not precluded resorting to violence if it continues to suffer severe repression, particularly in Uzbekistan.
Nevertheless, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir presents a particularly difficult challenge to Western policymakers since it holds extremist views but openly advocates only peaceful change. Governments in Central Asia, which believe it to be a considerable threat to the political order, have responded by jailing people for the non-violent expression of ideas. Much of this briefing is directed toward exploring the Hizb-ut-Tahrir in detail, including its recruitment methods, philosophy and those elements driving its upsurge in popularity across Central Asia.