Over the past three years, reports of arrests in southern Kyrgyzstan of members of the banned Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir party have become increasingly frequent. Officials say the group is aligning itself with more-militant Islamic groups, but observers say the accusations may just be a government ploy to detract attention from domestic troubles. Meanwhile, in an attempt to undercut attempts by Hizb ut-Tahrir to recruit new members, Muslim clergy have started sending groups of volunteers to local villages to foster traditional Islam.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is a radical Islamic group that aspires to oust the present leadership of the Central Asian states and create a vast caliphate -- an Islamic state -- on that territory.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has renounced violence, but the Kyrgyz government -- at one time tolerant of such groups -- has recently tried to link Hizb ut-Tahrir with more-militant Islamic organizations and behavior.
After the arrest of a Hizb ut-Tahrir leader in northern Tajikistan in late January, the Tajik security service said it had evidence linking the group with the more militant and aggressive Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose aim is to overthrow Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
In 2000, Kyrgyz police detained 150 people on suspicion of distributing literature in support of the group. The following year, 400 people were detained on such charges in Djalalabad Oblast alone. In 2002, Kyrgyz police say, Hizb ut-Tahrir activists were apprehended in northern Kyrgyzstan for the first time.
Meanwhile, state-owned local newspapers have begun a major campaign to denounce Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Some question whether evidence really exists to link Hizb ut-Tahrir to the IMU or whether the crackdown is simply part of an organized effort to discredit the group and draw attention away from Kyrgyzstan's domestic troubles.
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu does not see any reason why Hizb ut-Tahrir followers should be singled out for persecution. Bakir-uulu told RFE/RL: "I would say that everybody has to be treated equally by the law. It is impossible for a state to persecute one, while shutting its eyes to another person [for the same reasons]. It is not correct to persecute just one organization because the constitution writes about freedom of speech. It [also] writes about freedom of religion and other liberties. That is why I would say as ombudsman that everybody's rights and liberties have to be maintained equally in Kyrgyzstan. If [the followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir] do not abuse the law, and if they do not take up weapons [to fight], then [the state] should not persecute them. If they fight with weapons, then all of them have to be imprisoned and persecuted."
No one can say with any certainty how many followers and sympathizers Hizb ut-Tahrir currently has in Kyrgyzstan, but most observers agree that their number is growing.
Analysts say concern over Hizb ut-Tahrir's increasing popularity may have been one of the factors behind the replacement in September 2001 of Djolbors Djorobekov, the chairman of the government's Commission on Religious Affairs.
Concern over the volume of illicit Hizb ut-Tahrir literature in circulation was definitely behind the decision in November 2002 to set up an expert commission, subordinate to the Clerical Board of Kyrgyzstan's Muslims, that will approve all Islamic literature printed and distributed in Kyrgyzstan. The board works in conjunction with the Interior Ministry and the government's Commission for Religious Affairs.
The government's Commission for Religious Affairs and the Muslim Clerical Board have held several meetings in the past few weeks with students of various institutions of higher education in Osh in an attempt to warn them of the perils of getting involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Both the head of the Commission for Religious Affairs, Omurzak Mamayusupov, and Kyrgyzstan's chief mufti, Murataly hadji Djuman-uulu, attended those meetings with students, as did local officials from the prosecutor's office, the Interior Ministry, and the National Security Council.
Djuman-uulu argued that Hizb ut-Tahrir's promises to "liberate" believers are misleading, since all currents of Islam - and therefore all believers, including those in Kyrgyzstan -- are not repressed but are already free. He also notes that complaints by Hizb ut-Tahrir members that the Kyrgyz government represses them are untrue.
He said the Hizb ut-Tahrir party "puts on a mask of Islam and says, 'We will free the Muslims,'" which is what the party's name means.
However, he said that he doesn't understand Hizb ut-Tahrir's aim to free Kyrgyzstan's Muslims. "What kind of Islam is repressed and does not have freedom?" he asked. "I thank God [that] today all the Muslims [in Kyrgyzstan] are free in following their five main duties, in using their liberties."
Mamayusupov stressed that the Kyrgyz Constitution bans political parties founded on the basis of religion. He said that fighting radical parties such as Hizb ut-Tahrir is the task of the Muslim clergy but that all citizens of Kyrgyzstan have an obligation to help. "It is openly described in the Kyrgyz Constitution, especially in its newly adopted version, that the activities of such streams [movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir] are prohibited. We were told in every place that we have visited that such work [propaganda against Hizb ut-Tahrir] is the duty of the people. It is not a job for state bodies or the muftiyat only. We told the people gathered that the development of every citizen is the development of the state [and that] their personal problems are also the state's problems," Mamayusupov said.
Mamayusupov explained that while the government and the muftiyat will continue to work together to counter "nontraditional" Islamic trends, the government will not interfere in the affairs of the muftiyat but will simply provide support.
In the meantime, one Kyrgyz oblast has adopted a new approach to the perceived threat posed by Hizb ut-Tahrir. In Batken Oblast in southern Kyrgyzstan, some 150 self-proclaimed Islamic religious teachers have begun visiting villages to teach the values of traditional Islam. Groups of 10 teachers (daavachis) spend three days each week in a different village, according to Moldo Marip, deputy imam in the village of Kara Bak.
Mufti Djuman-uulu pointed out that there are plans to extend this experiment to other parts of Kyrgyzstan in the future.
By Charles Carlson, The Times of Central Asia, March 04, 2003