Kara-Suu, Kyrgyzstan. The illegal flier boldly posted on the concrete telephone pole outside Dilyar Jumabayev's home leaves no doubt about the sentiments of the man who lives inside: "All Muslims of the world unite against the infidels."
Through his black beard, Jumabayev shows an easy smile, but his words are vehement. "Muslims now realize who their enemies are. The United States and Britain want Muslims to fight against each other," he said.
Jumabayev, 32, is a member of the secretive Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, which is spreading across Central Asia. The growth is believed fueled in part by secular governments' heavy-handed efforts here to crack down on what has become the largest such extremist movement in the region. It has as many as 20,000 members.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is not recognized as a terrorist group by the United States and is so far not connected to any acts of violence. But Kyrgyz security officials warn that it has become a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaida and its allies, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, although they often fail to provide hard evidence proving such ties.
Officials "forecast possible activation of coordinated efforts not only in propaganda, but also in terrorist attacks" between Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other groups, Kyrgyz Justice Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov has said.
Afraid of extremism, leaders across the region have cracked down on independent Muslims who choose to worship outside state-run mosques. The campaign has been harshest in neighboring Uzbekistan - where human rights groups say at least 6,500 prisoners are being held for their religious beliefs, about half of them members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
The increased U.S. presence in Central Asia - since troops arrived in the region to carry out operations in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks - also means Washington is seen as supporting the authoritarian policies, despite the often-quiet diplomacy of U.S. diplomats against offenses to religious freedom.
Illegal pamphlets circulated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir regularly condemn the U.S. presence here, along with the war in Iraq.
In a report on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group think tank urged the United States and other western countries to avoid closer association with Central Asian leaders and push openly for human rights reforms.
"All the countries of the region are prone to use the 'Islamic threat' as a justification for overgrown security forces, lack of democracy and restrictions on freedom of expression," the group wrote in a June report. "Too often Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a useful excuse to avoid challenging the status quo. Too often Western governments, caught up in a global 'war on terror' take such an excuse at face value."
It's easy to see what Central Asian leaders are worried about at a lunch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members celebrating a baby's birth in the Kyrgyz border town of Kara-Suu. Criticism of the region's leaders here and conspiracy theories, along with anti-Semitic and homophobic invectives, flow as readily as the green tea.
Presidents in the region are "puppets of America and Russia," says one man. Another says globalization is preventing Central Asia from building up its own industry, leaving people still picking cotton as they did under their Soviet masters. Others ask why the United States took down Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein while allying itself with authoritarian presidents here.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir was founded in the 1950s in the Middle East and calls for an Islamic caliphate, or state, to be set up across Central Asia. It claims to eschew violence, setting it apart from other groups to which governments allege it is linked.
Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has found fertile ground for expansion in the Muslim countries of Central Asia, capitalizing on the discontent of many in their newly independent countries. Across the region, poverty and unemployment are common, while social benefits have deteriorated or disappeared.
The number of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in the two southern Kyrgyz regions where the group is most active rose from 1,393 to 1,598 since last year, according to police figures obtained by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The group is also believed to be spreading to the north beyond its traditional base in the conservative Fergana Valley, and is also active in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In Kara-Suu, Hizb-ut-Tahrir member Jumabayev said he doesn't disagree with the IMU terror group or even al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden: "He is certainly my brother. Saddam Hussein is also my brother. No matter whether he is Arab, Kurd, Turk or Palestinian, he is also Muslim," he said.
Still, Jumabayev firmly disavowed violence, which he called a "sin." "It's easy to kill," he said, recalling his time in the Soviet army when he was sent off to Azerbaijan where soldiers violently quelled mass protests in the late 1980s amid the Soviet collapse.
A trader and tailor, Jumabayev joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir three years ago because it "explained the meaning of life." He now said he pays one-tenth of his income for membership and belongs to a five-person cell.
Jumabayev said they don't have to look hard for new members: The government condemnations draw people's natural curiosity. Although Jumabayev said upper leaders denied him permission to speak to an American reporter because he was the "enemy," Jumabayev spoke freely and said he wasn't afraid of retribution for his beliefs - even claiming to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice.
"My daughter asks me when I will enter heaven and my son asks when I will become a martyr," he said.
By Burt Herman,
Associated Press, December 15, 2003