Uzbekistan (AP) — Abdullah Modmarov was in the middle of a soccer game when Uzbek police waving their rifles hauled him off the field and arrested the 33-year-old on charges of belonging to an outlawed radical Islamic party.
The crackdown on Hizb ut-Tahrir — or Party of Liberation — has swept through cities and villages across this former Soviet republic, filling prison cells with thousands of observant Muslims or political dissidents imprisoned under the guise of religious extremism. Some belong to the party. Many such as Modmarov say they do not.
Either way, the ban on the group that authorities see as a “farm team” for terrorist organizations like al-Qaida hasn’t stopped its expansion across volatile Central Asia, where it wants to overthrow secular governments and replace them by Islamic rule, but through nonviolent means. It is not on the U.S. list of terrorist organization because it eschews violence.
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Yet Hizb ut-Tahrir followers as well as the group’s opponents, who were interviewed by The Associated Press in four Central Asian states, say the authorities’ heavy-handed approach to quash the movement has actually fueled membership in the group — and accelerated a leap by many to embrace other Islamic groups that are even more militant than Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Ibrahim Mirzajanov, a 21-year-old Uzbek who has spent more than three years in jail for religious activity, said he knows Muslims who used to promote the goal of an Islamic state through nonviolent means when they were with Hizb ut-Tahrir, but now have grown angry.
“The more there has been a crackdown, (the more) they have joined more violent militant groups because they want things to happen faster,” Mirzajanov told AP. “They are fed up with Hizb ut-Tahrir because they say they have not been able to change anything.”
Mirzajanov says he studied literature distributed by Hizb ut-Tahrir but never joined the movement.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in 1953 in Jordan by Sheik Takuddin an-Nabahani shares the goal of creating a huge Islamic state with groups that are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida.
Hizb ut-Tahrir sometimes meets with leaders of these groups, but the organization’s London-based spokesman, Dr. Imran Waheed, insisted, “We only talk and meet to try to convince them to our way of bringing about change, which is a nonviolent one.”
“I believe that 99 percent of Muslim people anywhere in the world want the same thing, a caliphate to rule them,” Waheed told AP in a telephone interview, adding that Central Asia is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has been outlawed in all five newly independent Central Asian nations: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
But there’s plenty of fertile ground for extremism: corrupt authoritarian regimes rule over bankrupt economies; legions of disillusioned youths are unemployed; and ruined social systems are bereft of basic health and education services once provided by the former Soviet Union.
Hence the openness to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which does not advocate violence but distributes inflammatory and increasingly anti-Semitic literature — seeding the ground for even more radical groups.
A senior Western diplomat in Tajikistan, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, likened the group to a “farm team” for other terrorist groups. Some Hizb ut-Tahrir members who are disgruntled “could take it that next step and engage in violence,” the diplomat said, voicing worries of authorities in the region.
Alisher Khamidov, of the Brookings Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World, agreed. He said that “increasing suppression by secular authorities, as well as differences between competing factions within the party, indicate that the group could turn violent.” He also said it could be “a breeding ground and support structure” for now violent groups.
Some senior al-Qaida men are former Hizb ut-Tahrir members, according to terrorism experts. Rohan Gunaratna, an associate professor at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Iraq’s most wanted terrorist, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Waheed, the London-based spokesman, disputed that, saying he had no evidence to link either man to his organization, although he couldn’t say with certainty they had never been members.
Al-Zarqawi supposedly took 200 people, some of whom were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, when he moved to Iraq from Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S.-led coalition’s assault on the Taliban and the al-Qaida network there, Gunaratna said. This provides “but one example of the radicalization of Hizb ut-Tahrir contributing to the growth of these other dangerous groups,” he said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir organizers made their initial forays into predominantly Muslim Central Asia in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Its promise of a region without borders, ruled by a single Islamic body, grew in popularity as economies slumped, unemployment soared and friction between countries caused borders to be sealed for the first time in 70 years, disrupting trade and firing resentment and ethnic divisions.
Gauging the membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia is difficult because the organization has gone underground to avoid government attacks. Some experts put it as high as 40,000. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group estimated its strength in 2003 at probably 15,000 to 20,000.
Central Asian governments have further muddied the picture with inflated numbers, by accusing opponents and political dissidents of being Hizb ut-Tahrir members to silence them. In Uzbekistan, for example, where human rights workers estimate at least 6,000 people are in jail for religiously motivated crimes, policemen knock on dissidents’ doors and order them to confess to being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, witnesses have told AP.
Ahmed Modmarov, a human rights worker and the soccer player Abdullah’s father, accuse Central Asian governments of keeping the threat of religious extremism alive to get money and aid from the United States — which established military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan after the Sept. 11 attacks to provide logistical assistance to troops in Afghanistan.
Modmarov said his son had dipped his toe into Hizb-ut-Tahrir but was persuaded to leave the group. Still, he was arrested and two of his younger brothers also were thrown into prison just for being related to Abdullah, the father said.
Before emerging from the shadows to be interviewed, Dilyor Dzhumabayev, a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan, sent out two men as apparent decoys to flush out any police or local intelligence agents who might be lurking nearby.
Dzhumabayev said fresh recruits were quietly and steadily joining the organization.
“The government has banned us because it is afraid. We are not fighting with violence but with our faith, and we will see that this government goes,” Dzhumabayev said in March in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, where Hizb ut-Tahrir is the strongest and where anti-government demonstrations that month led to the ouster of President Askar Akayev.
In a telephone interview from London, Waheed told AP that Hizb ut-Tahrir had nothing to do with the protests in Kyrgyzstan, which he alleged were orchestrated by the United States to install a pro-American government.
Yet Hizb ut-Tahrir has shown its political muscle in southern Kyrgyzstan, where in November it gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition demanding state-funded Islamic schools, segregation of the sexes in schools, a crackdown on pornography and heavy prison terms for those selling pornographic materials. It has won over parliament members who are trying to change legislation that forbids women from wearing head scarves in photographs used on official documents.
Khamidov, at Brookings, said it is in Washington’s interest to figure out how to deal with Hizb ut-Tahrir.
“The manner in which the party can be induced to move from religiously inspired extremist protests to engagement in mainstream political life in Central Asia may provide key lessons for crafting a well-informed policy toward similar Muslim movements elsewhere in the world,” he said.