Without doubt, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) is one of the most powerful organizations operating in Central Asia. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) is banned in nearly all Central Asian republics, but despite repressive measures undertaken against the party by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the underground organization’s efforts appear to continue. This article will examine the threat that HuT poses to stability in the region. Because this organization is widely prohibited, the author has not disclosed the names of some of those interviewed nor the names of party members from the region.
Hizb ut-Tahrir was established in 1953 in Palestine by a well-known religious figure, the judge of the appellate Shari’a court in Jerusalem, Takieddin al-Nabahani al-Falastini (1909-1979). Since its inception, the organization has denounced armed struggle and operates primarily through the distribution of literature. The party’s stated aim is to unify Muslims worldwide under a single Caliphate. Its leadership believes that there is no truly Islamic state in the world today. HuT considers Western-style democracy to be unacceptable for Muslims; according to the party’s theoreticians, the life of Muslims should be regulated only by Shari’a law. Countries such as the United States, Israel, and Great Britain are declared to be the creations of Shaitan (Satan).
HuT urges the creation of an Islamic state in its ideal form–as it was during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, at the grand people’s assembly. Today, however, given the sheer number of Muslims in the world, HuT thinkers admit that such an approach “would have turned into a farce.” Instead, they say, the decision regarding the creation of an Islamic state should be adopted by those wielding the most influence, such as prominent politicians and businessmen. In its ideal form, the Caliphate should unite all countries of the world. However, the non-Muslim countries (for instance, the United States or Great Britain) can opt not to join the Caliphate on the condition that they pay jizya, a tax to the Caliphate for their protection.
If the non-Muslim countries refuse to pay the tax, then the Caliphate is entitled to take military action against them. In the Caliphate itself, Christian as well as Jewish communities would be allowed freedom of worship. This is explained by the fact that, according to the Qur’an, the adherents of those religions are considered the “people of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab). Other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Krishnaism, would be equated with paganism and thus prohibited. The leaders of the Caliphate would be especially harsh toward such sects within Islam itself as Ahmadiya, Baha’i and Ismaili. HuT believes that the adherents of only the four Sunni madhahib (schools of Islamic jurisprudence) are legitimate; the rest would be considered renegades of the faith and executed in accordance with the Islamic laws.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is essentially prohibited in all Muslim countries. Long years of underground existence have instilled in its adherents intense discipline: The organization’s members are divided into cells of five, and members from different groups often do not know each other. Initially, the core of the party consisted of members of the Palestinian branch of another famous religious-political organization–Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood). After the death of Takieddin al-Nabahani al-Falastini in December of 1979, the amir (leader) of the party became Abd al-Qadim Zallum. He was born in 1925 in the Palestinian town of al-Halil and is currently residing in Jordan. It was under his initiative that the party extended its activities to the former Soviet Republics, and especially to the Muslim states of Central Asia. Because Hizb ut-Tahrir cannot operate openly in the Muslim world, its official ideological center is located in London, where the organization’s website (www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org) is maintained as well.
CHANGING PARTY GOALS?
At present, HuT’s primary party activity in Central Asia appears to involve the production and distribution of publications. These publications consistently contain the conclusion that the Umma (The Muslim Community) should live under a unified Caliphate in accordance with Shari’a. In much HuT literature, one also finds explicitly anti-Semitic expressions. For instance, in one publication Uzbek President Islam Karimov is described as “Shaitan and a Jew, who with his whole body and soul hates Islam, and is hostile to the Qur’an and Muhammad.” In a pamphlet dedicated to the Palestinian movement there appears the statement that the Jews were “the people damned by God.” It is noteworthy that, in a conversation with this author, one of the Uzbek members of Hizb ut-Tahrir complained in all seriousness that Hitler had failed to eliminate all the Jews and that “this people damned by God still causes problems for Muslims.”
According to its official doctrine, Hizb ut-Tahrir denounces violent forms of struggle. There is some doubt, however, as to whether HuT will continue to adhere to this principle in the wake of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The party’s post-9/11 proclamations call upon Muslims to wage war against the “occupiers” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nevertheless, some Central Asian Hizb ut-Tahrir members told this author that: “We approve of Muslims who are fighting with guns in their hands against the American aggressors in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, according to our charter, we have to be engaged only in educational activities. This is why the members of our organization cannot participate in military operations. We and the Mujahideen who are fighting the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq have different tasks even though we are striving towards the same goal.”
It should be noted that in certain instances Hizb ut-Tahrir has clearly denounced violence against the state. Thus, the organization condemned the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)–an organization labeled a terrorist entity by the U.S. State Department–that is engaged in armed struggle against the government of Uzbekistan. HuT considers IMU members to be sinful for killing Uzbek Muslim soldiers.
More recently, U.S. military actions in Iraq seem to have divided Hizb ut-Tahrir members. An article posted on the website of the Kyrgyz newspaper Vecherny Bishkek claimed that the military occupation of Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces had sharpened discussions on tactical issues carried out within Hizb ut-Tahrir.  The article noted in particular that the “operation of the United States and its allies stirred up heated debate in all cells of the prohibited underground party of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and [that] calls for more active and radical action were voiced more frequently.” Although evidence of ideological shifts within the organization remains fragmentary, reports indicate that HuT’s leadership is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with “nonviolent” tactics.
According to observers, the issue of armed resistance as a legitimate means of struggle may lead to the formation of factions within Hizb ut-Tahrir out of which new terrorist groups similar to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan could emerge.
Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir exhibit a great degree of coordination in their actions throughout all the Central Asian republics. In September of 2003, for example, HuT organized demonstrations across the region to protest the torture of Muslim prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan. One member interviewed by the author said that “strict discipline is one of the characteristics of our organization, we do not like independent actions and instead prefer to follow clear instructions, which we receive from abroad. In charge of each republic is a na’ib, who controls amirs, who are in turn responsible for provinces. Such a hierarchical system extends all the way to the bottom cell, which is comprised of five people.”
Other interviewees indicated that, initially, Central Asia as a whole was targeted by Hizb ut-Tahrir ideologues. But because state policy toward HuT differs in the various Central Asian countries, each country was distinguished several years ago as a separate territorial unit. Meanwhile, Central Asian authorities say that Hizb ut-Tahrir members receive not only instructions but also substantial financial support from abroad. The deputy head of police for Kyrgyzstan’s Osh oblast, Erkin Ersenaliev, made the claim to this author that: “Usually the Central Asian coordinators of Hizb ut-Tahrir receive money when they travel to Mecca on their Hajj pilgrimage. We know about this but we cannot do much about it.”
Although the governments in all the Central Asian republics are combating Hizb ut-Tahrir, their policies toward the party differ significantly. A more liberal approach is evident in Kyrgyzstan, and even more liberal in Kazakhstan, which is the only Central Asian state in which this party is not officially banned. However, there have been cases even in these two countries in which HuT members have been accused of fomenting inter-ethnic tension. The Uzbek authorities, meanwhile, have established the harshest policy toward the party. If, for example, an individual in Uzbekistan is found to be concealing a HuT publication, he or she is sentenced to a minimum of ten years imprisonment.
According to assessments made by various international human rights organizations, there are about 7,000 political prisoners being held in Uzbekistan, approximately 5,000 of whom are accused of being HuT members. However, whether policies such as those pursued by Tashkent can bring about a desired result is a matter of serious doubt. As Dilmurat Orozov, the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Jalalabad oblast (in southern Kyrgyzstan), told Jamestown: “In the East there is a good saying: A knife is sharpened against a stone, not a melon. The same applies to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Because of the repressive measures of the Uzbek authorities, the local Hizb ut-Tahrir members became real fanatics, who would much rather die than denounce their views.”
1. “Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Internal Split in Central Asia,” Alisher Khamidov, Eurasianet.org, October 21, 2003.