New bombings at the gates of the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent on July 30, and an apparently-aborted political trial in the capital of Uzbekistan, have drawn renewed attention to the specter of Islamist extremism in Central Asia. Three Uzbek citizens were killed in the embassy attacks, which like the terrorist incidents in March, seemed to have been the work of freelance, amateur jihadists.
On August 2, a Tashkent judge abruptly suspended the trial of 15 people allegedly responsible for the March events. The proceeding had already featured a series of confessions in which the accused, including two women, described a terrorist network called Jama’at, or Assembly, with purported links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an alleged ally of al-Qaeda, and to the Pan-Islamic party, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).
As in past cases, representatives of HT denied and ridiculed the charges, arguing that they do not engage in political violence, but intend only to instruct and convince Muslims of the need to establish a Khilafah or Caliphate in Central Asia and beyond. At the same time, however, HT propaganda calls for the removal of the existing governments in the region and expulsion of local Jewish communities. In Uzbekistan, on which it concentrates most of its polemical fire, HT accuses the country’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, of being a Jew.
Karimov has also tentatively blamed HT for the July 30 bombings, and Tashkent authorities have reportedly arrested up to 85 more people in their aftermath. That approach was confirmed when Karimov claimed on Uzbek television, “The same group carried out the March explosions as yesterday’s [July 30] explosions and they base their ideas on Hizb ut-Tahrir’s teaching … Hizb ut-Tahrir made the biggest contribution to that terror.”
Just before the opening of the Tashkent trial the Uzbek regime communicated to Western sources that it intended to prove a case against HT, although the investigation was incomplete.
While the trial of the 15 was in progress, however, Uzbekistan’s giant neighbor, Kazakhstan, was shocked by testimony claiming that several of the defendants had received military training at a terrorist camp on Kazakh soil. Kazakh officials and publicists first denied the possibility of such a camp’s existence on their territory, despite Kazakhstan being a vast country with a population of only 15 million people. Some accused the Uzbeks of aggravating fear of Islamic extremism in the region and of suggesting that the regime of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev cannot maintain security within its borders.
Certain defendants apparently had spent time in the Shimkent region of Kazakhstan, which has a considerable Uzbek community. Kazakh officials then said they had not found any terrorists operating in the southern region of their country, but cannot deny the possibility that some might have slipped over the porous border, especially given the predominance of Uzbeks on both sides of the frontier.
In a visit to Kazakhstan at the end of June, the author discussed HT and related issues with Kazakh officials and experts. An encounter with Dr. Emmanuel Karagiannis, assistant professor in the department of political science at the state-sponsored Kazakh Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research in Almaty, focused exclusively on HT, on which Karagiannis has conducted extensive research. He argued that HT in Central Asia is essentially an Uzbek phenomenon, particularly in southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which have significant Uzbek minorities, as well as in Uzbekistan itself.
Unlike most foreign observers of HT, who concentrate on its appeal to the economically disadvantaged Muslim masses in former Soviet countries, Karagiannis detected a pronounced ethnic element in its agitation. “Uzbeks outside Uzbekistan feel they are victims of discrimination,” he said. “For Uzbeks outside Uzbekistan, HT and the Wahhabi movement are expressions of Uzbek identity.”
The so-called “Uzbek” characteristics of HT activities were tentatively expressed in an interview the author conducted at the end of 2003, in the Ferghana Valley town of Margilon with Saidakbar Oppokhodjayev, aged 35, a former HT cadre who had defected from the group and accepted an amnesty from the Karimov government.
Oppokhodjayev fit the classic HT profile: an intense “seeker” who joined the group to gain a better education in Islam. He said he had been recruited to HT by an Uzbek who offered lessons in Islam; when the course of instruction turned to politics, it focused exclusively on Uzbekistan under Karimov, rather than a more general discussion of the Khilafah. Oppokhodjayev said all of the HT adherents in Margilon were Uzbeks, and that no Arabs had participated in the group.
The phenomenon of HT penetration of the Uzbek population in southern Kazakhstan was underscored by Dr. Dosym Satpayev, of the Assessment Risks Group, who has also worked as a correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Satpayev said that HT infiltration had been continuous over the past five years, aimed at Kazakhs as well as Uzbeks in the mixed border region.
Satpayev also made it clear that the same frontier is an attractive area for other Islamists, noting a recent case of Kazakh suppression of an alleged Muslim Brotherhood cell implanted in southern Kazakhstan.
In general terms, the most interesting aspect of HT is the marked resemblance between its vocabulary and argumentation and the rhetoric of Soviet Communism. It denounces capitalism in identical terms, and attacks the United States for hegemonism in the wake of the Soviet collapse, as if nostalgic for the former system. Its appeal in Central Asia could be reducible to a longing for the stable, universalist characteristics of the Khilafah replacing the chaos that followed the breakdown of the Soviet empire.
It is important to stress here that the history of HT in Uzbekistan and amongst Uzbeks in general must be separated from that of the IMU, a militant group allegedly aligned with al-Qaeda, if only because the IMU based its strategy against Uzbekistan on military action from outside the country, utilizing bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The IMU never carried out a sustained campaign inside Uzbek territory, and in the wake of the collapse of the Taliban its resurgence seems unlikely. Moreover, despite the relentless propaganda of the Uzbek government, there is no reliable evidence pointing towards any involvement of HT in terrorism and political violence whether in Uzbekistan or anywhere else in Central Asia.
When comparing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the greater susceptibility of the former to the appeal of HT, is mainly premised on economic issues, particularly to the slow transition of the Uzbek economy to capitalism. In contrast to Tashkent, and its sluggish economic life, the first thing that is noticeable in Almaty, is the lack of inflated currency, an unmistakable feature of a rise in prosperity and economic stability. Indeed post-Soviet Kazakhstan has succeeded, much more so than Uzbekistan, in setting up a market economy.
Another factor behind the rise of HT in Uzbekistan stemmed from the early, clumsy security measures adopted by the Karimov regime. By labeling any form of religiously-inspired dissent as “Wahhabism” the Uzbek regime may have inadvertently bolstered the position of HT and other radical Islamic organizations. This is because many religiously inspired activists flocked to radical organizations to better confront the Karimov regime. Moreover, by trying to co-opt strands of Sufi Islam into its state ideology the Karimov regime adopted a traditional (as opposed to radical and political) Islamic posture in an attempt to undercut the appeal of HT. Judging by the meteoric rise of HT in Uzbekistan, this policy has all but backfired.
This contrasts sharply to events in Kazakhstan where the government never attempted to fight the Islamists by adopting traditional Islamic positions. While Uzbekistan has spent large sums on the rehabilitation of Islamic architecture, including Sufi shrines, such efforts have a much lower priority in Kazakhstan, even though the country houses the Hojja Yasawi tomb complex, the most important Sufi site in Central Asia. One cannot help but surmise that the Karimov government in Tashkent seeks to establish a kind of “state Sufism” as a replacement for the state socialism that was the ideological underpinning for the Soviet order, and that Karimov’s rage at HT may be caused by resentment of a rival ideological claimant to the post-Communist succession.