On July 2 two members of the Islamic extremist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation) were given two-year prison terms by authorities in Pavlodar, Northern Kazakhstan. Security forces had detained Arman Hamzin (age 29) and Ruslan Ghinatulin (22) two months ago for distributing Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets and unsanctioned religious literature among the Muslims at the Mashkur Jusup mosque. The official report charged the two with instigating inter-ethnic and inter-religious animosity and calling for a caliphate in Central Asia, which would jeopardize the independence of the Central Asian states (Khabar TV, July 2). This is not the first trial involving Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists, who have been trying to win the hearts and minds of pious Muslims in South Kazakhstan since the Islamists made their incursion into Batken region of Kyrgyzstan some years ago.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, hitherto unknown in Kazakhstan, first made its presence known in autumn 2000 during the celebrations commemorating the ancient city of Turkestan in South Kazakhstan. At that time four Hizb-ut-Tahrir militants were detained, and officials confiscated leaflets and a large quantity of munitions. The seized pamphlets and videocassettes contained information directed against Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov. That discovery suggested that Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaders in Kazakhstan had links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But in subsequent years, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee found nothing to confirm any connection between Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU. Moreover, Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaders issued statements condemning the military methods the IMU employed against the Karimov regime.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir has stepped up its activities since members were arrested in the cities of Turkestan and Kentau in 2000. In November 2001 police in Almaty seized pamphlets printed in Russian and warning Central Asian states against joining the United States in its war on terrorism. Initially based in Southern Kazakhstan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaders have not been intimidated by the prosecutions and crackdowns and seem determined to spread their activities northward. Early in 2004 many residents of Pavlodar opened their mailboxes to find Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets condemning the U.S. “militaristic policy” in Central Asia and Iraq. The message ended with a call to establish a caliphate and punish the “infidels.”
Kazakhstan’s government has long refused to recognize the potential threat of religious extremism, instead pointing out that Christianity and Islam had coexisted peacefully in the region for centuries. The government did not rush to send troops to Kyrgyzstan when Islamists infiltrated the Batken region, practically on the doorstep of Kazakhstan. When IMU militants threatened to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan, Astana distanced itself from Tashkent, saying the IMU was a domestic problem. But Kazakhstan’s decision to dispatch a peacekeeping battalion to Iraq — a shortsighted step, according to some analysts — may kindle an incipient Islamic extremism and force Kazakhstan to address the issue. The defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and recent setbacks for the IMU have generated a stream of refugees that may be infiltrated by Islamic militants. While political observers think there are few Wahhabis among the refugees, these few are skilled in propaganda work and can create small, effective military formations (Sayasat, #10, 2003). Even top military officers admit that Kazakhstan’s army is ill prepared to face combat-hardened extremists.
Kazakhstan also has non-military options to prevent the extremist attacks that have rocked Tashkent. Above all, the government must close the loopholes in its Law on Religious Freedom and Religious Associations, adopted in 1992. Article 13 of the law grants religious associations the rights to print, distribute, and import religious literature, a provision often abused by extremist religious organizations (Sayasat, #10, 2003).
Complicating the situation, Islamist fundamentalists have profited the most from Kazakhstan’s professed religious freedom. They can teach a militant form of Islam in private mosques without being bothered by the authorities. In 2000, when the Third Congress of Muslims of Kazakhstan was held in Almaty, Kazakhstan had 1,402 mosques, and only 284 of them were under the control of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SBMK). Their number is growing with amazing speed. Over the last four years, 1,014 additional mosques were registered with the SBMK, but many more are not registered. In South Kazakhstan, where Islamic fundamentalists are most active, there are 103 unregistered mosques, and nobody seems to know what form of Islam is taught in these mosques. Many mosques, particularly in impoverished villages, are often unable to register due to high registration fees.
Most alarming to the authorities, the owners of private mosques tend to segregate believers according to their clans, which contradicts the teachings of Islam. Often the owner allows only members of his own clan to pray in the mosque. Members of the SBMK worry that this practice endangers the ethnic unity of Kazakhs (Turkistan, June 10, 2004).