Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 103

While international attention and, at times, media hype remain focused on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the secular order in Central Asia is being challenged on a far broader front if more quietly by the Islamic Party of Liberation (Hizb ut Tahrir). Their inherent differences are significant enough to impede cooperation, and perhaps to set the stage for future conflict between them over strategy and tactics, over alliances, and in the short term over support from local populations.

The IMU is an armed movement that proposes to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan by force. It is based outside the country and envisages a triumphant return in the future. Its leaders and original core, most of whom grew up in Soviet Uzbekistan, seem to follow a classical revolutionary-elitist strategy, adapted to the region’s conditions. They tend to cast themselves as a vanguard, with the mission of guiding Uzbekistan’s Muslim masses toward systemic change. As some IMU statements via the Iranian state radio suggest, IMU leaders visualize that change as a social explosion that would usher in an Islamist regime in Uzbekistan under their own political leadership.

IMU leaders seem to use Islam primarily for a way to gain acceptance with the populace and mobilize it against the secular elite, as well as to curry Iranian and possibly Taliban favor. Thus far, the IMU has not achieved significant military or political inroads inside Uzbekistan. Last year’s guerrilla operation briefly penetrated only a small, high-altitude, mainly ethnic Tajik-inhabited border area of Uzbekistan. Although it unsettled a nervous leadership in Tashkent, IMU’s operation proved a complete failure both militarily and politically. Last year’s campaign was almost certainly not the last word, but it did expose IMU’s persisting handicaps: It remains an expatriate movement, confined to a few sanctuaries and a narrow membership.

Hizb ut Tahrir, by contrast, seems to be rapidly gaining a popular following. It now operates far and wide in Central Asia. From its initial target area, southern Kyrgyzstan, this movement has recently spread into Tajikistan and has also begun infiltrating northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan. Although apparently unable to penetrate Uzbekistan, Hizb ut Tahrir draws its strength primarily from the ethnic Uzbek populations compactly inhabiting parts of neighboring countries.

The movement’s rapid spread seems attributable to a well-organized system of underground cells and to tactics designed to lower the risks of criminalization. Hizb ut Tahrir’s tactics are peaceful, mainly relying on man-to-man persuasion and recruitment and the dissemination of written propaganda. Police operations against Hizb ut Tahrir typically yield whole consignments of leaflets and brochures, some printed in the Arab Middle East, others produced or reproduced in the local underground. That literature includes explanations of the Sharia’h, instructions on observance of Islamic rites, calls for peaceful civil disobedience to “anti-Islamic” measures of the authorities, and a vague utopian vision of a universal caliphate that would include Central Asia.

In most places, Hizb ut Tahrir’s cells consist of a maximum of five members, with only the cell leader informed about and liaising with other cells. The militants’ main activity seems to be that of handing out literature and pasting leaflets on walls in public places. There is no indication of any paramilitary training of members.

Authorities throughout the region are concerned and, in some cases, alarmed by the growing size and scope of Hizb ut Tahrir. The police and the progovernment clergy cite many indicative trends. First, the movement is no longer confined to southern Kyrgyzstan, an area that remained a Muslim stronghold even under Soviet rule. Hizb ut Tahrir is now penetrating areas affected by Soviet secularization and therefore considered until recently immune to fundamentalist contamination.

Those areas include northern Kyrgyzstan and, especially, the Soghd Region (restored historic name of Leninabad Region), the largest and most urbanized in Tajikistan. The Islamic Rebirth Movement of Tajikistan–a moderate party–had never managed to penetrate Soghd during the recent years of civil war. Hizb ut Tahrir now seems to be preempting that Tajik party in Soghd. This year for the first time, Hizb ut Tahrir is propagandizing in the South Kazakhstan Region, that country’s southern salient, wedged between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Second, the propaganda of Hizb ut Tahrir is making greater use of video materials and is diversifying its language spread. The literature and audio and videocassettes are now being produced not only or mainly in Uzbek but also in the other regional languages and also in Arabic, and most recently even in Russian. Third, a few groups of Hizb ut Tahrir members and their relatives have recently picketed official buildings in southern Kyrgyzstan to protest against detention of members and confiscation of propaganda material by the police. Even a prison riot by detained members has been reported. Such open protests by Hizb ut Tahrir are unprecedented.

Hizb ut Tahrir’s origins and, apparently, its international centers are traceable mainly to Jordan and Arab countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The movement’s inroads into Central Asia do not seem to be supported from Iran, the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan or other regional countries (Roundup based on recent reporting by Kabar, Kyrgyz-Press, Res Publika, Vechernyi Bishkek, Dushanbe Radio, Hovar, Asia-Plus, Kazakh Commercial Television, Habar, Karavan and the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad); see also Prism, April 2001).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions