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OSH, southern Kyrgyzstan, and the FERGANA VALLEY, Uzbekistan – A constant smirk is imprinted on his face. In his black-padded traditional Uzbek cloak, black boots, white skullcap and sporting an incipient beard, Alisher (not his real name), a young man in his mid-20s, is either despondent, extremely self-assured, or both. He is not rural madrassa fodder: he is college-educated, and had no need for a religious school education. But he is unemployed nevertheless. In many ways, just by the power of his faith, he is more lethal than a suicide bomber. Alisher is a member of the Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT). From the point of view of a repressive Central Asian regime like Uzbekistan’s, he is a terrorist. If that is the case, he is the model of the terrorist of the future.
After a tortuous negotiation via a Kyrgyz interpreter, Alisher agrees to speak to Asia Times Online about the HUT at a chaykhana (tea house) in the middle of Osh’s legendary Jayma bazaar – bursting with Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajiks buying and selling everything under the sun, or snow. A melancholic loudspeaker voice details lottery results and the litany of departures to surrounding villages – rickety 18-seat minibuses filled with as many as 40 people loaded with merchandise. From a cassette stall the guitar sounds of Cholbolday Alibaev evoke a direct link between Genghis Khan and Mississippi delta blues.
Osh may have been founded – according to a number of legends – by Salomon or Alexander the Great, and it may be “older than Rome,” as anyone in the Jayma bazaar will certify. The Askar Akayev government in Kyrgyzstan decided in 2000 that Osh would be celebrating its 3,000th anniversary. But with winter fast approaching and drizzle and snow falling almost every day, Osh can be a pretty grim place. Not only merchants congregate in the bazaar, but a cast of desperate characters selling the usual broken dolls and cheap socks – peasants who have come to the city dreaming of paradise.
The streets are totally dark at night, the pavement is crumbling, there’s not much else apart from a kiosk economy and no evidence of a central state’s presence. Roughly half of Osh’s population is Uzbek – with no political representation whatsoever in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Their eyes are focused on Uzbekistan and the adjacent, fertile Fergana Valley. But Osh is cut off from the valley by Joseph Stalin’s demented geography; and the absurd border, less than half an hour away, has been further solidified by the hardline Uzbek regime of President Islam Karimov.
Most HUT members, like Alisher, are ethnic Uzbeks, living in the country itself or in neighboring Central Asian republics. Karimov simply does not tolerate what he views as radical Islam. His war against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – affiliated with the Taliban – has been merciless, and vice-versa. Thousands of HUT militants now languish in Uzbek jails – the HUT claims there are more than 100,000 – as well as in other parts of Central Asia.
The HUT is not the same thing as the IMU. IMU supporters are basically impoverished farmers living in the Fergana Valley – in Uzbekistan a densely-populated area including the cities of Namangan, Andijan, Kokand and Fergana. The HUT appeals to what passes as the urban intelligentsia in Central Asia: students who have finished college and who are unable to find a decent job.
The HUT – whose underground headquarters is now probably in Jordan – has defined itself in a communique on its website as “a political party that does not undertake material actions”. It has been branded as an illegal Islamic movement all over Central Asia. As configured by Alisher, it is above all a giant proselytizing machine that has not resorted to guerrilla warfare – at least not yet. Inside Kyrgyzstan, the movement has been blamed for two recent bombings, on a market in Bishkek and an exchange office in Osh. But no evidence has been produced.
The HUT is essentially a pan-Islamic secret society, founded in 1953 in Saudi Arabia and Jordan by a Palestinian from the diaspora, Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, who studied in the famous al-Azhar University in Cairo. Sheikh an-Nabhani’s writings remain very influential: they are the letter of the law as far as HUT is concerned. The sheikh hates “depraved democracies” imposed by the West on Muslim nations and advocates “a single state over the entire Muslim world”. He skillfully links Islam’s great expansion through jihad in the 7th century with a possible new wave of expansion in the 21st century now that Muslims are under “torture, internal and external propaganda and sanctions” – the actual state of things in Central Asia. He clearly equates Islam with a permanent, global revolution: Leon Trotsky meets the holy Koran. Alisher stresses “it will be a peaceful revolution that will make the regimes in Central Asia crumble.”
In an analysis that could have been penned by Vladimir Lenin or Trotsky, Alisher says that people in all Central Asian former Soviet republics are politically ripe to rise against their unjust rulers. In the first phase, the Central Asian republics plus Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang province would be united in a caliphate: then the caliphate – similar to the one which ruled Arabia between 632 (when the Prophet Mohammed died) until 661 – will take over the rest of the world.
Imagine a world where “pagan sects” like Buddhism and Hinduism are banned, along with Islamic “sects” such as Shi’ism and Ismailism. A world where only Islam, Judaism and Christianity – “peoples of the Book” – are allowed to practice their faith. A world where all religious matters are regulated by Sharia (Islamic ) law, according to the Sunni hanafi interpretation. A world where all non-Muslim nations face a stark choice: either they join a worldwide caliphate or they pay a tax. And failure to pay the tax entails a military attack by the caliphate. This is the world envisaged by HUT.
Forget about democracy – as well as capitalism, socialism or nationalism, all of them “depraved Western notions.” Democracy as practiced in the European Union is considered “a farce.” The US, the United Kingdom and Israel are “the work of the devil” – although they would be given the option of joining the caliphate. Forget about cinema, music, modern art, rap videos, fast food and Internet chat rooms. As for Jews, they will be invited to leave “because they do not belong in Central Asia.”
Central Asia’s collective unconscious might feel at ease with the new political state of things, where a caliph elected by a shura (Islamic council) would be a sort of Genghis Khan controlling the whole political system, the army, the economy and foreign policy. The only problem is that Arabic would be the language of the state: practically no one speaks Arabic in Central Asia. The amir of jihad – the equivalent of a minister of defense – would be in charge of jihad against the recalcitrant infidel world. In this Sharia-induced paradise, women would be permanently veiled outside their homes, and Christians and Jews would be able to drink alcohol “only inside their own communities.”
As it’s not the same thing as the IMU, the HUT is also far from being the same thing as al-Qaeda. Essentially, the HUT wants to follow the peaceful way to Sharia, while the al-Qaeda virus has mutated into a total war against the West. A very interesting point is that the HUT in its early stages was very close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was historically the first group to devise a strategy of Islamic struggle against Western colonialism, and has always been in favor of the formation of modern Islamic states. The Jamiat-i-Islami in Pakistan, as well as the late anti-Taliban Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, and former Afghan prime minister and current American nemesis Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan have also shared the Muslim Brotherhood’s philosophy.
It’s fair to say though that the HUT is not so far apart from the Wahhabi worldview of al-Qaeda. And as far as Karimov’s repressive police apparatus in Uzbekistan is concerned, the HUT and the IMU are definitely the same thing: “Bandits” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s terminology, “thugs” in President George W. Bush’s terminology. Karimov may be fighting a movement whose platform is not even relevant to the harsh daily lives of most people in Uzbekistan, not to mention Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But the HUT is tremendously popular, not only in Central Asia but also in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and the Maghreb. The HUT is now active in at least 40 countries around the world.
Alisher makes the point that the HUT is also anti-Shi’ite: like Jews, all Shi’ites living in Central Asia – substantial communities in southern Uzbekistan and eastern Tajikistan – would also have to leave. Bukhara and Samarkand, the great, mythical Silk Road cities, have a a strong Shi’ite minority. This HUT notion totally clashes with the history of tolerance of Islam in Central Asia. Sufism – the tolerant Islamic mysticism – was born in Central Asia and Persia after the Arab invasions.
Salomon’s throne, the “stone tower” looming over Osh which has always greeted voyagers on the Silk Road, is the second most important pilgrimage site in Central Asia because the Prophet Mohammed may have prayed there. The most important pilgrimage site is the tomb of Sufi mystic and saint Bahauddin Naqshbandi, outside Bukhara. HUT’s intolerance proves how its ideology is an Arabian import that does not even bother to connect the Middle East with the real problems of Central Asia. Any conversation in the Jayma bazaar in Osh reveals that for anyone the real issues are not Sunni or Shi’ite, but unemployment, inflation and lack of education.
While southern Kyrgyzstan is being Islamicized, northern Kyrgyzstan is being slowly Christianized. This nationwide split in the long run is working towards the HUT’s aims. Christians represent at least 17 percent of the whole Kyrgyz population of almost 5 million. Russian Orthodox followers are building churches everywhere. Christian evangelists are very active – profiting from Akayev’s drive to halt the exodus of skilled Russians. The HUT views this situation as a total disgrace.
Alisher is mum about the HUT leadership. They may have been leading the movement from “Londonistan” – but as European intelligence sources told Asia Times Online a few months ago, Londonistan has been effectively neutralized by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, via a couple of media-frenzy-inducing arrests.
Alisher confirms that the HUT usually operates invisible five-man daira (cells, or circles) in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uzbek secret police may have arrested hundreds of cell members, but no leaders so far. The HUT leadership remains essentially invisible: no photos, no records, no addresses, just avalanches of books, pamphlets and leaflets translated from Arabic to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Dari and Russian and churned out by a network of underground desktop publishing presses all over Central Asia. There are also posters and shabnamas – night letters – surreptitiously appearing in the morning under people’s doors.
Although the HUT only started infiltrating Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s, via a solitary Jordanian in Tashkent, Alisher swears the HUT has spread like wildfire, or a virus, in the Kyrgyz and Tajik parts of the Fergana Valley. There may be hundreds of thousands of members in Uzbekistan alone. The popularity of HUT in Kyrgyzstan is attributed by Alisher to a mix of poverty, official corruption and the central government in Bishkek totally ignoring the problems of the region.
Like al-Qaeda, the HUT massively uses the Internet and digital technology to propagate its own version of globalization: not neo-liberalism, but the one-system, worldwide Sharia-law government. Urbanized Uzbeks in the capital Tashkent say that the model may be the Ottoman Empire – something that pan-Turkic Uzbeks can easily relate to as many eyes and minds follow closely what happens in Istanbul and Ankara. Alisher, though, is vague on the economic and social policies of this one-global-state caliphate.
Alisher vehemently denies the HUT is affiliated in any way with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or the IMU. But undeniably Osama bin Laden is a very popular figure in the Fergana Valley “because he supports all Islamic movements in Central Asia.” Alisher, though, reflects what may be the official HUT position – accusing bin Laden of launching the jihad against the West too early and so exposing militants of all shades and colors to relentless Western repression.
The key to the future is what will happen in the Fergana Valley – which is in fact an enormous oasis, less than 300 kilometers long, with the best soil and climate anywhere in Central Asia, as the Greeks and the Persians well knew more than two millennia ago. The valley is the center of silk production in Central Asia. The root of the modern problem is how the Soviet Union imposed on the valley a monoculture of cotton: the Fergana is still an endless succession of cotton fields fringed by mulberry trees and orchards and scattered villages. Agro-industrial collectives are still the norm. The eastern side of the valley – around Namangan and Andijan in Uzbekistan and Osh and Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan – is ultra-conservative. Andijan, on top of it, is the center of Uzbekistan’s oil production. Karimov does everything he can to make life in the valley more difficult: Osh is only a two-hour bus drive away from Fergana, but there’s a nasty border between them and no direct bus connection.
Innumerable proposals for the development of the Fergana Valley – for example by the United Nations Development Program or the Soros Foundation – have stressed the same point: this is an integrated area, a single valley where more than 10 million people live and interact, not three regions from three different states. There’s no way the whole agricultural and industrial infrastructure of the valley can be modernized with a bunker mentality. And the stalemate is all due to Karimov. The UN, the Soros Foundation, the Aga Khan Foundation, the non-government organization Acted, have all been prevented by Tashkent from investing in projects that would benefit the valley as a whole. They can set up specific projects in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, but not in Uzbekistan. Karimov’s line is that nothing’s wrong economically in the Fergana.
The HUT – as well as the IMU – view the valley as an organic whole. And both movements trust that widespread economic hardship will lead to Karimov’s downfall. Radicalization is inevitable. For Russia HUT is a terrorist group. In Germany it has been outlawed, because of its notorious anti-Semitic views. In Kyrgyzstan the Ulema Council has approved what amounts to de facto censorship of religious literature: the Kyrgyz security service, working alongside the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims, is printing its own literature denouncing the HUT as “extremists.” As the foremost American client in Central Asia, Karimov is playing the usual game: the HUT is equated with al-Qaeda, and this justifies the regime’s brutal repression.
The HUT faithful are not suicide bombers. They are smiling idealists like Alisher. In their peaceful jihad, a war of conversion towards an idealized world free of all mundane problems, they are willing to wait a thousand years to annex the West to a caliphate. But recent pamphlets confiscated in Tajikistan already detect a change of tone. Apart from declaring the US a global threat that can only be cured by the caliphate, they are more viscerally anti-American, and calling for a jihad against the West.
There’s no political life to speak of in Central Asia, and for the absolute majority of its population the economic future is also bleak. HUT members know time is on their side. It would be Washington’s neo-conservative wishful thinking to assume that to condition military cooperation with Central Asian regimes to more transparency, less corruption and the rule of law would make these regimes more pliable. With internal repression still at its peak, sooner or later the peaceful jihadis may exchange the pamphlet for the bomb.