- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — While the United States was distracted with Afghanistan in 2002 and by Iraq this year, it has a keen interest in the political fate of a new strategic partner in Muslim Central Asia, the republic of Uzbekistan.

A large former Soviet air base there became a staging area for the U.S. attack on the Taliban regime early in 2002, and U.S. troops remain stationed there as others scour the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for a spider hole containing Osama bin Laden.

President Islam Karimov was Uzbekistan’s Communist Party boss during the Soviet period, and he has had his hands full for the past 12 years steering his country toward a market-based economy and a democratic republic, and at the same time fighting a small group of armed rebels closely allied to bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

After car bombings killed 14 persons in the capital, Tashkent, in 1999, the government stepped up its crackdown on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which operated at that time freely in Afghanistan with the protection and support of the Taliban.

Uzbek security forces also arrested and jailed more than 4,000 people — watchdog groups say 7,000 — chiefly young men belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and other underground Islamic groups that until now have avoided violence, but which, in the government’s view, want to set up a Taliban-like regime in Tashkent.

But Mr. Karimov’s critics in the Western press, the U.S. State Department and human-rights groups are legion.

“The government is the terrorist,” Margarita Assenova, a human-rights activist with Washington-based Freedom House, told Insight magazine. Mrs. Assenova, who spent several months in Tashkent showing people how to make official complaints about human-rights abuses, said the government uses “the terrorist threat” as an excuse to suppress any opposition group.

As the International Crisis Group, a multinational conflict-resolution group based in Brussels, reported in July: “In Uzbekistan, mass arrests of Muslims, many but not all members of radical political groups, have led to serious mistrust between authorities and the population and radicalization of those who have suffered from a brutal police force.”

Such criticism is exaggerated and naive, according to Stephen Schwartz, author of “The Two Faces of Islam” and a recognized specialist on Islamic extremism. “It is hard to understand how people who are working underground to overthrow the elected government and re-establish the Islamic caliphate can be any further radicalized,” he told Insight.

“The whole weight of the ICG report is to downplay the threat of Wahhabism, the threat of radicals as represented by Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Mr. Schwartz said. He has argued that — in a post-September 11 world — the doctrine of pre-emption trumps the presumption of innocence until proven guilty of terrorism.

As Mr. Schwartz wrote in an essay for the Weekly Standard, “groups like HT that do not yet carry out acts of violence nonetheless prepare an environment conducive to violence.”

“Identifying the advocates of extreme ideology with the practitioners of terror does not undermine the campaign against terrorism. The campaign against terrorism is undermined by weakness, irresolution and apologetics, not by identifying the enemy.”

At present, Hizb ut-Tahrir (pronounced “his-boot tuck-reer”) al Islami, (the Islamic Liberation Party), operates freely out of its London headquarters, but is legally banned in all Central Asian nations and virtually all countries in the Middle East. Its ideology envisions a strict Islamic state and the re-establishment of the medieval Arab caliphate.

The movement, which began in Jerusalem in 1953, sent preachers and missionaries in droves to Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Because it operates clandestinely, its membership is unknown, but it claims to have thousands of adherents in Uzbekistan, and, according to the ICG report, HT has become the most prominent challenge to the government’s secular leadership.

HT literature is virulently anti-Jewish, and some of it is indeed threatening.

According to Uzbek officials, the following exhortation in the magazine Al Vaiy was distributed by HT three months prior to the September 11 attacks:

“A faithful Muslim should exercise all the methods to fight against infidels. In such cases there is no difference whether he will stand at a distance and fight against the enemy by means of arms or fight face to face without any weapon or he, without jumping by parachute, will direct the plane to where the infidels are gathered.”

The article goes on to say: “If the enemy uses the weapons of mass destruction, as is happening in Palestine, then we will immediately put into action similar weapons. In this case, there will be no difference whether the enemy or peaceful citizens are killed as a result of using explosives … . If an old man might help the enemy, for instance, by giving his opinion or showing the methods of killing Muslims, he should also be killed.

Imran Waheed, a spokesman for HT in London, denied that the article was published by his organization.

“In Uzbekistan, we have no documented links [of HT] to terrorism, ” said Zafar Abdullaev, a national-security officer who has spent eight years studying HT activism. “But we believe there are links between HT leaders and terrorist organizations, and in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, some terrorist bombers were former members of HT before joining the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” he added. “At the present time, the group conceals this information for fear of losing support among the Uzbek citizenry.”

“Traditional Islam has always had a stronghold in Uzbekistan, but Islamic radicalism is a problem not simply in Uzbekistan, but it is a global problem,” Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Sodyk Solihovich Safaev, told Insight in an exclusive interview.

“There is a propensity to explain radicalism from a simplistic point of view, as if it comes as a direct consequence of poverty or an absence of democracy, yet several of the 9/11 bombers came from prosperous families,” he said.

“Islamic radicalism is a big problem in Turkey and Russia, which are considered to be democratic countries,” Mr. Safaev added. “No, the problem of religious extremism is within Islam itself.”

Responding to criticism from human rights organizations in Tashkent, Mr. Safaev told Insight that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are doing a lot of good for his country.

“They are providing experience and knowledge to improve the lives of our people, and we need such watchdogs,” he said.

“Due to their criticism, we have more openness in our prison system,” he added, noting that in 2003 alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Uzbek prisons 19 times, and some of its visits were unannounced.

On the other hand, he disagrees with NGOs on the issue of accommodating HT.

“The human-rights community believes the government should have a dialogue with Muslim extremists, but it is difficult to do that with a secretive organization that does not have dialogue and compromise on its agenda,” he went on.

“While Western analysts are divided about the nature of the Islamist movement, there will be little progress in fighting the growing terrorist threat,” Col. Ilya Vasiliyevich Pyagay, an official of the Uzbek Interior Ministry, told Insight in his Tashkent office.

“Hizb ut-Tahrir is nothing more than communism from within Islam — the idea of restoring the caliphate is quite similar to ‘Workers of the World unite!’” he said.

“You must understand that we have had a long experience with communist ideology and practice,” said Col. Pyagay. “We learned history from the communist viewpoint, and we are familiar with Lenin’s methods. Lenin began by starting various groups that demonstrated peacefully under the banner of popular slogans. But his mass movement sheltered a core group prepared for armed struggle.

“Peaceful demonstrations led to civil war in Russia. With his armed followers, Lenin took power in 1917 and his followers presided over a dictatorship that lasted more than 70 years,” the colonel added.

“The religious extremists eventually will demand political power,” he predicted. Col. Pyagay said the Uzbek government deserves credit for moving proactively to incarcerate the radical activists. “If Uzbekistan hadn’t taken action in time, the consequences would have been calamitous.”

By all accounts, Central Asia is experiencing an Islamic revival, and Uzbekistan is no exception. Its mosques are full of worshippers, and its Islamic schools (madrassas) have more applicants than they can admit.

Uzbekistan’s top religious cleric, Grand Mufti Abdurashid Haji Bakhramov, told Insight he is pleased with the government’s support of religious schools.

“Whereas in 1991, we had only 89 mosques and one madrassa in Bukhara, and one religious seminary, today we have more than 2,000 mosques and 10 madrassas, and we now have an Islamic University in Tashkent,” Mr. Bakhramov said, adding that the government is paying for the development of the religious sector as it does other branches of education.

But the ICG complains that the government’s religious registration law of 1998 is a heavy-handed attempt to control religion as it did in Soviet times. The ICG said that after it was enacted, thousands of mosques were closed by the authorities because they could not meet the registration requirements.

Such efforts are seen by critics as a clash between an authoritarian secular government and independent, devout citizenry.

This way at looking at the problem is a “wholesale error,” said Mr. Schwartz.

“The view of the ICG is that the conflict in Uzbekistan is between secular people and devout people, but the idea that there is a split between the secular Muslims and the devout Muslims is a Western idea,” he declared.

“People in the Muslim world are not divided between the secular and the devout; they are divided between traditional, pluralistic Islam and the radical Islam, and Westerners are not getting this,” he said.

Religious tolerance, in fact, has been a hallmark of the cosmopolitan, multiethnic Islam for which Central Asia is known. A Jewish community has resided there, chiefly in Bukhara, for 2,500 years, and Uzbekistan was a refuge for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The idea of an Islamic state that would expel all Jews is new to Uzbek citizens, and ominous if it should become a popular movement, said Mr. Abdullaev, the national-security officer who studied HT activism.

“HT now is targeting Jews and Westerners, but who is to say that it could not target other religions? It could produce a state parallel to fascism and communism,” he said.

There are signs the Karimov regime is changing its approach. On Dec. 2, the president announced an amnesty that would pardon about 700 prisoners over three months. This follows previous pardons, in 2001 and 2002.

Mr. Bakhramov told Insight that he is doing his part by visiting jailed extremists and using moral suasion. “I have been to every prison in the country where religious extremists are,” he said. “Most admitted their mistake and have repented.”

Other prisoners become hardened in their resolve to overthrow the government, and tell visitors so, said Zeyno Baran of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, who interviewed several extremists in prison recently.

Douglas Burton is an associate editor with the newsweekly magazine Insight on the News.

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