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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 15:19 GMT
Central Asia's Islamic militancy
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Central Asia correspondent

File photograph of some victims of Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan in May 2005
The Andijan unrest shows the tensions brought by Islam's revival
In the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan, hundreds of men and young boys gather in the main mosque for Friday prayers.

Uzbekistan's hardline authorities consider Andijan a hotbed of Islamic extremism, after a jailbreak and mass protest in May was crushed by troops.

Six months on, no one will speak openly for fear of reprisals. But in private, most Andijan residents say they object strongly to being labelled as "terrorists" by the government.

"The men who organised the jailbreak weren't terrorists," said one young taxi driver. "They're just ordinary believers like a lot of us."

The events in Andijan have starkly emphasised the tensions which a revival of Islam has brought to Central Asia.

ANDIJAN KILLINGS
Triggered by trials of 23 local businessmen in May 2005
Jail break led to popular protest
Government says 187 'Islamic militants' killed in crackdown
Rights groups say 500 or more killed by Uzbek troops

During seven decades of official Soviet atheism, Islam survived in secret or in a few carefully controlled mosques.

Since independence, most Central Asians have maintained a largely secular worldview. But among those searching for a new ethnic or national identity, there is renewed interest in religious ideas. Inevitably, radical Islamic political ideas have also arrived from elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The first sign of Islamic politics in the region was the Adolat (Justice) movement which arose in the Uzbek town of Namangan in the early 1990s, calling for Islamic law.

Namangan, like Andijan, lies in the Ferghana valley, a broad, fertile valley in the midst of the Tien Shan mountains. Divided among three republics in the Soviet period, Ferghana now lies in three independent countries. Always a conservative, rural region, it is often seen as a focus for radical groups in Central Asia.

But observers who know Ferghana caution that its reported radicalism should not be exaggerated. They say that one mistake the Uzbek government has made is to treat the valley as if it is a hotbed of terrorism.

Numerous arrests of local people on questionable charges of Islamic extremism fuelled the popular anger which led to the protest in Andijan.

We all think he was taken by the security forces, but to this day, no one knows where he is or whether he's alive or dead
Assistant to Abdul Wali Mirzoyev

The disappearance of a popular Andijan imam in 1995 is still remembered there. Abdul Wali Mirzoyev was one of the early leaders of the religious revival, but the authorities considered him a "Wahabi" - a catch-all term used by post-Soviet security services to mean anyone they suspect of radical Islamic sympathies.

"Abdul Wali Mirzoyev disappeared in Tashkent airport when he was about to fly to Moscow for a meeting," said one of his former assistants, who asked not to be named.

"We all think he was taken by the security forces, but to this day, no one knows where he is or whether he's alive or dead."

The Uzbek government has since closed the mosque and turned it into a museum.

Bombings

Two youths who were prominent in the Namangan revival went on to become leaders of Central Asia's only openly militant group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Map of Central Asia

The Uzbek authorities have blamed a series of bombings and violent attacks in Tashkent and elsewhere on the IMU.

In 1999 and 2000 this group led armed incursions from bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in an attempt to establish a foothold in the Ferghana valley.

But their Afghan camps were destroyed in the American bombing campaign against the Taleban and the group has been largely inactive since then. A few Central Asian militants survived among Islamic militants who have been hiding in the wild border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More recently, attention has focused on the activities of Hezb-ut-Tahrir ("Party of Liberation") in the region.

This international movement, which wants to re-establish the pan-Islamic caliphate abolished in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk, was founded by a Palestinian in the 1950s. It was brought to Central Asia by Muslim missionaries in the 1990s and has grown strongly, partly because it promises social justice in a united Islamic state.

This international movement, which wants to re-establish the pan-Islamic caliphate abolished in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk, was founded by a Palestinian in the 1950s. It was brought to Central Asia by Muslim missionaries in the 1990s and has grown strongly, partly because it promises social justice in a united Islamic state.

All the Central Asian republics have banned Hezb-ut-Tahrir.

70% of their ideas are good. But 30% are bad ideas
Sadiq Qari Kamal al-Deen

In Uzbekistan, human rights groups say that many of the several thousand people now languishing in prison on charges of religious extremism are members of the group. Its strongest presence is now in the more tolerant neighbouring republic of Kyrgyzstan.

Dr Dosym Satpayev, director of the Assessment Risks Group in Almaty, Kazakhstan, said that according to official figures there were now some 2,000 members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan. In Kazakhstan - Kyrgyzstan's big, oil-rich neighbour - there are fewer members but their number is growing.

"Hizb-ut-Tahrir plans its development in three stages," said Dr Satpayev. "First they convert new members. Secondly, they establish a network of secret cells, and finally, they try to infiltrate the government to work to legalise their party and its aims."

In July, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members campaigned actively for one - ultimately unsuccessful - candidate in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election. This was the first time Islam has played any role in a Central Asian election outside Tajikistan.

One influential voice is that of Sadiq Qari Kamal al-Deen, the former Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, who now heads an Islamic centre in the southern town of Osh. His views of Hizb-ut-Tahrir are mixed.

"70% of their ideas are good," he said. "They're for social justice and education and against prostitution and drugs. But 30% are bad ideas - the revival of the caliphate and their opposition to democracy, for instance. But the real danger is that in the future some members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir are likely to turn to violence."

The security services in all the Central Asian republics bordering on the Ferghana region - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan - have been actively rounding up alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in recent months.

But human rights groups say that many, if not most, of those arrested are harmless believers.

They say the arrest of such people on spurious charges and their mistreatment in detention amounts to religious persecution. Some argue that such persecution will simply convince more people of the rightness of the religious cause.


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