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Last Updated: Monday, 8 August 2005, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Kyrgyz group aims for Caliphate
By Artyom Liss and Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz woman
Hizb ut Tahrir say they want a Caliphate to arise through evolution
The London bombings have prompted the UK government to outlaw Hizb ut Tahrir - a radical Islamic group that wants to replace secular governments with an Islamic Caliphate, or super-state run according to Sharia Law.

The group is particularly strong in Central Asia, where it believes it may take the first steps towards establishing its Caliphate.

High in the mountains of poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia a bearded man with a fierce gaze slices a watermelon. It is a very colourful sight - red drops of juice on the green carpet, with the glistening snow-covered peaks in the distance.

"In this village, people trust us, not the authorities," says Nur Mohammed, a local leader of Hizb ut Tahrir, which is also banned in Kyrgyzstan.

"Everybody here knows that we will solve their problems quickly and in strict accordance with the Koran. And this suits people a lot better than the slow, bureaucratic and often expensive official route."

The village of Arslanbob is tiny and difficult to reach. From here, it is a two-hour drive to the nearest town. The road is virtually non-existent, and the local bus service is overstretched.

Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Rosa Otunbayeva
We do not have strong institutions, established institutions, and those groups really work against the basis of our statehood
Rosa Otunbayeva
Kyrgyzstan's foreign minister

So people here have always thought it best to solve problems in-house.

"We have already won the battles on prostitution, drink and robbery," says Nur Mohammed.

"All we do is talk to people about the Koran. Sometimes, it requires more than just the skill of persuasion - but in the end, we do come out on top. In our village, nobody even locks their doors now. We've taught people to trust each other - and to respect Sharia law."

But for Hizb ut Tahrir, battles for hearts and minds in small villages like Arslanbob are just routine. The organisation aims much higher.

More than 100km (60 miles) away, in the market town of Kara-Suu, we met Dilior. A carpenter by trade, he lives in a huge house with a lush garden, behind a very high and very thick fence.

Dilior is the official spokesman of Hizb ut Tahrir in southern Kyrgyzstan. Even though his group is banned, scores of journalists visit his house every week.

"All Muslims in the world already want to live in a Caliphate, under Sharia law," he says. "It will be a huge state, a very powerful state. Even now you are all afraid of us - America, Israel, you in the UK too."

TV battle

Dilior tried to set up a TV station which would spread this message to all Muslims in Kara-Suu and the neighbouring towns. But after just three days on air, it was shut down by the authorities.

So now he is going to take "the bureaucrats" to court. His proof that the TV station was necessary is hundreds of letters from ordinary people who want to know more about Hizb ut Tahrir's hardline view of Islam.

"Democracy has not given people anything worthwhile," explains Dilior. "Look at you: in the UK, you give rights to homosexual couples. Even animals don't do this. So is this what your democracy has to offer?

"Now, Allah gives an answer to every possible question: how to deal with friends and neighbours, how to bring up children, even how to use the toilet - it's all in the Koran. Of course, people want to know these answers."

But despite this radicalism, Hizb ut Tahrir condemns all violence. The group is sure that an Islamic super-state will be created through evolution, not revolution.

To people like Dilior, it is a question of when, not if.

Influence spreading

Meanwhile, Hizb ut Tahrir are gaining more and more supporters across Central Asia - people who think that democracy should be written off as ineffective and replaced by the Sharia law.

So governments in the region are trying to find a way of dealing with this emerging threat.

Dilior says all Muslims was to live in a Caliphate
"We are in the first years of our independence," says Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Rosa Otunbayeva.

"We do not have strong institutions, established institutions. And those groups really work against the basis of our statehood. This is really a threat for us."

The most common option is to get the police involved. But even the harshest of measures seem counterproductive.

The cells below the police station at Osh are dark, damp and grim. Hizb ut Tahrir members detained by Kyrgyzstan's police are held in filthy cells.

Nur Mohammed, the unofficial leader of Arslanbob's Muslims, has already spent time in jail. He remembers those days as some of the best in his life.

"If you put a Muslim like me under pressure," he says, "he quickly understands that Allah is his one and only friend... I myself only became a true believer behind bars."

Underground skills

Some believe the danger posed by the group is being overstated.

Filip Noubel, the Central Asia editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says "there is a niche for this movement that is probably not bigger than 5% or 10%. I don't think they can go beyond that".

But Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring countries have been facing groups like Hizb ut Tahrir for years now. And so far, their governments have failed to come up with an adequate response.

Proscribing it in Britain is controversial. The group still preaches peaceful change.

The lesson from Central Asia is that driving it underground could be counterproductive when it comes to tackling fanaticism and hatred.

Both Dilior and Nur Mohammed told us that they are more than happy to share their skills in covert, underground work with their British brethren.

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