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Islam’s Distant Battle

Times Staff Writers

The police broke down the door looking for the grandmother. But she was out, so they took away two younger women and three little girls to face accusations of religious extremism and potential ties to terrorism.

“The police insulted us and laughed, and said the little children

Akhmedova, the wife -- or widow, she doesn’t know which -- of a man sentenced to death in 1999 for alleged terrorist ties, was caught up in a crackdown late last month triggered by a string of suicide bombings and shootouts between suspected Islamic militants and police that left 47 people dead.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States and its allies have battled Islamic extremists from Europe to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The recent bloodshed in this former Soviet Central Asian republic casts a spotlight on yet another front in that war.

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In a part of the world where onetime Communist bosses have tried to control a resurgent Islam through repression of its more radical adherents, the violence was a warning that this formula might trigger a backlash. The secular Uzbek government keeps mosques under a tight rein, yet underground groups -- both nonviolent and armed -- that mix fundamentalist Islamic values with radical political goals have been able to grow.

Uzbekistan, which helped the United States take down the Taliban regime and its Al Qaeda allies in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, characterizes the arrest of thousands of suspected Islamic radicals in recent years as part of a battle against terrorism and to preserve Uzbekistan as a secular society.

But critics say the real purpose of the political and religious repression is to protect the personal rule of President Islam Karimov, a former Communist who has run Uzbekistan since 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Political and religious moderates in Uzbekistan say the government is playing a dangerous game by wiping out the middle ground where traditional Islam and peaceful political opposition could flourish. Offered the choice between a secular dictatorship and a radical religious underground, they say, people who seek only to voice dissent or study religion freely may turn to extremist ideology or armed opposition.

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“The police and security services have absolute control over citizens,” said Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek human rights activist who until recently worked for the Washington-based Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy. “Deep-seated dissatisfaction in the souls of people creates the niche occupied by the Islamic extremists that could have been easily occupied by democratic parties in other conditions.”

In comments on state-run television after the first two days of violence, Karimov said the events demonstrated the need for citizens to rally around his leadership.

“Without any doubt, these brutal subversive acts evoke anger and fury against terrorists in our hearts,” he declared. “I believe that no matter how hard the evil forces try, they will not be able to undermine peace and tranquillity in our country, cannot bend our people’s will, cannot divert us from the path that we have chosen.”

But just as the U.S.-backed dictatorship of the shah of Iran gave way to a radical Islamic state, the seemingly modern-minded, pro-American Karimov may be breeding a backlash that could produce a new stronghold for the type of rule the United States overthrew in Afghanistan.

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The Karimov government’s greatest concern appears to be Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, an international organization that mixes fundamentalist ideals with the call for an Islamic state throughout Central Asia and eventually the entire Islamic world -- what it calls the Caliphate. Authorities in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have also sought to suppress Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Supporters of the Caliphate dream of a state stretching west and south from this region to the shores of the Mediterranean and Arabian seas.

The party, which professes an adherence to nonviolence, is banned in Uzbekistan, a country of 26 million that is about 90% Muslim and 8% Eastern Orthodox. There are no reliable estimates of the group’s size, but the government is believed to have jailed at least 4,000 of the party’s activists, suggesting that it could have tens of thousands of supporters.

Many human rights advocates oppose Hizb ut-Tahrir’s goals but say it should be free to espouse them. “Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideology is not democratic. It’s anti-Western, it’s anti-Semitic, a lot of it is hateful,” said Allison Gill, an Uzbekistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “It’s not that we protect the content of their speech. We protect their right to speech.”

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This month, Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov described a terrorist organization that he said was responsible for the days of violence that racked the capital and the city of Bukhara.

Authorities say the five days of violence that ended April 1 left 33 alleged Islamic militants, 10 police officers and four civilians dead.

In the highest-profile incident, a female suicide bomber killed two policemen and herself near Tashkent’s Chorsu market. Another day saw at least two shootouts outside Tashkent.

In one, according to neighbors who witnessed the events, at least five men died in their apartment. In apparent suicides, three women associated with them died in grenade or bomb explosions just outside the apartment. At roughly the same time, four men who had run into a nearby house died in a shootout that ended with explosions that destroyed the home.

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Kadyrov linked the terrorists to Hizb ut-Tahrir, despite that group’s claim to be committed to nonviolence, and to the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, an armed revolutionary group formerly known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Islamic Movement group battled Uzbek forces in 2000, then relocated to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where it was battered by the U.S. invasion.

Kadyrov charged that those responsible for the recent violence have “a religious philosophy and ultimate goal of self-sacrifice while carrying out terrorist acts” that are “based mainly on the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir, reinforced by radical teachings of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan terrorist group and other extremist Islamic movements.”

The terrorists have a top leader based abroad who runs a network of cells operating in Tashkent and Bukhara and these cells grew out of Hizb ut-Tahrir study groups, Kadyrov said. Some members were trained in foreign camps by Arabs who had also trained Al Qaeda militants, he alleged.

On Sunday, several militant Islamic websites posted a statement from a previously unknown organization, Jihad Islamic Group, claiming responsibility for the spate of violence. It was unclear whether this was the organization Kadyrov had described.

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When told of Kadyrov’s charges, Zulfiya Izhmukhamedova, 24, the wife of an imprisoned Hizb ut-Tahrir activist, said the prosecutor “knows that we are nonviolent and that Hizb ut-Tahrir has never been violent. People will never believe him. He can say what he wants, but the truth will come out in the end.”

Human Rights Watch estimated in a recent report on Uzbekistan that over the last decade the country has imprisoned 7,000 people for nonviolent religious activity, including praying at unregistered mosques, holding meetings in homes and reading or distributing religious literature. The majority, it said, are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Police sometimes plant drugs or weapons in suspects’ homes to aid convictions, it alleged.

In Uzbekistan it is illegal to belong to an extremist religious group, distribute its literature or engage in anti-constitutional activities, said Gill, the researcher. But those crimes are loosely defined, she added, enabling authorities to charge any religious activist they deem a threat.

Gill is convinced that “less repression and more democracy is the way to promote peace and stability in Uzbekistan.”

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The family of Darmon Sultanova, the grandmother whom police sought but in the end didn’t detain, is among those who have suffered most in the crackdowns. Her husband and two of her sons, Uygun and Oybek Ruzmetov, were arrested Jan. 1, 1999, she said. Four days later, police took her to where they were being held and then stripped her in front of her sons and threatened to rape her and their wives if they did not confess, she said.

Police demanded that her sons affirm “that they’re tied to terrorist groups, that they went to Chechnya to study at a military base and that they kept guns and drugs in their house,” Sultanova said.

The sons were accused of being “Wahhabis” -- a term used to disparage any alleged extremist here -- rather than members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, she said. They were sentenced at trial to death, but the family has not been told if the punishment was carried out. Although there has been no contact with her sons since then, Sultanova believes they are alive.

Her husband received a five-year sentence for possession of drugs and guns but was released in three years after developing mental problems, she said.

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“The government doesn’t want any independently thinking Muslims,” Sultanova said, explaining why she believes her family was treated this way. “They want to destroy all real Muslims -- those who pray five times a day and the women who wear head scarves. The government says all these people want to create an Islamic country. That is why the government destroys them.”

Sultanova does want to live in an Islamic country, “but only Allah knows when it can happen.”

“Allah wants this, and we should follow Allah’s will,” she said. “Democracy is also good. I just want a fair country where people can talk and do what they wish.”

Mohammed Sadyk Yusuf, the mufti, or top Islamic leader, of Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia during a period of religious liberalization between 1989 and 1993, said the popularity of Hizb ut-Tahrir reflected a failure of mainstream Islam.

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“My strong feeling is that punitive actions alone will never resolve the crucial issue of extremism,” said Yusuf, now a prominent Islamic leader in Tashkent. “The state should instead concentrate on helping us to preach true orthodox Islam.”

Advocates of the restoration of a Caliphate such as that of the 7th and 8th centuries, immediately after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, have little understanding of what they are calling for, Yusuf said. “They just blabber,” he said. “A majority of them don’t know the most ordinary prayers.”

Yusuf placed blame for the current troubles on the suppression of Islam under communism. “When the regime collapsed, many people began to naturally grow interested in their religious roots,” he said. “But there were not enough teachers and schools to teach them the true orthodox Islam. The spiritual vacuum was quickly filled with foreign emissaries who created cells in their houses and called upon the people to come and learn their Islam, but their ideas amounted to terrorism and whimsical plans to build a pan-Islamic state.”

Izhmukhamedova, the wife of the imprisoned Hizb ut-Tahrir activist, said her husband was arrested in February 1999 after bombings in Tashkent that left at least 16 dead. The government blamed the attacks on the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, which until recently was believed to be active alongside remnants of the Taliban in border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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“He didn’t conceal from anybody that he was an activist of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” she said. “But his propaganda was peaceful. He never called for any violence.”

He is serving a 14-year sentence for allegedly undermining the constitutional structure, she said. “I am sure now all true believers are in great danger,” she added. “New arrests will begin now.”

Her husband is confined in Jaslyk prison in western Uzbekistan, “the most horrible prison I have ever heard of.”

“My husband has become very thin,” she said. “He says the guards humiliate and beat prisoners routinely. But the worst thing is that they don’t allow them to perform prayers. He is suffering a lot, but they didn’t break his conviction....

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“When he comes out, we will continue our struggle for the Caliphate. It is our way. It is our God’s way. We want it. And we will have it.”


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