HIZB UT-TAHRIR IN SOUTHERN KAZAKHSTAN: SOCIAL MAKEUP

Igor SAVIN


Igor Savin, Director, the Dialog Information and Communication Service (Shimkent, Kazakhstan)


On 13 April, 2002 in Turkestan, a city in the South Kazakhstan Region with a population of 100 thou found 200 km away from the Uzbekistan border, the police arrested two people from a neighboring city of Kentau who were busy distributing leaflets of Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (hereinafter HTI), a religious-political party.

After a certain lull, in spring and summer 2003 this and neighboring regions were flooded with hundreds of similar leaflets; they were found everywhere, even in entrance halls of apartment blocks. Finally, in August 2003 the law enforcement bodies found and closed a secret printshop in the city of Shimkent, the source of the flood. It was arranged in a flat rented by three former dwellers of Kzyl-Orda.

It seems that the HTI is consistently extending its propaganda in the republic. To stem the trend we should seek answers to the following questions: Why do the party supporters concentrate in definite localities? Which population group serves as its social basis? How do the ideas reach Southern Kazakhstan? What methods does the organization use to spread its ideas among the local people? Why do they spread quickly and how can the wave be stemmed?

While writing this article I used all sorts of available material pertaining to the subject: investigations of activity of the four party members arrested in the city of Turkestan in October 2000 supplied by the director of the Shimkent branch of the International Human Rights Bureau as well as my own records of talks with some of them in Turkestan and Kentau (in the South Kazakhstan Region) in May 2003. I have made extensive use of information supplied by the media and of my personal talks with the journalists who had written about the arrest of 13 April, 2002; I drew on the materials related to the arrest and death of Kanat Beimbetov in November 2001 obtained from his relatives, his defense counsels and officials who worked on the case. I have also used records of my talks with HTI members I met in Shimkent and Kentau in May 2003.

Area of Dissemination

The question about geographic distribution was prompted by the fact that all those connected, directly or indirectly, with the HTI lived in Kentau. (They were A. Ismailov, M. Abdukarimov, N. Arkhabaev and Zh. Zhetpisbaev arrested, tried and convicted in spring 2001 in Shimkent as well as K. Beimbetov, a suspected activist of the same party, arrested in October 2001. Finally, there were E. Saparov and I. Abdraimov who distributed party leaflets and were detained in April 2002.) It should be added that several more party activists arrested in spring and summer 2003 were also from Kentau.

In fact, for a long time now the city has been a seat of surging social unrest. A greater part of its 60 thousand-strong population (it is found some 200 km away from Shimkent) has lost their employment at the mining and machine-building enterprises built in Soviet times. In the 1990s social discontent was mounting and was crowned with hunger strikes and a march of unemployed to Shimkent in the fall of 1997 organized by local trade unions. General impoverishment went hand in hand with the crumbling of industrial infrastructure; the city acquired new dwellers who moved in from the countryside. The newcomers were as poor as the old city dwellers, yet they displayed specific mentality and social behavior (collectivism and paternalism). In other words, while the former workers were kept together by joint labor and common interests and problems the newcomers never responded to these incentives. Having become a city dweller, a man used to obey a respected person (usually, the clan elder) realized that his social landmarks no longer applied. In the face of his crumbling ideas he feels deprived and disoriented, which inevitably forces him to seek rational explanations of his misfortunes, blame the wrong social milieu for them, and look for alternative ways out.

The people of Kentau, the city that for some time was called a dying town, had time to realize that the authorities at all levels were not coping. The newcomers deprived of the traditional family institutions that had kept them afloat in the countryside started looking for alternative ways of social orientation and for new leaders. Religious confessions were quick to grasp the situation: today there are tens of religious organizations in the city, the majority of them running their own educational establishments (either formal or non-formal). Well-to-do people spend money on mosques and madrasahs in which young people as well as unemployed can find spiritual encouragement, something to fill their time with, and food. Religious life is not limited to Islam alone. There are communities of Baptists and the Jehovahs Witnesses, about half of them with Kazakh priests (the Kazakhs are considered to be a Muslim nation). This is a sure sign of successful religious propaganda and the willingness of the local people to embrace all sorts of ideas.

No wonder, madrasahs that provide answers to burning questions have become popular at least with part of the local people. The four active HTI members arrested and convicted in Turkestan as well as Beimbetov and the party members still active in Shimkent were connected with madrasahs and non-formal Islamic theological circles.

The HTI Social Basis

Information about social affiliation of the HTI members in the South Kazakhstan Region is far from complete though it is extremely interesting to compare it with that obtained in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Here are demographic descriptions: the four people convicted in Turkestan were between 30 to 62; K. Beimbetov was 24; those arrested in spring 2002 were 34 and 43. Obviously, we cannot say that HTI ideas were mostly popular among a certain age group. One can say, on the other hand, that nearly all of them were unemployed though their educational level varied greatly: some of them had higher, others secondary education. According to investigation materials, one of the convicted paid 3 thou tenge to distribute 20 leaflets. There is an opinion that some people look at their party activity as a source of money. There is no information, however, that payment for such activity comes from outside Central Asia. According to Uran Botobekov, the HTI members pay 10 percent of their wages to the party coffers.1 Certain grass-root cells are known to regularly transfer large sums of money to the regional and main headquarters. From this it follows that wages are not that important for the party activists.

The activists themselves and those suspected of being HTI members explain that they support its ideas because of their religious convictions and their interest in Islamic literature. In particular, one of the members convicted in 2001 (53 years old) said that he had been a practicing Muslim for 13 years and reading all sorts of religious books to compare them. In 1998, he met an Uzbek called Abdullah, discussed religious questions with him several times and liked the answers. It was the same Abdullah who told him about the HTI; he became interested and joined the party.

Kanat Beimbetovs relatives pointed out that his interest in Islam developed after he was hit with a lightning. This changed his life and even cured him of his illness. As a result, he became an extremely religious person, never missed services and spent his time in a mosque and madrasah built by a wealthy Uzbek. This looks like a life of an Islamic prophetthis was how his relatives, common people with common occupations, described him. It seems that he himself attributed special importance to this event and this interpretation of his own life.

Another detained person said that in search of religious education he had traveled to Namangan and Tashkent. It seems that religious quest, no matter what caused it, was very important for those who followed the HTI in Kentau. This should be taken into account when looking for the causes of popularity of this ideology in Southern Kazakhstan. For some reason, the experts ignored this. In fact, all those who joined the party had one more (and no less important) incentive: as party members they raised their status in their own eyes. They stopped being people dissatisfied with life and the world around themthey became missionaries of new knowledge, a new, social interpretation of the Koran and of the true words of Allah. This is what they think of themselves and this is why they are very irritated by lack of respect from others. Being ignorant of the finer points of Islamic theology, they avoid theological discussions. They prefer to soliloquize, they sound sure of their ideas and are not prone to self-reflection. The HTI became a mechanism of successful socialization; it turned uneducated young men with no hopes for a higher social status and a successful career into people with what they perceived as a life worthy of respect and a great future.

Dissemination Methods

It was in the early 1990s that religious circles and schools appeared in the republic with huge methodological and material support from Uzbek Muslims. The Uzbeks remained Muslims throughout the Soviet period and transferred religious knowledge and the way of life (especially among the Sufis) from generation to generation. This explains why members of Uzbek religious families became first teachers in religious circles and schools. They were closer to the traditional religious centers of the Ferghana Valley than the Kazakhs. Literature and preachers arrived in our republic from the Ferghana Valley. Later when those seeking religious education turned to HTI adepts from Uzbekistan the importance of the Kentau Sufi teachers decreased.

One should say that all HTI members mentioned an Uzbek who had played an important role in their conversion and who had told them about the party. Investigation of the activity of the four people convicted for spreading leaflets in Turkestan revealed their contacts with people earlier convicted for antigovernmental religious activity in Uzbekistan. Beimbetov was arrested on the strength of evidence supplied by a certain man arrested as a terrorist in Tashkent who insisted that he had a supporter in Kentau called Kanat. According to the latters defense counsel, Kanat Beimbetov flatly refused to confirm this information, yet it looks doubtful that a stranger could insist on their contacts without any reason. This was not properly verifiedhasty investigation ended tragically. We can only guess the truth. This fact corresponds to what Kyrgyz academic U. Botobekov says. He is convinced that HTI activists who emigrated to Kyrgyzstan to avoid persecutions in Uzbekistan play a great role in disseminating the ideas of their organization.

One can say that those who want to acquire profound knowledge of Islam are acting according to traditional stereotypes: it is commonly believed that the southern madrasahs and religious centers in Uzbekistan are the main source of such knowledge. At the same time, one should not describe the process as an import of Islam to Kazakhstan and should not believe that foreign preachers are playing the main role in disseminating religious ideas. In all cases it is pointed out that Uzbek teachers just brought knowledge to those who had already made the decision.

TV is promoting Islam every day; Islamic ideas are never far from the most frequented places. People are taught that being Muslims is respectable and that all should strive to embrace Islam. Shimkent TV never tires of transmitting English-language and Russian programs translated into Kazakh, which prove that, according to latest scientific discoveries, the theory of evolution was a false one while the world was created by Allah. It is hardly astonishing that people turn to outside sources of Islamic knowledge.

Why is the original source of Islamic knowledge found outside the places where the newly converted people live? I have already written that all HTI members detained in Kentau mentioned their spiritual quest, illumination, and acquisition of true religious feeling. Obviously, they looked at Islamic preachers not merely as a source of information but also as carriers of certain mystical features that are conveyed to the newly converted. This can be said only of a person who enjoys high respect. The majority of the local Muslim clerics were elected from among common people and have not, therefore, an aura of sanctity in the eyes of their neighbors. In fact, more often than not mullahs are elected from among the most respected secular people who do not always enjoy high spiritual authority. Some of them behave in the way that cannot earn them respect of the laymen. (Not infrequently the press reports about conflicts over distribution of money in mosques.) No wonder people prefer to deal with Uzbeks: they do not know them as well as they know their neighbors; their way of life and manners are very different from those accepted in Kazakhstan: there is an aura of asceticism and exclusiveness about them. Common people tend to ascribe great importance to everything such people do.

One should always bear in mind that every man looks at conversion as a higher stage: he is elevated in his own eyes, likes to feel being above his common environment and be part of lofty ideals far removed from everyday concerns.

All this can be found in the HTI ideologythis follows from the leaflets in Kazakh disseminated by those who were arrested in April 2002. The leaflets discussed Middle Eastern politics (something that anybody living in Kentau separated from Palestine by thousands of kilometers could ignore) as a new crusade. Kentau dwellers were not sophisticated enough to grasp the meaning of political developments in the Middle East: to them they looked like a clash between the forces of good and evil. The very fact that in a far-away land people were fighting for the same ideals suggested that it was a global holy fight for a sacred cause. No wonder, all leaflets dealing with the Middle Eastern developments were signed by the HTI while those dealing with the developments in the Central Asian republics were signed by the local HTI branches (HTI-Uzbekistan, HTI-Kazakhstan, etc.). By this the HTI demonstrated that what was going on in the Middle East was equally important for all Muslims.

The leaflets confiscated in April 2002 dealt with specific political events in the Middle East. They said, in particular, that at its Beirut summit the League of the Arab States forwarded peace initiatives while the Israeli government never abandoned its intentions described as aggressive. The authors made no attempt to conceal their true attitude to the Jews and tried to justify it by quoting the Koran: And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out (Surah The Cow, aiat 191). The authors deliberately identified the enemies of Islam with the Jews by saying: They always were enemies of the common people. Allah specifically warned us not to make friends with them. The same leaflet further said: The Eastern territories, Palestine in particular, have remained under Jewish yoke for over 50 years now. Today, Palestine has become a scene of an anti-Jewish jihad while the territories seized in 1948 still remain a battlefield. At the end the authors invited all true Muslims to act actively at home (in Central Asia); some leaflets even called on people to join the jihad and become shakhids. In 2003, the same was said in the context of the war on Iraq.

The leaflets also pointed out that the Central Asian leaders failed short of the tasks of true Islam; there is any number of people in Kazakhstan who suspect administrators at all levels of lack of attention to the needs of the common people and, therefore, of an inability to deal with them. In fact, the promises of a better future attract all dissatisfied with life to the HTI. Common people cannot check whether the slogans and demands are genuine. The events described in the leaflets are far removed from their homes while the HTI leaders send limited information from the top to grass-root organizations allegedly for conspiratorial reasons. In this way, the common members have no idea of what is going on at the higher levels.

At the same time, life and the authorities supply enough information for the people to understand that their life is poorly organized and that the local authorities should be blamed for this: an unemployed finds it hard to identify himself with a district head manning all instruments of power, therefore he is prepared to think that life is unfair and that he has to fight to make it fair.

The leaflets are addressed to groups of Muslims and describe their enemies as a certain collective (an abstract group), the Jews in our case. This is one of the favorite methods that oppose us to them. Indeed, the us-them opposition is vague enough; it is hard to check whether the accusations against them hold water at all. These calls are a powerful weapon: nobody would like to stay asideall want to join us, thus tacitly agreeing that they are our enemies. This collectivist idea of the world is made easier by recently novel ideological propositions that describe supra-social stable ethnoses as subjects of social life rather than individuals and social institutions they create. From this point of view ethnic affiliation is the fundamental feature immune to individual reflection and critical analysis. Throughout many years people have thought of themselves as members of definite groups (ethnoses supplanted classes in this capacity). This is why people are easily persuaded to divide the world into us and them.

What Is Behind Fast Dissemination of the HTI Ideas

I have written above that popular discontent with life and the local authorities forces people to look for alternative social models. Here I shall discuss one aspect only: the role the local authorities play in consolidating society and the measures designed to stem the HTI ideological tide.

In October 2001, the local National Security Committee arrested a 21-year-old Kentau dweller suspected of being a HTI member. Later he died during investigationthe fact that strengthened peoples conviction that the authorities could not protect them. Relatives of the young man, his neighbors and friends of his family were indignant with inadequate and unprofessional behavior of the Committees officials. I heard from people in Kentau and Turkestan that there was no respect for the authorities in these cities. The local people were convinced that the local leaders just bought their high posts: before that they had traded at the local market and extorted money. Obviously, there is no trust and mutual understanding between the law enforcement bodies and the common people. Aggressive behavior of the local law-enforcers arouses indignation among people because dishonest people assume the role of fighters against evil. This is another argument for those who tend to believe the HTI that the party is following the right road and that power and its loyal servants deserve to be removed.

This situation creates new martyrs while the people refuse to think of the law enforcement bodies as their defenders, which drives more and more supporters to the HTI ranks. Judging by what the relatives of the dead young man had to say, the law-enforcers cruelty could be explained by their desire to demonstrate their fervor to their superiors and to show the people who was the boss in the city. This is a biased opinion, yet it cannot be ignored. In fact, it is partly confirmed by the fact that HTI activities in Kentau did not stop after Kanat Beimbetovs death. Obviously, the local law enforcement bodies are not as efficient as they pretend to be. According to journalists, the local young men prefer to live in a secular rather than in a theocratic state. At the same time, they say that, as distinct from local authorities, the HTI always says the truth; they are convinced that a Sharia state will be less susceptible to corruption and other social evils evident in contemporary Kazakhstan.

On the other hand, the religion-related laws currently applied in the republic are fairly democratic ones and offer other than repressive measures to fight the HTI and its followers. According to some of them, in Kentau the officials of the local National Security Committee are present at all their meetings while in Shimkent they regularly talk to the most active party members. This means that they are trying to monitor the situation, yet are unable to take more effective measures while remaining within the law. The HTI does its best to avoid militant language and never calls to arms. The party can only be accused of fanning national strife on a limited scale.

In 2000, there was an attempt in Turkestan to accuse people of preparing a coup; drugs and arms were planted in their homes, yet accusations did not stand up in court and had to be removed. Today, the Committee shows more caution: it relies on counter-propaganda and persuasion rather than on repression. Local clerics meet young people; academics and political analysts hold round-table discussions, etc. The effect is negligent: the youth that never received traditional Islamic education at home betrays no interest in Islamic dogmas. Young HTI members say: Islam is concerned with the relationships between man and God while we want to discuss urgent social and political issues. They are convinced that the HTI can supply the answers, therefore they turn to it seeking fast and simple solutions to complex problems.

One can say that the HTI ideas find response in Southern Kazakhstan for the following reasons:

  1. People are used to collective social existence (work collectives in cities, neighbor and family communities in the countryside). This explains why disappearance of these institutions in the 1990s forced them to look for new forms of social organization. They are badly needed: people want to prevent atomization of social life and to overcome despondency and loneliness that have gripped them. In the conditions when the state demonstrates no interest in consolidating the nation; when the habitual urban infrastructure is no longer there; when small towns are flooded with newcomers who lack social stereotypes to be applied in new conditions, alternative clear and simple ideologies offered by clandestine organizations are more than welcome.
  2. The ideological vacuum of the 1990s drove people to consolidating ideologies; the variant formulated at the top could not supplant Soviet ideology for the following reasons: the ethnic consolidation model cannot explain, without obvious contradictions, the presence of alien ethnic groups. It also gave rise to all sorts of sub-ethnic and intra-ethnic alliances. As a social category the ethnos left no space for reflection while those who found themselves outside habitual environments refused to accept abstract constructs imposed from above. They needed easily verifiable communities of their own close peoplethey refused to side with our ethnos in general. On the other hand, ethnic ideology taught people to think that groups of people united by a common aim were the dominant form of social life. The national resurrection ideas obviously appealed to Islam as one of the important sides of the actively developed ethnic identity. No wonder, the majority embraced Islam as a form of world outlook. This was not a religion born by the efforts of home-grown theologians (who more likely than not were treated skeptically) but the religion brought by more pious (according to the commonly shared opinion) teachers from the south who distributed their own ideology, viz. the HTI social and political ideas. It seems that a promise of social reforms attracted the fairly secularized Kazakhs: they were seeking not so much religious revelations as an outlet for their protest. It is no accident that the HTI ideas were most willingly embraced in Southern Kazakhstan that borders on Uzbekistan and the territory of which has several fairly important Islamic sacred places.
  3. There is one more, no less important reason: power carries no authority with the people; it is not regarded as a social institution to be used in case of need. On top of this, the law enforcement bodies do not always act adequatelythey prefer repressive and administrative measures that are driving people further away. They have no popular support, this being especially obvious in small towns with weak traditions of civil control over the law-enforcers and with practically no mechanisms of the effective division of powers.

Since nobody expects that the social and economic situation as the basic factor behind popular discontent and an eagerness to embrace alternative social programs, will improve soon, one should rely on measures designed to decrease HTI popularity and to build up confidence in the authorities.

The HTI should be deprived of its image of a religious martyr; people should receive a clear exposition of its social and political, rather than religious program. It is important to show how people in other Muslim states respond to the HTI and its activities.

It is equally important to build up popular confidence in the power structures, to create conditions conducive to cooperation between the nation and the authorities and to their joint opposition to religious extremism.


1 See: U. Botobekov, Vnedrenie idey partii Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami na iuge Kirgizii, in: Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutri, Carnegie Center, Moscow, 2001, pp. 129-152.

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