Despite Ban, Tajik Islamists Continue Recruiting

Hizb ut-Tahrir now targets adolescents and vulnerable women, experts say.
By Lidia Isamova - Central Asia
RCA Issue 694,
6 Feb 13
Kumri, a 14-year-old girl living in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, was invited to drop in a Koranic studies class by a neighbourhood friend.

The friend was one of a group of girls who had taken to wearing headscarves and praying five times a day, unlike most of Kumri’s peers. Their teacher only lived a street away.

“I went along out of curiosity. The teacher turned out to be a 30-year-old young woman who was very kind and nice,” Kumri said.

With her parents’ approval, Kumri started going to the lessons.

The teacher handed out pamphlets and other religious literature, which Kumri never had time to read.

“One day my aunt came to visit us. She’s a university lecturer,” she continued. “I was about to go off to the lesson when she asked me to show her my books. Then she started telling me off, and asking what I’d got myself into, what I was doing’.”

The aunt immediately went to see the teacher, and came back with the news that the woman was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic group banned in Tajikistan.

“I didn’t know what Hizb ut-Tahrir was. My aunt explained it all to me. I got frightened and burnt all the books the teacher had given me,” Kumri said. “I later found out that her husband was part of the same organisation and was in prison.”

Some experts believe Kumri’s story reflects a rising trend of radical Islamist recruitment among the young and vulnerable.

Tajik officials say that in the last two years, over 150 people, 20 of them women, have been convicted on charges relating to Hizb ut-Tahrir membership.

Typically, such convictions have involved the wives or other relatives of male Hizb ut-Tahrir activists, not outside recruits. In the most recent trial featuring seven alleged members in the northern town of Khujand in December, the accused included two mothers and an aunt of the male defendants.

A former officer in Tajikistan’s intelligence service, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that women had played an increasing role in Hizb ut-Tahrir since the group was outlawed in 2001 and a crackdown began.

“The security services initially ignored the women, who behaved very circumspectly… They used to quietly distribute Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets, books and CDs from their homes,” he said. “The latest arrests indicate that they are disseminating their ideas through groups they gather at their homes, under the guise of teaching and interpreting the Koran.”

In sentencing Hizb ut-Tahrir members, the authorities do not show women the leniency they could expect for a different offence.

The ex-intelligence officer said the group was now focusing on young people and others who might be isolated or vulnerable, for example wives whose husbands are away working abroad, as is the case with hundreds of thousands of Tajiks.

He said Hizb ut-Tahrir was highly skilled at covert recruitment, and modified its tactic when circumstances required this.

“Only its methods and target groups change,” he said. “Currently, it’s [targeting] women and adolescents more.”

Aliakbar Abdullo, a former police officer and now a commentator on Islamist activity, offered a similar assessment. He described Hizb ut-Tahrir activists as “very good psychologist who select the unformed mind and the vulnerable as targets for their propaganda and recruitment”.

At 26, Dushanbe resident Zulaikho is no unformed adolescent. But she was unwittingly drawn towards it by a woman who offered her tea and sympathy.

Zulaikho’s husband went off to Russia three years ago, leaving her to care for their three children. He has only returned once since then, and sends back the equivalent of 300 US dollars a year, not nearly enough to support the family.

She has supplemented this by working at an outdoor market, where she makes Tajik samosas and “manty” dumplings to sell to other stallholders.

Coupled with the chores she has to do for the in-laws she lives with, it is hard work.

One day she could not take any more, and sat down and burst into tears. A young woman approached her and started up a conversation. This new acquaintance invited her to visit her home, explaining that she had helped other labour migrants’ wives before.

Zulaikho did visit the house, where she met a number of women wearing Islamic-style dress.

“We ate and chatted, and when I was leaving she gave me 100 somoni [20 dollars] which she said was just to help, and I didn’t need to pay it back,” Zulaikho recalled.

When they next met, the woman gave her some leaflets and asked her to hand them out to people at the market as she sold them food.

“I realised these weren’t good leaflets, they were political. They said we didn’t need a state and we should have some kind of Islamic caliphate,” Zulaikho said. “I threw them away immediately and stopped going to that market, although it’s near my home”.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international group that has built up a significant presence in Central Asia over the last decade or so, insists it is seeking to build an Islamic state by entirely non-violent means. Local governments are not so sure, and have outlawed the group, lumping it together with Saudi-inspired fundamentalists and the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Ravshan Abdullaev, head of the Eurasia Foundation in Tajikistan, explains the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir by a mix of factors – a lack of purpose among young people, a desire to rebel against the government’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate controls on religious practice, and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s image as a community-based, caring organisation. Its members often organise neighbourhood initiatives such as assistance for people in need and meals during Muslim festivals.

Many experts recognise that arresting large numbers of activists and locking them up for long periods is not working. For one thing, Hizb ut-Tahrir seems to be as active as ever before, and a prison term offers a chance to meet new potential recruits.

The former intelligence officer interviewed by IWPR said repression might actually be strengthening the group, What was needed instead – but so far lacking, he said, was a well-informed generation of Muslim clerics who could use social networking websites and other channels to warn people against joining extremist organisations.

Abdullaev agreed that the traditional Muslim clerics did not have much attraction for younger people, and were not in a position to tell them “what is radicalism and what isn’t”.

An imam or prayer-leader at a mosque in Dushanbe said he was doing his best to speak to younger members of his congregation about the perils of radical Muslim groups.

“Some people really don’t like that, and I often get threatening notes dropped at my home telling me not to do this,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kumri’s parents now keep a close eye on what she is up to.

“I know you can go to jail for it,” she said. “I want to study the Koran but I don’t want to get mixed up in some kind of banned organisation.”

Lidia Isamova is Tajikistan correspondent for the RIA Novosti news agency.