Kyrgyzstan has signaled the imminent launch of a campaign to stamp out the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, marking a departure from a toothless ban that has contrasted sharply with its treatment elsewhere in the region.
Prime Minister Viktor Chudinov on January 28 ordered into action a plan to combat the "spread of religious extremism" during the next three years. The only group identified by name was the "religious extremist party Hizb-ut Tahrir."
Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate in order to "resume the Islamic way of life," but rejects violence as a means to achieving that aim. It is banned throughout Central Asia.
Yet Kyrgyz authorities have never pursued the group with quite the same energy as their counterparts in neighboring Tajikistan, let alone as aggressively as the Uzbek government. Indeed, in some parts of Kyrgyzstan's section of the restive Ferghana Valley, there has seemed to be a tacit agreement between local authorities and Hizb ut-Tahrir members that if the religious group keeps a low profile, its followers can live and work untrammeled.
Now, that seems set to change.
Jolbors Jorobekov, former director of the Kyrgyz State Agency on Religious Affairs, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Hizb ut-Tahrir has succeeded in reaching far and wide across the country.
"Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir members are conducting their propaganda work in mountainous, remote regions -- the low standard of living of such regions is the reason for this," Jorobekov says. "It is all connected to financial conditions."
Ebb And Flow
Jorobekov says enlistment efforts rise and fall with the level of resources at members' disposal. "When they have money, they increase their recruitment activities -- they have the human and other resources -- brochures and leaflets, for example," Jorobekov says. "And when they don't have the finances, they again operate quietly, out of sight."
Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported on January 28 that "various Islamic religious groups from extremist sects" have been stepping up their activities in Kyrgyzstan. The news agency mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir and reported that members who "earlier were only active in Kyrgyzstan's southern regions" are now increasingly working in the northern regions of the country and in the capital, Bishkek.
Kanat Murzakhalilov, the deputy director of the State Agency on Religious Affairs, tells RFE/RL that because of the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups, it is important to work throughout the country to counter their influence. The Kyrgyz government's decision should serve as a "warning," he says.
Hizb ut-Tahrir "activists carry on their propaganda activities underground, but they are as active now as they ever were," Murzakhalilov says. "The members of our agency -- together with the Spiritual Board of Muslims -- are working to explain [the dangers] to the people."
He adds that Kyrgyz authorities are also "engaged in various preventative measures" concerning Hizb ut-Tahrir, which describes itself as "a political party whose ideology is Islam."
Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence reaches far beyond northern Kyrgyzstan. The group is not outlawed in Britain, and it is bolstered globally by an Internet presence that includes chat rooms and other informal channels to engage the disaffected.
Members have been arrested in major industrial cities in northern Kazakhstan and Russian Siberia.
Hizb ut-Tahrir preaches the overthrow of secular governments and establishment of an Islamic state based on Shari'a law. Just how far this Islamic state extends depends on which member is speaking. Some consider the Ferghana Valley, also shared by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to be sufficient. Others claim to want all of Central Asia -- or all the traditionally Islamic lands.
Its website describes its mission as "establishing an Islamic state that executes the systems of Islam and carries its call to the world." Hizb ut-Tahrir denounces the use of violence.
Governments in Central Asia have made numerous attempts to link the group to violent acts, although there has never been any conclusive evidence to prove such a link. Reports of arrests of members mention literature, audiotapes, and sometimes computer discs as being confiscated. A few cartridges of ammunition have also been found.
But signs of an expanding membership concerns the governments in the region. The ITAR-TASS report cited "official information" that said there were some 2,000 Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Kyrgyzstan, but added that "experts in the security field" say they number many times higher.
Chudinov's statement did not shed any light on Kyrygzstan's planned tactics in its campaign against religious extremism. It only said that "ministries, state committees, administrative departments, and other organs of the executive branch, local government administrations, and authorities" would participate.
RFE/RL spoke with a defiant Hizb ut-Tahrir member who accused the Kyrgyz government of attacking Islam, saying that no new campaign against his group would eliminate it or prevent its activities.
"This action against the activities of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party will not have any effect," the member said. "It will not be curtailed or stopped. We will continue to do our task in accordance with our program -- that is to say, we will carry on our political and ideological struggle."
The dedication and intensity of that struggle remains to be seen, as there are officials in the Kyrgyz government who in the past have called for legalizing and registering Hizb ut-Tahrir. Those officials, including Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, are likely to keep a close watch on the campaign against Islamic extremists to guard against rights violations.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be pressing Kyrgyz authorities to round up as many Hizb ut-Tahrir members as possible and prevent the group from strengthening its foothold anywhere in the region, including Kyrgyzstan.
Eleonora Kulenbekova of RFE/RLs Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.