It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep furrows and strained by even
deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden religious group. Although Muminov’s job as a builder prevented him from attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali’s sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.
When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road beside the city’s Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights. The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime’s harsh crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually unforgiving Uzbek justice system might–just this once–tilt toward leniency.
It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls “the most popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.” The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 1953, foresee “a moment when millions of its supporters will simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments–particularly the Karimov regime–by sheer force of numbers.” In place of the region’s various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to western China and beyond. It’s a threat that the local autocracies, as well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid argues: “The fear is that young [members]… may soon ignore their elders’ advice and turn to guerrilla warfare.”