Why was Hizb ut-Tahrir protest in Brussels the biggest?

During Karimov’s recent visit to the European Union (EU) and NATO in Brussels, the protests by human rights activists in front of the European Commissions’ headquarters in the Berlaymont building were (relatively) well-covered by the media, who followed up on Karimov’s visit and on the situation in Uzbekistan in general. At the same time, yet completely ignored by the media, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) Europe held a demonstration right in front of the Uzbek embassy.

One thing that immediately caught the eye was that HuT’s demo clearly had a larger attendance than the human rights picket at the Berlaymont, where there seemed to be more press than demonstrators (compare the YouTube video above to the photographs below from an HuT Europe Flickr account). As far as I know, the demo at the Uzbek embassy is the first open manifestation of HuT in Brussels, or in Belgium in general. Last year, they launched a portal site in Dutch (http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.nl/). Although I found no similar party portal in French yet, Al-Badil (‘the alternative’, in Arabic) (http://albadil.edaama.org/) reflects HuT’s world views and ideology.

So, how should we interpret this event?

In the first place, this could mean that HuT has networks of committed people who can be mobilised quickly, appealing to the natural solidarity that exists among Muslims. Even if Uzbekistan is not among HuT’s main geographic areas of activity in the world, it has regularly been bringing up the issue of Uzbekistan and its regime for the last ten years. Of course, it is not the only group that brings up Uzbekistan, yet it is one of the few political parties, not to mention an Islamist one, to do so. Moreover, while the “classical”, i.e., secular, international human rights scene tends to focus more on the harrasment of secular human rights or NGO activists like Mutabar Tadjibaeva or Maxim Popov, to name but two examples, HuT has been focusing on the predicament of a far bigger, yet internationally less “popular”, group of political prisoners: Uzbekistan’s Muslims.

Meanwhile, there is no large Uzbekistan solidarity movement in Europe as there is for the Palestinian cause, or, more recently, with Tunisia. There are a few reasons. First, because Uzbekistan is not a cause célèbre for political movements and opinion leaders in Europe, whereas Palestine has long been a favourite of the European Left. Indeed, Left-wing organisations and parties remain instrumental in mobilising, at times large, solidarity demos, as happened with Gaza last year, for instance. Second, the situation in Uzbekistan is comparatively little-covered by the European media. And finally, there is no large and socially active diaspora from Uzbekistan in Europe, as compared to some 650,000 Tunisians in France and the Benelux. Citizens of Uzbekistan in Europe are comparatively few and geographically more scattered. According to my observations, a sizeable portion of those who are in Europe are members of minorities, e.g. ethnic Russians, what I call “Soviet métis” or heavily Russianised “city Uzbeks”. They tend to identify less with wider Uzbekistani society and are (understandably) reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals against relatives back home. A good number are also “economic asylum seekers” whose first concern is to make a new life.

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