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Islamic Group Banned by Many Is Not on U.S. Terrorist List

"Our law says that the organization [al-Manar] can be put on the list if it commits or incites to commit any terrorist activity," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"The United States is having a very hard time dealing with this," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors political and religious persecution worldwide. "It's a very fine line between inciting and training for terrorism. Everybody's trying to figure out where to draw the line."

Pakistani policemen arrest an activist of the Islamic Liberation Party at an October anti-U.S demonstration in Lahore. (Mohsin Raza -- Reuters)

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One senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Islamic radicalism in Central Asia is "a serious and growing danger not fully appreciated by people in this town." He called Islamic Liberation "a factory" for producing radical Islamic ideas but said on balance he still believes it should not be designated as a terrorist group.

"They say they want to overthrow secular governments, that it's okay to fly planes into buildings," he said. "But they claim to be nonviolent. They are using our language against us. . . . It's hard to nail them."

Part of the administration's anti-terrorism strategy has been to try to persuade Central Asian leaders to allow independent and moderate Islamic groups to operate legally. Uzbek leaders, however, say they see nothing moderate in Islamic Liberation's announced goals.

The party's aim "is gaining political power through religion," Zukhriddin Khusnidinov, an adviser to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, said at a conference at the Nixon Center in Washington in October. "It is crucial to outlaw all radical religious groups whose ideology generates international terrorism," added Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Uzbek ambassador to Washington.

"It's kind of a conundrum for the U.S. government," said the senior Bush administration official. "The rhetoric is really vile. The question is: Do they have the right to freedom of expression?"

Arab and other Muslim governments have been pondering that question for 52 years. The party was founded in 1952 by a Palestinian judge, Taqiuddin Nabhani, who lived in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule. He broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egypt-based militant Islamic group, rejecting its willingness to even consider cooperation with Egypt's secular authorities in seeking power.

Jordanian authorities refused to recognize the party and arrested some of its leaders, forcing it underground, where it continued to spread slowly throughout the Muslim world. Today, it has branches in 30 to 40 counties from Indonesia to Denmark, recruiting particularly on college campuses and at mosques.

Still, little is known about this international organization that has attracted tens of thousands of followers worldwide. Its Web site, www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org, says it is "a political party whose ideology is Islam." Yet, it has shown no interest in participating in elections and none in sharing power with other parties.

Although its spokesmen renounce violence, the party's Web site describes a three-stage plan aimed at "seizing the reins of power" across the Muslim world. "It is forbidden to seize partial power," the Web site states, and "the implementation of Islam must be comprehensive."

Its tactics for achieving these goals seem inspired by those of communist parties. The first stage of its plan calls for indoctrinating recruits in small "study groups" that subsequently morph into secret cells of five to six people operating independently of each other, according to a report from the International Crisis Group, which has issued several reports on the party.

Islamic Liberation was involved in failed coup attempts in both Jordan and Egypt before renouncing violence in the mid-1970s. When Nabhani died in 1978, another Palestinian, Abdul Kaddim Zalloum, a religious scholar educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, became party leader and remained so until his death in April 2003.

The current leader is Sheik Ata Abu Rashta, a Palestinian Jordanian Islamic scholar about whom little is known, including his whereabouts.

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