More than a thousand bearded men, muffled in scarves and accompanied by veiled women, stand under the hot sun, waving black and white flags and chanting Allahu Akbar! (God is Great).
This is not a scene from the Middle East or Central Asia, but a rally of the supporters of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Freedom) in Simferopol — the capital of the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea.
Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to re-establish a Caliphate — a pan-Islamic state based on Islamic rule like in the medieval era.
Banned in several states, it is now showing surprising strength in Crimea, a balmy seaside holiday resort region which has a substantial Muslim Tatar minority.
The head of the information office of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Ukraine, Fazyl Amzaev, said that the party’s ambition of reviving the Caliphate does not extend to Ukraine and its presence is educational.
“Our work in Ukraine does not mean that we act or will act to change the borders of the state,” Amzaev said. “Achieving the goal of establishing the Caliphate is real only in countries with a predominantly Muslim population. But in Ukraine, we, as Muslims, are obliged to inform the society about Islam in its correct form.”
The first devotees of Hizb ut-Tahrir appeared in the Crimea in the early 1990s. Twelve percent, or 250,000 of the nearly two million inhabitants of Crimea are Sunni Muslim Crimean Tatars.
Now they number between 2,000 and 15,000 — Hizb ut-Tahrir does not disclose the true number, claiming only a permanent climb in supporters.
“The world is a big village, and everywhere there is a struggle against Islam in favor of liberal-democratic values,” Amzaev said, calling on Ukrainian Muslims not to assimilate, but to keep their values.
“The Caliphate is not a threat, but on the contrary is the salvation for mankind amid a crisis of capitalism, democracy and liberal values in general,” he said.
Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami has been banned in several countries including Russia and Germany.
The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Crimea has already called on the authorities to take a closer look at the group’s work in Ukraine.
Its deputy head Aider Ismailov said that Hizb ut-Tahrir’s teachings can contradict local religious tradition and practices.
“This party creates a negative image of Islam and Muslims, people are scared of their rallies,” he said.
Ismailov is not pushing for the party to be banned in Ukraine, but he considers its ideology harmful.
“We would like to see the government state its position towards a religious-political group which preaches that democracy is a system of unbelief,” he said.
Ukraine appears in no hurry to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, if just because the group simply does not exist in the legal framework of the country — it is not registered either as a party or as a public or religious organization.
Party members themselves do not seek for their formalization, citing ideological reasons.
“Hizb ut-Tahrir in Ukraine does not seek political goals, and our participation in non-Islamic authorities is forbidden by the canons of faith,” Amzaev said.