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US Lawmakers, Officials Discuss Islamic Extremism in Central Asia - 2003-10-29

Members of Congress are expressing concern that a perceived lack of legitimacy is undermining the efforts of Central Asian countries to combat radical Islamic insurgencies. Lawmakers and government officials discussed the matter during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Central Asia, opened the hearing by saying religious extremism and terrorism have been among the major threats to the former Soviet states of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991.

"A brand of radical, international Islam, Wahhabism, gave birth to many radical movements including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," she said. "The former's views are highly radical, advocating the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an Islamic state."

The Republican lawmaker noted that the United States has maintained close ties with the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan since the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent, U.S.-led intervention in nearby Afghanistan.

But she also said Central Asian countries have used the radical threat to justify clamping down on political dissidents, something she insisted has undermined the legitimacy of their governments as well as the war on terrorism.

"The reliance of governments, through the region, on force to meet the challenge posed by these radicals does not only fail to adequately address the problem of Islamic extremism, but it does not bode well for the prospects of democratic reform in the five countries of the Central Asian region, given the use of force to also stifle peaceful, political dissent," Ms. Ros-Lehtinen went on to say.

All the committee members in attendance, Democrats and Republicans, agreed that the Central Asian republics need to allow political liberalization.

The speakers were especially critical of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his family. They noted that Mr. Karimov's government has secured an Interpol arrest warrant against his former son-in-law, Mansur Maqsudi, who is wanted at home on fraud charges and now lives in the United States.

"This is obviously not only an abuse of power by the Uzbek president, this not only has political overtones, but personal overtones as well, and Interpol should not be used for that purpose," said Democrat Congresswoman Shelley Berkley. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones agreed with the lawmakers that progress toward political reform has been slow and uneven in Central Asia. She addressed concerns that political repression may boost the popularity of radical Islamic movements.

"We talk to these governments at various levels with all of the intensity that we can muster about the importance of not generating new recruits for these terrorist organizations, and particularly about the role of repression in generating potential new recruits," she said.

Secretary Jones said she hopes Congress will approve the Bush Administration's plan to spend $100 million on educational and exchange programs in Central Asia. These, she said, will strengthen civil society and help promote market-based democracy in the region.