Since 2001, Islamic radicalism has been largely associated with the Arab world and South Asia. But in the past few years, some analysts have raised concerns about radical and militant groups in the five Central Asian states that were once part of the former Soviet Union. Now, because of the proximity of those states to Afghanistan, understanding the nature of Islamic radicalism in the region has become strategically important to the United States and many European governments.
Situation Not Uniform throughout Region
Islamic radicalism has become a serious problem in some areas of Central Asia – especially in the Fergana Valley, which overlaps the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – but the threat is by no means uniform, according to Paul Goble, a specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia.
“There is a serious Islamist challenge against the Uzbek government,” Goble said. “But in Kazakhstan, there is relatively little, and in Turkmenistan, there is almost none.” Both in Tajikistan, along its border with Uzbekistan, and in the southern portion of Kyrgyzstan, there is “significant” Islamic radicalism that is largely a spillover from Uzbekistan, since it is a heavily Uzbek-populated area, according to Goble. “So it’s wrong to say that all of Central Asia is subject to Islamic radicalism,” he warns, “but it’s correct to say that there is a very serious problem in Uzbekistan and in the adjoining areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”
In the West, Goble explains, there are two opposing attitudes about the nature of the Islamist threat in Central Asia. One, he explains, is that Western governments do not appreciate the serious political and military challenges faced by the states of Central Asia. The other criticizes those authoritarian leaders, especially in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, who exaggerate the threat of Islamism for their own political ends.
But both interpretations miss the mark, Goble suggests. “One of the problems is that – if you try to make this clear and simple – you’re going to be wrong. The interaction of ethnicity, religion, economics, and politics means that there is more than one variable in this equation. Governments in the region – especially the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov – have chosen to call a lot of things Islamic that probably aren’t. But, those people who simply blame the governments miss the fact that there is a significant element of Islamic radicalism in the Fergana Valley,” he said.
A View from Russia
Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center heads its program on religion and politics in Eurasia. He said it is hard to evaluate how great a threat groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan currently pose to the governments of the region. “I don’t want to exaggerate the Islamic threat, but at the same time we shouldn’t ignore it.”
Malashenko said he thinks the goal of creating an Islamic state, or caliphate, in Central Asia is “utopian” and unlikely. “But at the same time, because of a very poor economic situation and the lack of a normal secular opposition, social and political protest is expressed through Islam.” Although it would be inaccurate to say that the majority of the population shares the idea of an Islamic alternative, Malashenko said, a large part of society is “involved in Islamic ideas.”
A View from Central Asia
But journalist Alisher Khamidov, who has recently returned from Kyrgyzstan, where he was doing fieldwork on the roots of Islamic radicalism, says he questions the extent of the problem. “I think there are definitely pockets of Islamic radicalism in Central Asia, but I think the threat of radicalism is quite exaggerated,” Khamidov said.
Over the past four or five years, especially since the suppression of the May 2005 uprising in Andijan, Khamidov suggests, there have been profound changes in the Fergana Valley and radical Islam has actually lost its earlier influence.
“The first factor is the level of state repression against what officials call Islamic radicalism,” Khamidov said. For example, many people are now afraid of being affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups the government regards as radical. The second major factor is economic pressure. “A lot of people – potential recruits to radical groups – have gone to Russia in search of jobs.” The third factor, Khamidov says, is ideological competition. “In recent years, the Fergana Valley and other parts of Central Asia have witnessed a rise in moderate Islamic thought,” he said.
Ends and Means May Differ
According to Goble, it is critical to distinguish between ends and means when trying to evaluate the situation. “Everyone who is part of Hizb ut-Tahrir believes the caliphate should be re-established,” he said, “but the question is: how do you get from where you are to that goal?” Goble argues that some people in Hizb ut-Tahrir believe in the use of terrorist means but others reject terrorism. “In Uzbekistan and in the Russian Federation,” he suggests, the focus has been on those who say they must use militant means to achieve a caliphate.
Response of Western Governments
U.S. and European governments need to be aware of several important factors when dealing with Central Asia leaders, Goble cautions. “The first is, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the way in which a leader describes the situation in his country is absolutely true. For example, when President Karimov of Uzbekistan says that everybody who opposes me is an Islamist, we should realize that’s not true.”
“Second, we have got to stop thinking about Central Asia as a single place but rather as five countries that are very, very different,” Goble urges. “Third, because the political, economic, ethnic, and religious borders do not correspond, it requires us to be very sensitive – as often we have not been – that what is going on in Kyrgyzstan may have more to do with Uzbeks than it does with Kyrgyz,” he warns.
Khamidov suggests that there is increasing awareness in Washington that the threat of Islamic radicalism has been exaggerated by the secular governments in the region. “Unlike the previous administration, President Obama’s administration in some ways is aware of the counter-productive nature of repressive measures by Central Asia leaders on what they call Islamic radicalism.”
At the same time, Khamidov observes, Washington seems to be concerned primarily with the war in neighboring Afghanistan and maintaining its access to bases in Central Asia to supply its forces there. “They want the campaign to be successful, so they are willing to cooperate with undemocratic regimes and not question their human rights record and their fight against Islamic radicalism,” he suggests.