The Lure of Islamism in Central Asia
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Islam in Central Asia is Janus-faced: one side is risk averse and promotes respect for authority, while the other challenges the status quo and those in power. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and emergence of five independent states, the political elite in the region has engaged in an elaborate campaign to promote a conformist version of Islam and warn against the dangers of radical religious ideologies. For the most part, Central Asian governments have been successful in keeping their respective countries free of major Islamic political agitation. Despite periods of upheaval (most notably the civil war in Tajikistan, periodic clashes in the restive Ferghana valley, and ethnic and political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan), the connection between Islam and rebellion has been largely foreign to Central Asians. The absence of wide appeal for radical Islamic ideas today, however, does not necessary mean that Central Asian Muslims are immune to such interpretations. The question that needs to be asked relates to resilience. Are Central Asians able to discern the flaws in radical Islam and resist its utopian lure?
This chapter will offer an analysis of the top-down approach to control and manipulate Islam that has been adopted in Central Asia. The consequence of the state’s heavy-handed approach has been unexpected and somewhat contrary to its intended outcome. It is particularly important to note that the generally repressive political environment has often undermined the credibility and legitimacy of incumbent leaders. Following this assessment, the chapter’s focus shifts to the range of groups and actors that have tried to promote a radical interpretation of Islam to challenge the status quo. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has highlighted a level of vulnerability in Central Asia. Muslims from the region appear to be drawn to this Middle Eastern theater of conflict, in a way not previously seen in Central Asia. This trend, however modest, has revealed dangerous cracks in the official containment plan to keep Central Asia away from the Middle East and its many flash points.
It is important to start with a point on terminology. Islamism, radical Islam, and political Islam are used interchangeably in this chapter, denoting a key argument on Islamism as ideological phenomena. As a self-contained system of political thought, Islamism is focused on remaking the world according to its own prescription. The Islamist agenda is not about finding accommodation with the status quo or improving on its imperfections. It is inherently revolutionary and seeks to construct a new system on a model which it claims to have existed in the early days of Islam. In that sense, Islamism is an attempt to remold the world in accordance with its reading of history and reclaim a glorified past. Islamism, therefore, presents a radical challenge to the status quo, which it rejects as illegitimate and unworthy of Muslims’ allegiance. Its alternative is a political system that is founded on divine rule, an Islamic State. In that perspective, only God can give law, and only a political system based on divine sovereignty is legitimate – everything else is illegitimate and false. As a system of political thought, Islamism has an exclusive claim to the truth and rejects all alternatives as wrong (Akbarzadeh 2012).
A radical rejection of the status quo and a desire to construct a new political system in accordance with a utopian vision are the cornerstone of Islamism. However, not all Islamist groups pursue that goal in the same way. The behavior of ISIS stands in sharp contrast with the record of many other Islamist groups. For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which will be explored in more detail below, shares some aspects of its ideological foundation with ISIS but refrains from engaging in armed conflict. This choice has made Hizb ut-Tahrir more appealing to many in Central Asia. Hizb ut-Tahrir has grown to represent a challenge to the status quo and, as a result, attract harsh government attention. In the search for stability and regime continuity, however, the repressive measures of Central Asian government tend to feed political dissent and future instability.
Islam and Conformity
The political elite in Central Asia experienced minimal rupture with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse had been unexpected, and Central Asia was not at the forefront of the protest movement against Communist one-party rule or the dominance of Russia over other nationalities in the Soviet Union. The decision to dissolve the Soviet Union was made initially by the three Slavic republics of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine in 1991. Central Asians therefore awoke to the new dawn of independence reluctant and unprepared. This major historical event of the twentieth century left the Central Asian leaders to fend for themselves, to sink or swim by their own wits. The political elite, however, had an obvious advantage; they retained control over the institutions of power within their nominal states, which had overnight gained real substance. This meant that the leaders remained at the top of republican administrative machinery, maintaining a monopoly on the use of force through the security services. The leaders also retained control over the media, which was an important instrument in setting the agenda for public discourse and propagating a carefully crafted narrative.
The key message in the new narrative was simple: The incumbent leadership in Central Asia was committed to peace, prosperity, and stability of their respective nations. With the baffling exception of the Communist Party leadership in Tajikistan, which seriously misjudged the momentous historical events, other republican leaders grasped the opportunity to throw away their Communist cap in favor of a nationalist cloak. This was an important transformation and addressed a critical risk factor in the survival of the ruling elite by preventing a crisis of legitimacy. As former Communist Party bosses, the leadership was tainted by their history of working for Moscow. The Central Asian leadership was historically part of the vast machinery that made up the Soviet Union. This was a hierarchical system with Moscow at its apex. The Central Asian leaders’ fortunes were decided there, rather than in their administrative republics. This record put the leadership in a bad light, so the memory of being answerable to Moscow had to be rapidly erased. The political elite could not have a legitimate claim to power in the post-Soviet era if they were remembered as instruments of Russian control.
The new image, promoted through state-controlled media, highlighted the nationalist credentials of the political elite. Nationalism became the official ideology, and the incumbent leadership became its most ardent advocates. With the exception of Tajik leaders, the Central Asian leadership adopted the mantra of national pride and embarked on an orchestrated campaign of public reeducation and celebration of national heritage. The renaming of public places after historical figures, the move away from Cyrillic letters, and the erection of new monuments to celebrate national heroes (such as Amir Timur in Uzbekistan) were part of a comprehensive campaign to establish the countries’ leaders as devout nationalists. The campaign to rewrite history and erase the memory of the elite’s past was in full swing by mid-1992. The leadership was acutely aware of its shortcomings, especially with the emergence of a modest protest movement which questioned the legitimacy of former Communist bosses to rule post-Soviet Central Asia, and keen to compensate for it.
The ascendance of the nationalist discourse raised an interesting question about the role of religion in post-Soviet Central Asia. Under Soviet rule, Islam was rejected as superstition and a vestige of the past. In its early days, Soviet authorities ran anti-Islam campaigns to eradicate religious beliefs and practices. While the harsh Stalinist approach to religion was abandoned by subsequent Soviet leaders, ultimately becoming a more tolerant environment under Mikhail Gorbachev, Islam was still expected to disappear as a result of 70 years of secular education and Soviet progress. But it did not. This was a lesson for Central Asian leaders. They had observed how Islam had retained its hold on the national psyche and social practices of Central Asians in the face of official condemnation. The staying power of Islam was rooted in its entanglement with ethnic identity. An Uzbek, for example, was expected to be Muslim by definition. Anything else would point to an identity crisis. Islam survived Soviet persecution because Central Asians did not wish to become Russian. Instead they cherished their Islamic heritage through a range of Islamic rituals, sometimes clandestinely. The rituals of male circumcision, reciting Islamic Nikah at wedding ceremonies, and collective prayers for the dead (namaz) helped remind Central Asians’ connection with their past and regenerate a sense of identity that was distinct from that of the Russian overlords. It was obvious to Central Asian leaders in the post-Soviet era that their campaigns to construct a nationalist image for themselves would be incomplete without incorporating Islam.
Nationalization of Islam
Incorporating Islam into the nationalist narrative, however, was fraught with complications. The political leadership was trained in the Soviet system and held very firm views about the place of religion in society. It insisted on the private nature of Islam and that any public manifestations needed to be controlled and closely monitored. The political elite had inherited from the Soviet past an obsession with control, an obsession which proved difficult to implement as the Central Asian governments experimented with political transition. Efforts to control Islam and demonstrate a level of piety were grounded in the assumption that Islam would boost the nationalist standing of the elite and enhance their credibility. This was consistent with the systemic efforts to demonstrate a break with the Soviet past, dispel doubts about the political legitimacy of the incumbent leaders, and consolidate the elite as the champions of the post-Soviet future.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan was the first to hold a Quran in his hand at his swearing-in ceremony in December 1991. This took place during a session of the parliament, made up of representatives elected during the Soviet period. (President Islam Karimov’s decision reflected his awareness of the turning tide following Gorbachev’s reforms which introduced direct elections for the office of the president.) President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan performed hajj in 1992 and ensured that posters of his pilgrimage were on public display throughout the country. Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan took similar trips to Mecca in the subsequent years. All Central Asian republics (expect Tajikistan in the immediate Soviet collapse) were quick to declare the two Muslim festivals of Kurban Bayram and Eid al-Fitr as national holidays. The Central Asian leaders’ public gestures were rich in symbolism. They delivered an unashamedly political message designed to resonate with the population. That message was anchored in the belief that Islam remained a pillar of identity among Central Asians and would help the region regain its past glory and national pride.
The official co-option of Islam and its increased public visibility was based on a specific reading of Islam as a complacent religion. This interpretation was based on the recent history of Islam under Soviet Union. Following the defeat of the Basmachi movement, which evoked the image of an Islamic jihad against the rule of Russian/Communist kafirs in the early 1920s, Islam was forced to retreat from the public domain. Islam was downgraded to a private matter, with ad hoc public displays at community events. The gap between Islam and politics appeared almost complete by the 1990s. There was no Islamic-inspired opposition to the Soviet Union. Even the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) which emerged in the region on the eve of the Soviet collapse and claimed to be inspired by Islam, with clear visibility in Uzbekistan, did not espouse independence. The political elite expected the apolitical qualities of Islam to continue into the post-Soviet era. The political elite had a vested interest in promoting an Islam that was complacent, “peaceful,” and respectful of authority (Fierman 1994).
The incumbent leadership utilized the state machinery to exercise control and promote their favored version of Islam. The political elite fell back on the familiar top-down approach and restructured the state-sanctioned Islamic hierarchy to ensure continuity of control. As with other state institutions, the infrastructure for control was put in place under Soviet rule. Central Asian Islam was managed by the office of the Muftiyat in Tashkent which reported to the Council for Religious Affairs in Moscow via its representative republican offices. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it was important for the republic leadership to exercise effective control over the institutions of Islam and its message. This meant expanding the Council for Religious Affairs at the republican levels and severing the hierarchical links which made Tashkent the regional focal point in Central Asia. Interestingly, Kazakhstan was the first to break away from the regional structure and claim independence for its Islamic institutions even before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Other republics claimed independent jurisdiction over their Islamic hierarchy after the Soviet collapse. As a result each republic appointed its own religious authority, or Mufti, to be answerable to the republican administration. It was expected that close supervision of the Islamic establishment would offer the political elite control over Islam’s expansion, fashion its message, and draw credibility for its patronage as a key pillar of national identity (Akbarzadeh 1997).
Political events in Central Asia, however, did not follow the above script. While, on the whole, the region has steered clear of radical Islam, there have been important divergences. Even before the Soviet collapse, Central Asian intellectuals were exploring issues of national identity and the role of Islam. The rise of the IRP was an example of such experimentation. While the IRP was more focused on challenging the legitimacy of the incumbent leaders than offering a coherent vision for the future, its overt reference to Islam was key to addressing issues of economic downturn, and political oppression gave it certain appeal. The rapid politicization of the IRP in the wake of the Soviet collapse and deteriorating crisis in Tajikistan made it the most readily identifiable representative of Islamism in Central Asia. This denomination, however, was rather misleading. The IRP leadership maintained very vague ideas on the meaning of the “Islamic State” in the context of Central Asia. Its performance in Tajikistan, while fanning the fire of discontent, did not make it the sole responsible player for the Tajik Civil War (1992–1997).
The Tajik descent into civil conflict was a result of a schism between the ruling party and Tajik society, due to the refusal of the incumbent leadership to accept the end of the Soviet Union. While neighboring leaders had engaged in concerted efforts to build new identities and distance themselves from the Soviet past (e.g., dropping their “Communist” nomenclature), the Tajik leadership yearned for the revival of Moscow’s rule. Most revealing was the resistance of the Communist Party bosses to renaming the ruling party. The leadership downplayed national pride and refused to show any sign of accommodation toward Islam. In 1992, Qazi Akbar Turajonzoda, who was serving as an elected member of the parliament, proposed the adoption of Islamic festivals as national holidays. The result was a resounding defeat. This episode alienated many, including the official Islamic institutions. The office of the Kaziyat (equivalent of the Muftiyat in Tashkent), which would have normally advised against dissent and political agitation, openly sided with the IRP and the protest rallies against the ruling Communist Party. The rapid escalation of conflict also revealed a parochial fault line, whereby the opposition movement received support largely from the south and east and the ruling party enjoying support in the capital and the north (Akbarzadeh 1996). The civil war only ended following international mediation and a plan to form a government of national reconciliation.
The IRP in its early days may have held unclear notions about its understanding of Islam and politics, but 5 years of conflict and exposure to the Taliban’s version of Islam in Afghanistan made an impression on some militants. The turn to a more radical interpretation of Islam was encouraged by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU represented a group of Islamists who fled persecution in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley to join the Tajik Civil War. Following the end of the civil war in 1997, the IMU developed ties with the Taliban and engaged in acts of banditry. For the most part, it proved a nuisance for border security as it engaged in drug trafficking and hostage taking for ransom. The IMU shot to prominence in 1998 when it abducted Japanese geologists for ransom in Kyrgyzstan and was subsequently listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in 2000 (US Department of State).
The impact of Islamism on Central Asia in this period was fleeting and transitory. Following the formation of the government of national reconciliation in Tajikistan, the IRP was given representation in the administration. However, the combination of strong-arm tactics by the ruling elite under the leadership of President Rahmon Nabiev, the IRP’s lack of experience in engaging in formal politics, and the population’s suspicion about the IRP’s vision led to its marginalization. Tajikistan is the only Central Asian republic that has allowed an Islamist party to operate legally, and the IRP’s leadership under Muhiddin Kabiri has made every effort to emphasize its differences with the Iranian and Taliban models of government. The IRP has retained the “Islamic” adjective in its name but understands it as synonymous with “national” and does not advocate an Islamist agenda. Delivering a funeral address for Abdulloh Nuri, a former leader of IRP, Kabiri was at pains to emphasize that the IRP was totally committed to “peaceful Islam” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2006).
The fortunes of the IMU have been more dramatic. Following the American-led campaign to dislodge the Taliban, the IMU chose to side with the latter and suffered heavy losses in Mazar-e Sharif. Remnants of the IMU leadership are currently reported to have joined Al-Qaeda, but as a coherent force, it has lost relevance to Central Asia (Roggio 2014).
Notwithstanding the diffused and incoherent nature of Islamism in Central Asia in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the political elite appeared to be taken by surprise at the emergence of “Islamic” groups which they interpreted as a threat. Political Islam was seen as a conceptual challenge to the official interpretation of Islam as docile and respectful of authority. The IRP and a range of local Islamist groups in the Ferghana Valley challenged the credentials of incumbent regimes to speak for Islam and saw the regime’s resort to Islam as a cynical self-serving political ploy. They were a liability for the political elite and most notably for President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan who had the most to lose due to his ambitious co-option of Islam. The official response to Islamism was to delegitimize it as alien to Central Asia. The use of terms such as Wahhabi or Salafi and alleging ideological connections with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban were designed to send a simple message: radical Islam was a foreign import. Islamism was seen to have no roots in Central Asian culture and traditions. In the context of state-sponsored nationalism and the celebration of everything indigenous, this was a damning critique which equated Islamism with treason.
This ideological response to Islamism was complemented by a severe security crackdown that made all dissent illegal. The heavy-handed approach to political dissent forced political activists underground and helped generate a pool of potential recruits for radical ideas. This oppressive political atmosphere proved conducive for the emergence of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia. The growing appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir was based on a number of interrelated factors. As an international organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir had developed a strategy to operate in harsh political environments by galvanizing local grievances on immediate issues of the day, linking them with a grand narrative of the lost glory of Islam. The need to reestablish the Caliphate, as the panache for all ills, has been the key message of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The evocation of the glory of Islamic Caliphate has been particularly appealing to Central Asian Muslims as it touches an emotional chord. Central Asians were cut off from the rest of the Muslim world under Soviet rule and felt a yearning to reconnect with their Muslim brethren. This desire was part of the search for a post-Soviet identity and was inadvertently assisted by official attempts to incorporate Islam into state-sponsored nationalism. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s message was made even more appealing as it distanced itself from political violence. Instead it insisted on religious education and reconnection with key principles of Islam to prepare for the resurrection of the Caliphate, promising to revive the glory of Islamic civilization. This purported peaceful utopia proved attractive to many Central Asians who were dissatisfied with the shortcomings of incumbent governments and searched for an alternative.
Terror in the Mind
The response of the ruling elite to Hizb ut-Tahrir has been more repression. The authorities never accepted the claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir eschewed violence, accusing the group of engaging in acts of terror. From the point of Central Asian authorities, there was no difference between Hizb ut-Tahrir, the IRP, the IMU, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even the Islamic Republic of Iran. They all represented an unacceptable “foreign” threat to regime security. Uzbek officials, who arguably faced the most serious Islamist challenge in the region, habitually used terms like Islamist, Wahhabist, and terrorist interchangeably. The constant references to the Taliban to the south in official statements served an important purpose as it reminded Russia and the international community that Central Asia was at the forefront of the battle against Islamic terrorism. The Central Asian leaders felt vindicated with the momentous events of September 11 and the subsequent international efforts to dislodge the Taliban. They had been warning of Islamic terrorism as a source of instability, and now the whole world appeared to subscribe to that view.
In the subsequent years, Central Asia received aid and endorsement from the United States and other Western powers to modernize the security forces and combat terrorism. This became the unquestionable prism to look at all forms of political dissent. Any form of political activity independent of the state was viewed with suspicion and deemed to represent a challenge. The 2005 events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan highlighted the fragility of the political system and importance of brute force to deal with difficult political crises. The ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which led to the fall of President Askar Akayev’s government, dubbed the Tulip Revolution, was watched with unease in other Central Asian capitals. The speed of Akayev’s fall was credited to the reluctance of his government to use physical violence to suppress protestors. President Karimov drew an important lesson from this experience and when faced with political unrest in Andijan in the same year, not hesitating to utilize the full might of the security forces to quell the unrest. The 2005 Andijan event has been variedly described as a terrorist plot and peaceful protest rally against the excesses of the local police (International Crisis Group 2005). The incident, however, led to the death of few hundred people and renewed state propaganda against Islamic terrorism. The Uzbek authorities blamed the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir as the perpetrators of violence and renewed their pledge to combat Islamic terrorism.
International investigations into the Andijan massacre have not corroborated the official account of the incident (Human Rights Watch 2008). Many observers argue that Uzbek authorities have used the event as a red herring to justify Tashkent’s political repression and ease criticism of the failure to bring reform and political openness. Such criticism overshadowed the security alignment between Tashkent and Washington and eventually led to the closure of the US military base in Karshi-Khanabad in the same year. This had no effect on the way Uzbek authorities addressed dissent, despite repeated warnings of its consequences. Uzbekistan received advice and criticism about the dangerous dynamics unleashed by its blanket approach to dissent and social initiatives. Most remarkably in 2000, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright counseled her host in Uzbekistan against a heavy-handed approach to legitimate grievances, arguing that such measures would generate an audience susceptible to radicalism and extremist ideas (Human Rights Watch 2001). Central Asian leaders, however, do not appear to have heeded that warning. The dominant paradigm in relation to political dissent and political Islam (in its many manifestations) is the security approach, made even more urgent with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The New ISIS Threat
In its initial phase, the conflict in Iraq and Syria seemed very distant from Central Asia. There is no land bridge between the two regions nor a linguistic connection between the Turkic/Persian languages of Central Asia and Arabic. Other conflicts in the Middle East, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, had historically not resonated deeply in the region. But the lure of radical Islam appears to have finally overcome these barriers and attracted a number of Central Asians to the battlegrounds of the Levant. The exact number of fighters from Central Asia is unclear. However, in January 2015 the International Crisis Group reported that as many as 2,500 Central Asians may be involved in the conflict (International Crisis Group 2015). According to this report, they are widely referred to as “Chechen” by Arab fighters, exhibiting a significant generalization. The report also claimed that Uzbeks constituted the largest ethnic group among Central Asian fighters, springing either from Uzbekistan or from the Uzbek minority in the ethnically tense Republic of Kyrgyzstan. As with many other foreign fighters from Europe, Central Asians have traveled via Turkey to gain access to Syria (Standish 2015). This is an easy route for Central Asians as Turkey has been keen to consolidate its ties with that region following the Soviet collapse, with few restrictions on travel.
This new development has raised serious questions about the ability of the Central Asian leadership in keeping the region away from the turbulent politics of the Middle East and Islamism. The issue raised by the ISIS recruitment of Central Asians is multifaceted. How do Central Asians make the intellectual transition to identify with the ISIS cause? How significant has the role of Hizb ut-Tahrir or association with the Taliban been in aiding this process of radicalization? How can ISIS recruitment be stopped? And more pressing for the Central Asian governments, what will happen when Central Asian fighters return home?
The risk posed by returning fighters has been the overwhelming source of anxiety for the incumbent government. President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan articulated this concern: “The Islamic State is the plague of the new century and represents a threat for global security … These young people, when they return home, bring instability to society … They are a threat for Tajikistan because they recruit for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2014a). Others have gone further. According to the Uzbek national security chief, the authorities are not just concerned with ISIS recruitment but its perpetration of acts of terror in Central Asia (Shakar Saadi 2015). According to the Uzbek national security chief, a number of border arrests have uncovered terrorist plans against targets in Uzbekistan being plotted in Afghanistan. Such claims have led to media reports about a new ISIS front in Central Asia (Blackwell 2015).
Given the track record of the Central Asian governments, it is not surprising that their response to the ISIS threat has exclusively focused on administrative and security measures. All Central Asian republics have now adopted new anti-terror laws to facilitate the persecution of citizens who fight abroad. Addressing a Security Summit for member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan insisted on the need to update the legal system throughout the CIS to address the new security risk (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2014b). The renewed concern with Islamic terrorism has given further momentum to government efforts to quash local Islamic organizations. A number of high-profile court convictions, widely reported in the region to set an example and deter other potential ISIS recruits, link a range of local Islamist groups to ISIS. For example, in December 2014, a Tajik court convicted four men for their affiliation with a Salafi group, (Radio Free Europe/Radio Freedom 2015) while in Kyrgyzstan, state security targeted suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir activists. Ironically, the Tajik President expressed concern that security forces in Central Asia were inefficient and unprepared to deal with the threat (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2015a).
It has been noted by many observers that the dominant security prism undermines the ability of the Central Asian governments to have a realistic assessment of the risk faced by the region. The security approach tends to see all Islamic groups as potential ISIS affiliates, a familiar pattern that tarnishes the credibility of all Islamic groups as recruiting ground for Islamic terrorism. The limitations of this approach are obvious even to many in the leadership. President Nazarbayev made this clear when he said “radicalism and terrorism must not be associated with traditional Islam, peace-loving Islam and other religions” (Interfax 2015). This distinction evoked earlier attempts at sponsoring a version of Islam that conferred legitimacy to the incumbent regimes and branded alternative versions of Islam as alien and unworthy of Central Asian fidelity. Maintaining this distinction is an important aspect of the regime strategy in dealing with the Islamist threat, although it can easily be overlooked in the rush to suppress real or suspected terrorists. President Nazarbayev clearly had this in mind when he urged for more “public awareness programs” to inoculate Central Asians against extremism (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2015b).
Central Asia was cut off from the rest of the Muslim world for over 70 years. During this period, Central Asian Islam was pushed to the private domain and only came to the fore on occasions of community festivities. Central Asians kept Islam alive as part of their identity, despite Moscow’s disapproval. This experience held an important lesson for the republican leadership as they sought to maintain control and pursue political legitimacy through their official patronage of Islam. Post-Soviet engagement with the Muslim world and more specifically the Middle East, however, revealed an important gap between the two regions. While Islam in Central Asia had evolved along an apolitical trajectory that was concerned with preserving identity through traditions and rituals, Islam in the Middle East had experienced hyper-politicization. The rise of Islamist groups against the backdrop of Arab failure to protect Arab/Muslim land against Israeli occupation, the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation (dubbed jihad) had led to the rise of a virulent ideology. Political Islam emerged out of a series of major political crises and was heralded by its advocates as the solution to all ills. Keeping this ideology out of Central Asia was simply impossible once the region resumed links with the outside world.
While the appeal of political Islam in Central Asia should not be exaggerated, it clearly has found a foothold in the region and threatens to drag it into the many crisis points of the Middle East. This process is assisted by the Central Asian leadership’s obsession with control and the heavy-handed approach toward political dissent. Notwithstanding early experimentation with political openness following the Soviet collapse, the political elite has taken an unmistakable turn toward authoritarianism. The war on terror and the rise of ISIS have played into the hands of authoritarian rulers who see threats in every corner. Indeed by treating regime security as synonymous with national security, the ruling regimes have elevated any form of dissatisfaction with the incumbent governments into a national security threat. The predilection of Central Asian leaders to suppress political dissent has generated a stifling political environment within which only the harshest species can survive. By pushing legitimate grievances underground and persecuting Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party which maintained very loose connections with political Islam, the ruling regimes have encouraged the emergence of extremism as the only viable solution for change.The long history of separation from the Muslim world and a deep desire to reconnect, coupled with minimal legal opportunities to learn about Islam, have made Central Asian Muslim vulnerable to idealist projections of Islam’s glory. The zero-sum approach to Islam adopted by the ruling elite has meant that devout Muslims experience a push to the extreme if they do not side with the official version of Islam. In the years following the Soviet collapse and the formation of independent states, it would have been unthinkable for Central Asians to be involved in “jihad” outside their borders. Such acts would simply not accord to the apolitical nature of Islam. However, that is no longer beyond the realm of possibilities as Central Asia is progressively dragged into the ideological battleground of political Islam.
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