Radical Islam in Central Asia

Photo by (Mutantfrog/Flickr)

Barnett Rubin

A Summary

New York: May 7, 2003

Noted authority Barnett R. Rubin, who spoke to a packed hall when the Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program launched its 3-part series on Religious Violence, discounts the threat of a united Radical Islamic movement creating a fundamentalist bloc in Central Asia. Dr. Rubin focuses on local issues and local alliances to explain a perceived resurfacing of Islamic fervor, using political movements with Islamic overtones in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as his main examples.

In Tajikistan's civil war, Islam was used for mobilization and legitimization, argues Rubin. This 1992 conflict pitted clans linked to the country's former Communist power base against another situated closer to Afghanistan, which adopted the Islamic Renaissance Party as its leadership. But it was a regional alliance more than a religious one, he insists. "What led to this conflict had nothing to do with Islam," he says. "When these groups were mobilized, they used Islam, and made certain Islamic demands such as making Muslim holidays into public holidays but it would be quite misleading to call it a religious conflict. The mullahs belonging to the regional groupings of northern Tajikistan and the other group, the Kolabis, who were in power and supplied the troops, did not support the Islamic Party because it was Islamic. They supported the leaders of their own region."

In Uzbekistan, an intense Islamic revival took place in the highly populated and industrialized Ferghana Valley, a center of resistance to Soviet rule in the 1920s and 1930s. During the transition to independence in 1991-1992, crime rose and security became an issue, just as in Iraq and Afghanistan at the present time. Young men affiliated with unofficial mosques in the city of Andijan stepped into the vacuum to restore law and order, much as in Iraq, and armed groups took up crime prevention duties in conjunction with local police. Eventually they developed into a movement called "Adalat" (justice) and asked for Sharia laws. The government suppressed them. Several hundred ran away and joined the Islamic fighters in Tajikistan and eventually fought in Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But things were relatively quiet in Ferghana.

In 1996 and 1997 when Russia and Iran tried to settle their differences in Central Asia so they could focus on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic party in Tajikistan chose nationalism over an international Islamic radicalism. And it made that choice despite the fact that the Taliban captured a leader's plane and tried to convince him to join the Jihad. However the Uzbeks did not have that choice and they joined the Taliban and became integrated with Al Qaida. The United States wiped out their bases in Afghanistan in bombing raids after September 11, 2001. And since then there has been virtually no violence in Uzbekistan attributed to the IMU.

A third Islamic movement is now more threatening to the Central Asian countries, Dr. Rubin says. The Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which has its own website (http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org), has a global agenda and is growing in all countries of the region. Started as the Party for the Liberation of Palestine, it is now headquartered in London and has no links to Palestine. The Hizb ut-Tahrir calls for a worldwide establishment of a Caliphate, through a Da'wah, or call to convert, rather than Jihad, or struggle. They fight largely through leaflet dispersal, explains Rubin, and the movement is financed through the Internet from sources in the west, such as Muslims in Denmark, Germany and the UK. It is finding support among those Uzbeks whose trade is suffering from the newly erected closed borders in the Ferghana Valley. Is Hizb ut-Tahrir a threat to the West? "Their rhetoric is bloodcurdling," Rubin allows, but there is no violence thus far.

As for the other former Soviet republics, says Rubin, in answer to a question from the audience, there is no Islamic resurgence in Turkmenistan, where an extremely repressive government controls the society tightly. The major issue in Kazakhstan is the increasing authoritarianism and corruption by oil revenues of the political elite, an issue that touches all ethnic groups.

As Dr. Rubin summarizes: "Ultimately I am not sure how much this story has to do with religion. There is no conceivable Islamic threat to the West coming from Central Asia despite the dramatic cover of my friend Ahmed Rashid's book. There is no vacuum for a fundamentalist movement to move into, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. This is about building new political orders in states that are situated in one of the most difficult regions of the world."

For more information on this and related topics:

An Expert's View: Barnett Rubin on Afghanistan
In this interview, Professor Barnett Rubin, author of The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, among other books, discusses, inter alia, the long-term effects of the proxy war in Afghanistan and the rise to power of the Taliban.

Central Asia on the Brink: An Interview with Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid is the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and has covered the region extensively for the last twenty years. In this interview, he discusses his new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, and the explosive situation unfolding in the region today.