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Islam, Islamism and political order in Central Asia. (Pressing Issues).

Above all, the West should make every effort to not present Muslims with a perceived choice between repressive secular governments supported by the West and repressive anti-Western governments run by Islamists--in other words, between Iran and Uzbekistan, or between the Taliban and Turkmenbashi.


Islamism is the most potent ideology of resistance in the world today. (1) It is and will remain a central security concern for Western and non-Islamist governments in majority Muslim regions, including the five Soviet successor states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In Central Asia today, as in much of the Muslim world, nationalism, socialism and liberalism have exhausted their capacity to mobilize militant opposition to existing regimes. Only Islamism offers a credible program of social transformation and resistance to Western cultural penetration, the dislocations of modernization and repressive governments. Combined with Islamists' promise of millenarian salvation, this ensures that transnational jihadist organizations will survive, forming and reforming themselves as needed, and that they will continue to target the secular governments of Central Asia.

Thus the weakly legitimated and increasingly repressive regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia have good reason to fear acts of political violence and destabilization by Islamist militants. Nevertheless, there is little risk that Islamists will come to power in the region soon, especially now that the collapse of the Taliban means Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven. The greater risk is that Central Asia's ruling elites will use the specter of Islamism as an excuse to avoid economic and political reforms that would mitigate the conditions under which militant Islamism takes root and survives. Regional elites are apparently convinced that pressure from Western governments, particularly the United States, to respect human rights and to democratize is essentially rhetorical. They remain unimpressed by Western academics, humanitarian organizations and government officials who argue that greater political repression in the long run forces oppositionists into the Islamist camp and encourages Islamic radicalization. As a result, there has been a general convergence in the direction of authoritarianism, corruption and patrimonialism in the region, trends which, if anything, have accelerated since the war on terror was launched.

If these trends continue, an important opportunity will be lost in the effort to contain the transnational militant Islamist movement. Despite its many problems, Central Asia is a Muslim-majority region where measured pluralism is possible in the short term, and where in the longer term it is even possible that formal democracy could take root. Unlike the Middle East at the time of decolonization, Central Asia inherited from the Soviet period a generally literate population, comparatively well developed state institutions and personnel, clear and for the most part legitimate state borders and a modernized economic infrastructure. (2) Nevertheless, Central Asia's post-Soviet states may follow the path of Middle Eastern post-colonial states and adopt authoritarian practices that protect the power and privileges of corrupt elites while disenfranchising and alienating their populations. The United States and its allies must therefore balance the immediate need to secure political and military support in the region with equal attention to the promotion of measured religious tolerance, political pluralism and respect for human rights in the short run, and liberalization, democratization and an improved standard of living in the long run.


Islam arrived in Central Asia--the vast region of Turko-Persian civilization that lies to the north of today's Iran and extends from the Caspian sea in the west to China's Xianjiang province in the east--at the hands of Arab invaders at the beginning of the seventh century. (3) It was, however, embraced only gradually and variously by the Iranian and Turkic-speaking peoples of the region, becoming the dominant religion by around the ninth century. By the 10th century, Central Asia emerged as one of the great centers of Islamic learning and culture, particularly the great Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

The great majority of Central Asians are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of Islamic law (madhhab), one of four such schools within Sunni Islam (the others being Shafi'i, Hanbali and Maliki). (4) Shi'a Islam predominated in most of what is today Iran and across the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. Shi'ism was also embraced by most Khazaras of Afghanistan and Pamiris in the Badashkhan region of Tajikistan and Afghanistan (in the form of Ismailism), as well as by minority groups among other Central Asian nationalities such as the Turkmen. (5) Central Asia would later become a cradle of Sufi Islam, a mystical and popularized form of Islamic worship that is particularly open to customary beliefs and practices, including the veneration of ancestors, shrines and saints and ritualized chanting and dancing (practices that are particularly offensive to fundamentalists). (6)

The speed and degree to which the peoples of the region embraced Islam varied. In general, Islam was accepted more readily by the sedentary peoples of the region--particularly the ancestors of today's Uzbeks and Tajiks, who cultivated land and formed a majority in most of the region's oasis towns and cities. The region's livestock-herding nomadic peoples--ancestors of today's Turkmen, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz--converted more slowly and retained more pre-Islamic beliefs and practices. The nomadic peoples also lacked the elaborate ecclesiastical institutions that developed in the settled and urbanized areas, including Islamic secondary schools (madrasas) and charitable organizations.

Medieval Central Asia was home to a tremendous diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. The vernacular tended to be a Turkic language, the primary exception being Tajik, an Indo-European language of the Iranian language group (Turkic languages are Altaic). The dominant language of literature, however, was Persian, while the language of religion was Arabic. The Turkic vernaculars were themselves highly diverse and overlapping, with "accents" blending into dialects and dialects into distinct languages that might be intelligible in some fields of communication but not others. Typically, ethno-linguistic communities overlapped geographically and were without clear territorial boundaries. Least of all did political identities coincide neatly with linguistic or cultural borders. Instead, the medieval states of the region (known generally as emirates or khanates) had a great diversity of ethnicities as their subjects and were legitimated on dynastic and religious, not national, grounds. Neither were they theocratic states: the obligation of the ruler was to uphold the faith, to provide order and justice and to create conditions under which it was possible for Muslims to practice their religion in peace. (7)

Russian colonization, which began in the first half of the 19th century, was driven primarily by geopolitical rather than religious concerns. Russian colonial administrators, who by then had centuries of experience bringing Muslim peoples into the empire (Russia's annexation of the Tatar Khanate took place three centuries earlier), for the most part allowed local peoples to preserve their customary laws and religious practices without interference. It was not until after the Bolshevik Revolution that a full-scale assault on Islam was launched. Initiated in the mid-1920s, the campaign intensified dramatically during Stalin's "revolution from above" and the purges of the late 1920s and 1930s. The great majority of Central Asian mosques were destroyed, and the Islamic clergy was decimated. Nevertheless, Islamic beliefs and practices of everyday life survived until World War II, which brought a softening of the regime's anti-religion campaign.

Eventually Soviet authorities and Islam reached an accommodation of sorts. (8) While the clergy was formally prohibited from proselytizing, the Islamic establishment was legalized. A Muslim Religious Board was established in Tashkent for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, which became the most prestigious of four such Muslim religious boards in the Soviet Union. The official clergy was deeply compromised by the political police, and important appointments were vetted by Communist Party organs, but it was nevertheless given considerable autonomy over ecclesiastical matters, albeit within hazy and shifting limits. At the same time, Central Asians, like Muslims elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, adapted Islamic beliefs and practices to Soviet conditions. Clerics found ways to represent Islam as politically non-threatening, and lay believers engaged in non-politicized practices such as daily prayer, the visiting of shrines, the veneration of ancestors and saints and Islamic life cycle rituals such as circumcisions, marriages and funerals. Even Communist Party officials were frequently buried in accordance with Islamic strictures, including the longtime Party leader of Uzbekistan, Sharaf Rashidov.

Islam thus remained an important part of everyday life and identity in Soviet Central Asia despite official hostility. This so-called "parallel" or "unofficial" Islam (in contrast to the "official" Islam overseen by the Muslim Religious Boards and monitored by the Communist Party) was not, however, necessarily political or hostile to the regime. Nor was it fundamentalist. Most Central Asians who considered themselves believers smoked tobacco, drank alcohol and prayed intermittently at best, although few ate pork. Women rarely covered their faces in public, let alone wore the hijab or the burqas that prevail in Afghanistan, although many covered their hair with scarves, particularly in rural areas. (9) Women also had essentially equal access to education and employment. In general, better-educated urban residents tended to be more sovietized and secular than residents of rural or highland areas.

With the launching of the Gorbachev reforms, and particularly after the adoption of a liberal all-Union law on religion in 1989, the region began to undergo an Islamic revival. The number of Central Asians making the hajj to Mecca increased dramatically Hundreds of new mosques were built throughout the region, mostly funded by Islamic governments, charitable organizations and wealthy individuals from abroad, particularly from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The number of imams and mullahs, as well as students in Islamic schools within Central Asia and abroad, also grew rapidly. For the most part, however, the Islamic revival in Central Asia was apolitical; to the extent that it became politicized, it was linked with nationalist movements that treated Islam as an element of traditional culture rather than political ideology. The cultural and political intelligentsia of the Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union, trained in Soviet institutions of higher learning, tended to be highly secular in their political outlook, and they were ill-prepared and disinclined to embrace religion as an instrument of political mobilization.

As with all regions of the former Soviet Union in the Gorbachev era, Central Asia witnessed the emergence of nationalist movements demanding greater autonomy from Moscow, increased funding and investment and more privileges for titular peoples in the "affirmative action empire." (10) In Central Asia, however, nationalism was generally unsuccessful in mobilizing society, and in no republic was there majority support for independence. In part, this was because the national consciousness of the region's titular peoples--Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen--was a relatively recent product of Soviet modernization, ethno-federalism and nationality policies, unlike the more historically rooted identities of Armenians, Georgians or Estonians. (11) Central Asia's "national awakenings" were also complicated by the fact that the region's ethno-linguistic groups were not compactly settled in discrete regions, by a host of competing sub-national loyalties and by significantly weaker supranational identities, such as pan-Turkestani loyalties to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia; pan-Turkic loyalties to Turkic speaking peoples, including Turks; and pan-Islamic loyalties to the Muslim community, the umma. (12) Central Asian elites also feared that greater autonomy for their republics, which were the poorest in the USSR, would mean a decline in federal funding, and that full independence would prove an economic disaster. As a result, both elites and society remained for the most part politically quiescent and conservative during perestroika, suspicious of Gorbachev's liberalizing reforms and opposed above all to the breakup of the USSR. For most, independence was an unwelcome surprise.


With the exception of Tajikistan, the new states in the region have been surprisingly stable since independence in 1991. Four of the five leaders who held power at the time are still in office today, while the fifth, Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, has been in office since November 1992. All five were members of the Communist Party nomenklatura in the Soviet period, and only one, President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, is not a former Communist Party first secretary. (13) As for society, only a minority of Central Asians appear deeply hostile to their governments, radically anti-Western, sympathetic to fundamentalist or militant Islamists or politically mobilized in general. (14) Most Central Asians seem to value political stability, material well-being and personal security above all else, and they fear the violence and dislocation that accompanied Islamicization in Afghanistan and Chechnya. While most see Russia as their principal source of external support, a majority has a generally favorable attitude towards the United States and the West. (15) As for Islam, significant majorities describe themselves as believers, but they also prefer that secular law, not Islamic law (shari'a) should govern society. (16) All five Central Asian states are formally secular, and only Tajikistan has legalized Islamic parties or allowed an Islamic party to participate in government.

Nevertheless, underlying socioeconomic factors, including widespread poverty, low or declining rates of economic growth, deepening income and wealth disparities, unemployment, horrific working conditions, organized crime (particularly narcotics trafficking) and above all pervasive corruption serve as fodder for the mobilization of political grievances today, and they will continue to do so well into the future. (17)

Although militant Islamist organizations have been increasingly active in Central Asia, Islamism is not the only challenge to political stability in post-Soviet Central Asia. Ethnicity, region, clan and/or patronage networks also divide both elites and society, while anti-regime mobilization in opposition to corruption and violations of traditional understandings of rightful rule (such as arbitrary arrests or the ham-handed use of force) is already underway in Kyrgyzstan (see below). There is also a risk--albeit a small one--of war between states in the region. (18) Nevertheless, Islamism has become the most effective ideology for mobilizing sustained anti-system opposition in the region.

In the years immediately following the Soviet dissolution, concerns in ruling circles about efforts by Islamists to destabilize the region's new secular governments were for the most part limited. The exceptions were Tajikistan, where an Islamist party, the Islam Renaissance Party (IRP), played an important role in the civil war, and briefly in Uzbekistan after Islamists took control of the city of Namangan in late 1991. However, the IRP's political program was relatively moderate, and the party made no effort to expand its operations beyond the borders of Tajikistan. (19) In Uzbekistan, the central government restored its writ in Namangan in 1992 and cracked down on all non-sanctioned Islamic organizations and on all forms of political opposition. For several years thereafter, regional leaders focused primarily on consolidating state sovereignty, authority building and (at least in some cases) tackling the region's myriad economic problems. (20)

Official concerns about Islamist agitation rose after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, and began to move against its enemies in the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek parts of northern Afghanistan. These concerns deepened in 1997 after the murder by Islamists of several officials in the Namangan region, including one much-publicized instance in which a local policeman was beheaded.

Militant Islamism was transformed from a concern into a preoccupation of Central Asia's national governments by a series of bomb explosions in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, in February 1999. The explosions killed more than a dozen bystanders, wounded more than 100 and nearly succeeded in killing the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. Uzbek authorities blamed a militant Islamist organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This was followed in the summers of 1999 and 2000 by incursions of IMU fighters based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as several widely publicized incidents in which IMU militants kidnapped foreigners. A new round of harsh repression followed. Karimov also began to pressure the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments (by then the latter was trying to implement a 1997 peace treaty ending its civil war) to follow suit. Tashkent went so far as to drop bombs on Tajik and Kyrgyz territory, mine part of its border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and dispatch troops into Kyrgyz and Tajik territory to seize alleged "Wahhabis" without the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments' permission. Supported by Russia and China, governments in the region began to cooperate more closely to combat Islamist terrorism, principally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). (21) When U.S. President George W. Bush announced the launching of the global "war on terror" after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Central Asian authorities could claim with some justification they had been fighting the war for years.

It is also true, however, that Central Asia's ruling elites have a considerable interest in exaggerating the threat posed by Islamist extremists and terrorism to regional stability. Characterizing all political opposition as Islamist--or, in the preferred language of officials throughout the former Soviet Union, as "Wahhabist," a reference to the fundamentalist version of Islam embraced by the Saudi royal family that is applied to all Islamists, Wahhabis and non-Wahhabis alike--provides regional leaders with an excuse to exclude all opposition groups from the political process, to shut down media outlets that criticize the government or its policies or to harass, imprison, torture and even assassinate human rights activists or independent journalists. Contributing to the war on terror by cracking down on Islamists, real or imagined, also helps secure political, military and economic support from the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, the European Union and the international community in general. It also makes the Central Asian governments less troubled by criticism from humanitarian organizations and the international community for human rights violations. (22)

Official exaggeration notwithstanding, Central Asia has witnessed an escalating cycle of repression and Islamist-inspired resistance since the mid-1990s. Each wave of repression has created new grievances, new victims of government repression and an ever-widening circle of relatives and friends of victims who are receptive to Islamist appeals. While this is the overall trend, there is considerable variation in the way Islam is practiced in the five Central Asian states today, the extent of social support for Islamism and the way authorities have reacted to the Islamist challenge.



Popular support for militant Islamism has been most limited in Turkmenistan. Like the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, the nomadic Turkmen people were traditionally less orthodox in their Islamic practices than the settled cultivators and town-dwelling ancestors of the Uzbeks and Tajiks. Despite the homogenizing objectives of the Soviet regime and highly disruptive policies of forced settlement and collectivization of agriculture, the Turkmen people preserved many of their traditional practices and identities, particularly loyalty to tribe and clan. (23) Today, the Turkmen people appear to have little sympathy for ascetic and purist forms of Islamic worship, and even less sympathy for Islamists.

Politically, Turkmenistan has the unfortunate distinction of being the most repressive of the Soviet successor states. Its president, Saparmurat Niyazov, refers to himself as Turkmenbashi ("Father of the Turkmen") and has developed a personality cult that rivals that of Stalin. His highly personalized, arbitrary and increasingly bizarre rule accompanies rigid centralized control throughout the sparsely populated and arid country. There is no independent media, and anyone who criticizes the president or his policies is immediately arrested. Organized political opposition is repressed. It is illegal to form a religious party, and Niyazov has subjected the country's Islamic establishment (the muftiyya) to strict state control. Appointments to administrative posts are vetted by state authorities, imams are expected to lead prayers for the continued health of the Great Leader, and prayers expressing the gratitude of the people for Turkmenbashi's wise leadership are sent to enterprises and educational institutions throughout the country for ritualized recitation. (24) Relatively few Turkmen have been allowed to study at Islamic schools abroad, to travel to Muslim countries or to make the hajj. Entry into the country by Islamic missionaries as well as funding from Islamic charitable organizations, individuals or organizations was also closely monitored and restricted. (25)

Nevertheless, like all the leaders in post-Soviet Central Asia, Niyazov has formulated a legitimation myth that draws on traditional culture, including Islam. In 1992 he became the first Central Asian leader to make the hajj. He has had the Koran translated into Turkmen, funded the construction of hundreds of new mosques, adorned Turkmenistan's national flag with the Islamic crescent and included reading of the Koran and Islamic studies in the curriculum of Turkmen secondary schools. (26)

Until recently, Niyazov appeared to have a firm grip on power, but there are signs that he is losing the support of important segments of the Turkmen political elite. He was the target of an assassination attempt in November 2002, which appears to have been organized by a former Turkmen foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, with support from Uzbekistan. (27) The ruling clique around Niyazov is deeply corrupt, and living standards, which were among the lowest in the Soviet Union, have deteriorated dramatically since 1991. (28) Niyazov's behavior is also increasingly erratic. (29) He continues to fire cabinet members, governors and senior officials for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and a number of high-level officials have fled the country and joined oppositionists abroad.

Nevertheless, the expatriate opposition is not Islamist, and there is no evidence that the international jihadist movement considers Niyazov or his regime an important target. Although he was made "leader for life" in 1999, Niyazov could well be overthrown, but given that the country remains essentially untouched by Islamist agitation, it is unlikely that an Islamist would replace him.


There is also little evidence of significant sympathy for Islamism in Kazakhstan. Under the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh government has been considerably less repressive than the Turkmen or Uzbek governments. This was particularly true in the early post-Soviet period. However, Nazarbayev's early flirtation with pluralism has given way to increasing authoritarianism in the form of rigged elections, the harassment and arrest of opposition figures and independent journalists, the establishment of a "family-based system of rule" and a parasitic and corrupt ruling elite that is appropriating a considerable share of the country's large foreign currency earnings from oil and gas exports. (30) Accordingly, Nazarbayev is increasingly unpopular. Nevertheless, a serious challenge to his rule is unlikely, particularly because Kazakhstan's economic performance has been the best in Central Asia. Thanks in large part to its energy exports and success in attracting foreign investment, Kazakhstan's economy has grown robustly since 1998, and its GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) is now roughly twice that of Uzbekistan. While much of the population has seen little or no improvement in its living standards, unemployment is low. The regime is also generally supported by Kazakhstan's increasingly corrupt political and business elite, which has a considerable interest in regime stability

In part, Nazarbayev's nation-building strategy has been to portray Kazakhstan as a "Eurasian" society that bridges East and West. The borders of the traditional "homeland" of the nomadic ancestors of today's Kazakhs were necessarily vague, and ethnic Russians, who constituted an estimated 37 percent of Kazakhstan's population at the time of independence, believe that the Russian-majority regions in Kazakhstan's north were never really Kazakh and "belong" to Russia. (31) In an effort to encourage Russians to remain and support Nazarbayev politically, and fearful that Moscow would make an issue of unfair treatment of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev has asserted that Kazakhstan is a multinational state and that the individual as well as collective cultural rights of Russians will be protected. While Kazakhstan's 1995 constitution identifies Kazakh as the "state language," it states that Russian can be used equally with Kazakh in "state institutions and local self-administrative bodies," while Russian Orthodoxy has been given equal status under law with Islam. Nevertheless, the vast majority of ethnic Kazakhs believe Kazakhstan is first and foremost a Kazakh state, and Nazarbayev draws widely on ethno-national themes to construct Kazakhstan's officially sanctioned national mythology. (32) As in the rest of Central Asia, Islam as a cultural form, if not as a state religion, is treated as an important part of the country's ethno-national traditions. Thus Nazarbayev, who once proudly declared publicly that he was an atheist, now describes himself as a believer and has made the obligatory hajj for Central Asian leaders.

Kazakh officials nevertheless are increasingly concerned about Islamist mobilization. In particular, they fear that Islamist agitation will increase tensions between Kazakhs and Russians on the one hand, and between more traditionalist and secular Kazakhs and more religious and orthodox Uzbeks on the other. They also worry that Islamicization will increase tensions between the northern and southern parts of the country. The south is poorer, more agrarian and much less Slavic than the north, and it is where most of the country's Uzbeks are concentrated. The government has stepped up efforts to combat Islamism by arresting "Wahhabis," closely monitoring Kazakhs who study in Islamic schools and recalling some citizens studying at suspect foreign madrasas. However, there is little evidence that Islamists have become significantly active in the country or that they identify Kazakhstan as a particular target.


Of the five Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan was initially the most determined to democratize its polity, liberalize its economy and respect human rights. However, as in Kazakhstan, the trend since the mid-1990s has been toward greater authoritarianism and deepening corruption and political cronyism. (33) Law enforcement officials regularly harass, and in some important cases arrest, political opponents of the country's president, Askar Akayev. (34) This may reflect Akayev's desire to retain power and accumulate wealth and status for his family and friends. It is also true, however, that structural conditions in the country are hardly conducive to democratization and liberalization. Despite doing almost everything the World Bank and IMF ask, and despite receiving a great deal of foreign assistance, the economy of landlocked, remote, mountainous and resource-poor Kyrgyzstan continues to perform very poorly. GDP per capita is now much lower than in Kazakhstan, poverty is endemic and corruption, particularly at the local level, has helped discredit the national leadership. (35)

Still, Kyrgyzstan remains more tolerant of political opposition and non-sanctioned Islam than its neighbors. Its muftiyya is afforded a considerable degree of autonomy, and Islamic missionaries are allowed into the country and can proselytize with limited state interference. For the most part, its citizens are allowed to make the hajj and enroll in Islamic schools and universities abroad. (36) Indeed, many Uzbek citizens, as well as Uighurs from Xinjiang, travel to Kyrgyzstan to make the hajj because of restrictions in their own countries. As a result, Akayev is under pressure from Uzbekistan, and to a lesser extent China, to crack down not only on Islamists but also on all forms of political opposition to prevent the "contagion" of political pluralism, pressure that in part explains the turn toward authoritarianism in the country.

As in Kazakhstan, there are fears that Islamism could exacerbate regional divisions in the country. The north is economically more developed and industrialized, and it is home to a significant number of Russians. The highland Kyrgyz in the north are also more traditionalist in their way of life and Islamic practices than their ethnic kin in the south. The predominantly agrarian and conservative south is mostly populated by Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, many of whom believe northerners are disproportionately represented in the national government (Akayev is from the north). Kyrgyz authorities also fear Islamist agitation could aggravate tensions in the south between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who are more receptive to the appeals of Islamism.

Complicating the national government's efforts to preserve stability and improve living standards is the fact that the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad extend into the Ferghana Valley, which Kyrgyzstan shares with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Although it comprises only a tiny portion of the total territory of Central Asia, the Ferghana is the most densely populated and fertile area in the region. (37) It is also an ethnic patchwork, with Soviet-era borders that left many residents living in territory outside their titular homeland. With the exception of the Tajik civil war, most of the political violence in Central Asia in recent years has taken place in the valley. (38) It is where Islamic militants are most active, as well as a source of deepening tensions among the three states that share it. In the past, residents of the valley were free to cross what used to be administrative borders to sell or buy goods at local markets, visit relatives or make pilgrimages to holy places. However, Karimov is pressuring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to set up border controls in the valley, even though doing so is highly disruptive and increases hostility towards central authorities. (39)

The year 2002 was particularly difficult for Akayev. (40) The arrest of another Akayev opponent, parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, provoked a violent clash between anti-government protesters and the police in southern Jalalabad province in mid-March. (41) The confrontation left six demonstrators dead and resulted in a wave of protests around the country.

Demonstrations intensified after the signing of an unpopular border agreement with China in May, which induced the opposition to organize a series of protest marches between southern cities and to threaten to march on the capital. The country seemed on the brink of a political explosion, but Akayev managed to defuse the crisis by firing his prime minister and interior minister, which brought about to the resignation of the entire government. Beknazarov was released from jail shortly thereafter, and the demonstrations came to a temporary halt. They resumed in early September, however, and have continued episodically since then.

Akayev is now extremely unpopular and may be forced out of office before his term expires in 2005. (42) At the least, it will be difficult for him to engineer the election of a supporter as his successor. Islamists, particularly the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), or Islamic Party of Liberation, are active in the south, but Islamism has limited support in the north and no significant presence in Bishkek. Unless a coup or a succession crisis provokes sustained internal violence, there is little chance of Islamists taking power in the country in the foreseeable future.


The most direct political role played by an Islamic party in post-Soviet Central Asia is in Tajikistan. The Tajik people have a long history of adherence to canonical Islam and its institutions, as well as well-established informal Islamic networks such as the Sufi tariqats. These traditions and networks survived sovietization, and by the end of the Soviet period underground Islamism had a greater presence in the republic than in any other region of the USSR. (43) In the 1980s, Tajikistan's underground Islamists were inspired by the mujahedeen resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and above all by the legendary "Lion of the Panshir," Ahmed Shah Masoud, who was an ethnic Tajik.

Tajikistan experienced a rapid and widespread Islamic revival during perestroika, and by early 1990 Islamist organizations emerged from underground. (44) In October 1990, the founding congress of the IRP was held in the capital, Dushanbe. Initially banned, the party was legalized shortly after independence in late 1991. A moderate Islamist party, the IRP called for the establishment of a democratic and secular state that would respect freedom of religion. Islamicization of society would take place gradually, through the raising of Islamic consciousness among Tajikistan's Muslims. Only then would a transition to an Islamic republic and adoption of the shari'a take place. (45) The IRP was also generally accepting of traditional forms of Islamic worship, including Sufism, and was therefore supported by many members of the Soviet-era Islamic establishment.

By early 1992, the political situation in Tajikistan became highly volatile. The candidate of the Soviet-era nomenklatura, Rakhmon Nabiyev, won the presidential elections of November 1991, but a coalition of democratic, nationalist and Islamist parties charged that the elections had been rigged. Violence flared in Dushanbe in March, which prompted a government crackdown. The collapse of the Soviet military, as well as proximity to Afghanistan, contributed to a rapid arming of the population, and by the end of the year the country was embroiled in a full-scale civil war. Nabiyev resigned and was replaced by another Soviet-era apparatchik, Imomali Rakhmonov. The IRP and its allies, who at one point seized control of the capital, were driven back to their strongholds in the mountains north and east of the capital, and in some cases found safe haven in Afghanistan. Eventually, the IRP and its allies formed the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), headed by an IRP leader, Said Abdullah Nuri.

At its inception, the civil war thus had an ideological hue to it--a neo-communist nomenklatura pitted against moderate Islamists, democrats and nationalists. Ideology was only part of the story, however, and as time passed it represented an increasingly less important part. There was, for example, an ethnic dimension to the conflict. Uzbeks, who made up a quarter of the population and were concentrated in the more industrialized and wealthier northern oblast of Leninabad (later Khujand, now Sughd province, which extends into the Ferghana Valley), as well as ethnic Russians, most of whom lived in the north or in Dushanbe, were disproportionately represented in the Tajik government. Demands that the titular people, the Tajiks, should control the republic's government and party organs rather than the Russians or Uzbeks were partly behind the initial effort to unseat the nomenklatura. The more important cleavage, however, was regional, with an alliance of Leninabadis and Tajiks from the southern province of Kulyab pitted against an alliance of Tajiks from Garm province and Pamiris from the remote highland of Gorno-Badashkan. (46) As the conflict progressed, even these complex and opaque lines of cleavage became increasingly blurred, and the country degenerated into semi-anarchy, warlordism and crime fueled by smuggling, hostage taking and narcotics trafficking and production. The mounting chaos in Afghanistan that followed the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in Kabul in 1992 also contributed to the intensity and duration of the Tajik civil war. The IRP and its allies were able to use Afghanistan as a staging area, obtain weapons and financial support from the Afghan mujahedeen parties and recruit fighters from among the tens of thousands of Tajiks who had fled to refugee camps in northern Afghanistan.

Some fifty thousand people were killed in the war, which finally ended with the signing of a peace agreement in June 1997. The treaty provided for the legalization of the IRP, a quota of 30 percent of governmental positions for the UTO and the integration of opposition militias into Tajikistan's armed forces. It also called for new parliamentary and presidential elections.

Today, more Tajiks than any other Central Asian nationality identify themselves as Muslim believers. Nevertheless, war weariness, together with appalling economic conditions, have created a majority hostile to programs of radical social transformation, including Islamist ones. The unhappy example of Islamist rule in Afghanistan, along with the romanticization of Masoud's resistance to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime, means that non-Tajik Islamists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab world or elsewhere are viewed generally with suspicion. The limited support for Islamism is suggested by the fact that the IRP won only 7.5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2000, well behind Rakhmonov's party (which won handily in reasonably fair elections), and also behind the Communist party. The IRP itself is increasingly fractious and politically compromised by its participation in government. The more radical (but as of yet nonviolent) Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) party has supplanted the IRP as the most popular Islamist party in the country, particularly in the north and among Uzbeks. (47)

The principal challenge in Tajikistan today is the difficulty the central government is experiencing in exercising its writ over large parts of Tajik territory. (48) There have been periodic bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and clashes between militia groups and government forces. Its political economy is dominated by the narcotics business and warlordism, which in many respects are breaking down traditional solidarities of clan, village and region. Rakhmonov is also under pressure from Uzbekistan to crack down on Islamists, particularly in the north. In July 2002 he traveled to Sughd and castigated local officials for failing to curb Islamist agitation. (49) He also moved to isolate the IRP politically. As in Kyrgyzstan, the risk is that harsher repression and the exclusion of moderate elements of the IRP from power will cause a backlash and make Islamism all the more popular. In addition, Tajikistan's political stability is tied in part to the political fate of Afghanistan. If socioeconomic conditions in Afghanistan do not improve and the international community allows it to sink back into anarchy, efforts to restore order in Tajikistan will prove even more difficult.


Uzbekistan is the most important country for the future of Islamism in Central Asia. It boasts the region's largest population, roughly 25 million. Its strong-arm president, Islam Karimov, is convinced that Uzbekistan deserves to be the dominant power of the region and, backed by the strongest military in Central Asia, he repeatedly tries to intimidate Uzbekistan's neighbors. Uzbekistan is also most resistant to Russian influence in the region, and since the mid-1990s it has had a special defense relationship with the United States, which deepened dramatically during the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. (50) Washington has since agreed to step up its economic assistance to Uzbekistan, promising in a joint statement on 21 October 2001 to "consult on an urgent basis about appropriate steps to address the situation in the event of a direct threat to the security or territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan." (51)

Consistent with its history as a center of Islamic culture and learning, Uzbekistan experienced a rapid Islamic revival during the late Gorbachev period. Politically, however, it remained very conservative, and its leader after 1989, then Communist Party First Secretary Islam Karimov, was not considered a reformist or a Gorbachev ally, in contrast to Nazarbayev and Akayev. After winning the presidential elections in December 1991 by a large margin, he gradually moved to assert full control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. (52) By then, a broad network of independent mosques, mullahs and imams emerged throughout the country, including in 1991 an Islamic organization called Adolat (Justice) in the Ferghana Valley city of Namangan. Adolat seized control of the Namangan city government in late 1991, claiming it would be more effective at stamping out crime and corruption than the traditional ruling elite. Karimov responded with a crackdown in early 1992, leading to the arrest of hundreds if not thousands of activists and sympathizers of Adolat and other Islamic organizations, all of which were then banned. Some oppositionists managed to flee and ended up fighting alongside the IRP in the Tajik civil war. Others fled to Afghanistan and fought in the Afghan civil war, and still others escaped to Iran.

In 1998, a group of Uzbeks who had fought alongside the IRP in the Tajik civil war formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the objective of which was to overthrow Karimov and establish an Islamic caliphate in Uzbekistan and eventually all of Central Asia. (53) Its political leader, Tokhir Yuldashev, was a key a figure in Adolat and was based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and later northern Afghanistan. Its charismatic military leader, Juma Namangani, established a base of operations in central Tajikistan. In the summer of 1999, the IMU first gained international notoriety after its militants carried out armed incursions into Uzbek territory, an undertaking repeated the following year. (54) The incursions resulted in scores of deaths. Karimov responded with a new wave of arrests, disappearances and beatings, which drove still more Uzbeks, moderates and radicals alike, across the border to take up arms with the IMU.

By the beginning of 2001, Western estimates put the number of IMU fighters at 2,000-3,000, while Russian intelligence claimed the figure was 5,000-6,000. (55) At that point most were based in Afghanistan, where they received safe haven from the Taliban and training, funding and weapons from Al Qaeda. They also had relatively unrestricted access to much of Tajik territory. Tashkent claimed that the Tajik government, and particularly officials associated with the IRP, were turning a blind eye to the activities of the IMU, if not outright aiding them. In summer 2001, to the surprise of Central Asian officials, the IMU did not undertake another incursion into the Ferghana. Instead, Namangani, who by then had relocated to northern Afghanistan, devoted his troops to the Taliban campaign to defeat Masoud's forces, who were defending a small area of northeastern Afghanistan.

In September 2000, the State Department added the IMU to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Apparently in an effort to secure Uzbekistan's support in the Afghanistan campaign, President Bush singled out the IMU as a particular threat in his speech to the nation on 21 September 2001. United States officials later concluded that the IMU had been decimated during the fighting in Afghanistan and that those IMU fighters who survived had been dispersed. They also became convinced that Namangani was killed by a U.S. air strike in the battle for Konduz in November 2001. (56) Nevertheless, the State Department re-designated the IMU a terrorist organization in September 2002, and Central Asian officials repeatedly warn that IMU militants are regrouping in and around Afghanistan, planning new attacks in Central Asia. (57)

The Islamist party with the broadest base of support in Central Asia is the HuT. (58) Founded in 1953, the HuT is a highly secretive organization. Headquartered in London, it recruits from throughout the Muslim world and is particularly popular among young Islamists in Western Europe. (59) Unlike the IMU, it is a truly internationalist organization. Its long-term objective is to establish a caliphate uniting the entire Muslim world, which it plans to accomplish in three stages: an initial stage of political agitation among Muslims to secure support for its goals and recruit party activists, a stage of proselytizing within the umma so that "correct" Islamic practices become part of everyday life and a final stage of establishing Islamic governance and implementing shari'a. It operates in small cells, usually comprised of five or six people, and only the cell's head knows the next superior in the party hierarchy. Its principal method of operation is to distribute leaflets that call on Muslims to be pious and abide by Islamic strictures, condemn corruption and the social ills associated with Westernization and modernity and discuss current crises in the Muslim world. Central Asian officials are convinced that the number of HuT supporters is large and growing rapidly, particularly in the Ferghana Valley and among Uzbeks. The HuT itself claims it has tens of thousands of adherents in Central Asia.

Nevertheless, there is little threat to Karimov's power at this time, although he is unpopular in parts of the country, particularly in the Ferghana Valley He is also intensely hated by many. Uzbekistan has a huge internal security apparatus and an elaborate network of paid informers. Hundreds of Uzbeks have been killed, thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) arrested, and even more harassed or beaten for their religious beliefs. Security forces engage in the kidnapping and "disappearing" of Islamic opposition figures, forcible cutting of men's beards, harassing people who wear Islamic dress and shutting down non-sanctioned mosques and madrasas. (60)

Despite ongoing pressure from the international community, Karimov's harsh authoritarian practices continue. (61) He has apparently concluded that, given his new leverage over the United States due to the war on terror, he can continue to violate human rights, repress all internal opposition, and bully his neighbors without suffering sanctions from Washington or the international community. (62)


The deep roots of militancy in Central Asia can be found in the region's dire socioeconomic conditions. Population pressures, land scarcity, depletion of water resources, environmental degradation, widespread corruption, drug smuggling and addiction, growing inequality, extremely high unemployment and above all poverty and insecurity give Central Asians many sources for grievances. While Islamists recruit from all segments of society--rural and urban, poor and middle class, young and old, men and women--militants are typically young unemployed males who feel that their life opportunities are meager. (63) Legal means for articulating grievances are minimal in much of the region; in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan they are nonexistent. State intrusion into spiritual affairs and official cooptation of the muftiyyas helps to discredit the official clergy. (64) Ruling elites are increasingly seen as corrupt, parasitical and, with the partial exception of Kazakhstan, unable to deliver on their promises to improve living standards.

Under these conditions, Islamism is proving a highly effective ideology of resistance. Like Marxism in the 20th century, it offers a credible explanation for why things have gone wrong (the penetration of alien cultural norms, defeat and humiliation at the hands of infidels, corruption and immorality, straying from the path of true Islam), identifies who and what is to blame (secular governments, corrupt elites, the purveyors of Western culture, Jews, Christians, globalization, the hegemony of kafirs) and specifies what must be done to set things right (be pious, make contributions to Islamic charities, join an Islamist party, become a party activist, mujahid or shahid, establish an Islamic republic, enforce the shari'a, return to the true path of Islam). It is an internationalist and universalist ideology that recognizes no territorial limits and is hostile to national, ethnic, class or social cleavages dividing the umma. Above all, it has no serious ideological competitor in the region today. Communism and socialism were discredited by 70 years of Soviet power. Romantic ethno-nationalism for the most part has run its course in the Soviet successor states. In Central Asia it is also undermined by the multiethnic character of the region's successor states, competing sub-national and supra-national identities, and a record of provoking violence in the Caucasus, the Balkans, Afghanistan and in Central Asia itself. Liberalism and democracy are blamed for bringing disorder, poverty and the glorification of a materialistic culture that violates traditional norms and is responsible for profound social ills: drugs, HIV, pornography, prostitution, violent crime, vulgar materialism, lack of respect for elders and authority and the arrival of non-indigenous religions and cults. Finally, as a faith-based ideology, Islamism has the advantage that its millenarian claims are largely impervious to contrary evidence. It is unclear exactly what would be required to demonstrate that Islamic governance does not make it easier to be a good Muslim. Moreover, neither communism nor fascism offered its militants the promise of eternal life in Paradise to those who give their lives for the cause.

Transnational Islamism also has at its disposal an extremely effective propaganda apparatus that, unlike the Comintern, is highly decentralized and self-financed. Aided by funding from the third pillar of Islam, the zakat or alms tax, Islamists can employ a vast network of mosques and madrasas controlled by militant imams that emerge spontaneously, with no need for sanction from a higher religious authority, to help propagate their views. They also benefit from the great reluctance of liberal as well as most authoritarian governments to intrude into spiritual affairs. With the aid of new technologies of mass communication-cassette tapes, videotapes, satellite television, email and especially the Web-Islamist propagandists are highly adept at what the Bolsheviks called agitprop, agitation and propaganda. They are also very proficient at what anarchists of the 19th century called propaganda of the deed: spectacular acts of political violence designed to advertise their cause, demonstrate the vulnerability of their opponents and terrorize their enemies. New technologies of mass communication also help romanticize political martyrdom, including the now ritualized act of suicide bombing, and disperse knowledge about how to build highly destructive bombs from commercially available components or how to use cars, commercial jets or power boats as delivery vehicles.

In sum, the cause of Islamism in Central Asia will continue to benefit from external support from abroad, in the form of funding, training, education, weapons and above all inspiration. This will be particularly true if Afghanistan does not stabilize or if Islamism grows even more popular in Pakistan. Regardless, Islamist militants will continue to target Central Asia, and at some point new attacks and acts of terrorism are all but inevitable.

However, to say that Islamism will continue to destabilize Central Asia is not to say that Islamists will succeed in seizing power. On the contrary, the establishment of Islamist regimes in the region is unlikely in the near future. As noted above, only a small minority of Central Asians supports Islamism, and there are powerful obstacles to its popularization. The form of Islam traditionally practiced in the region is neither fundamentalist nor political, and totalistic Islamist ideologies are viewed by many as non-indigenous "Arabic" forms of Islam that are alien to Central Asia's Turko-Persian traditions. Most also find the asceticism of Islamic fundamentalism difficult to accept, particularly the strictures against drinking alcohol and its often harsh policies regarding women. Islamism is also opposed by the great majority of the political and economic elite, as well as by the Islamic establishment. As an internationalist ideology it competes with Central Asia's many national, regional, ethnic and clan loyalties. Finally, unlike Afghanistan and Chechnya, the region has managed to avoid, with the partial exception of Tajikistan, a complete breakdown of internal order.

As in the Cold War, the conflict between liberalism and Islamism is a competition between two very different visions for ordering society. Islamism's great advantage is that, with few exceptions, it has not had an opportunity to discredit itself in practice. Like Marxism before 1917, however, it is essentially an oppositional and revolutionary vision that has little to say about how to govern once in power. In those cases where Islamist regimes have been established--Afghanistan, Iran, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, northern Nigeria and Yemen--the record of Islamist governance is not an inspiring one.

To combat Islamist-inspired terrorism, the West must combine its "war" on terror with a genuine effort to foster alternative models of tolerant governance in Muslim-majority countries that prove of greater appeal than the harsh and intolerant practices of Islamists to Muslims around the world. Above all, the West should make every effort to not present Muslims with a perceived choice between repressive secular governments supported by the West and repressive anti-Western governments run by Islamists--in other words, between Iran and Uzbekistan, or between the Taliban and Turkmenbashi. In this respect, post-Soviet Central Asia provides an opportunity for the West to demonstrate that its commitment to human rights and tolerance is genuine and not readily sacrificed in the interests of short-term security benefits.

The author is grateful to Victoria E. Bonnell, Adrienne Edgar, Maimul Ahsan Khan, Pauline Jones Luong, Vitaly Naumkin and Regine A. Spector for comments on earlier drafts of this article.

(1) By "Islamism," I mean the normative political ideology that has as its core program the establishment of Islam as a state religion and the implementation of Islamic law (shari'a). Militant Islamism, then, is any form of Islamism that advocates the use of violence to achieve Islamist objectives. This same distinction is made by Islamists themselves who refer to "Parties of the Islamic Call," or al-da'wa al-Islamiyya (i.e., Islamist groups that do not advocate violence) on the one hand, and "Parties of the Muslim Revolution," or al-thawra al-Islamiya (i.e., Islamist groups that do advocate violence) on the other hand. The adjective that I will use For Islamism is "Islamist," while for Islam in general it is "Islamic." The great majority of Muslims throughout the world are of course not Islamist, let alone militant--they do not insist on the establishment of Islam as a state religion or implementation of the shari'a.

(2) I do not mean to suggest that there are no border disputes among the countries of Central Asia, or between those states and other contiguous countries. Rather, the point is that all of Central Asia s national governments have accepted the principle that the external and internal-administrative borders of the USSR should be respected. Most disputes stem from the fact that the USSR's internal borders were not demarcated in the field, and in some instances thick lines drawn on maps translate into several miles of contested territory, particularly where there are villages that, depending on how a border is actually demarcated, will become part of one country rather than another. So far, disagreements over borders have been resolved peacefully, and I believe that will continue to be the case. See International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential, ICG Asia Report, no. 33 (4 April 2002).

(3) For a discussion of the various meaning of "Central Asia" and its geographical boundaries, see Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 1-2.

(4) Anthony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2001), 33-37.

(5) It is sometimes argued that Sunni Islam prevailed over Shi'ism in Central Asia because it was better able to accommodate traditional practices and customs, and incorporated aspects of paganism, shamanism, and Zoroastrianism. See, for example, Roald Sagdeev, "Introduction," in Islam and Central Asia: An Enduring Legacy or an Evolving Threat?, eds. Roald Sagdeev and Susan Eisenhower (Washington, DC: Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 2000), 1; Roustem Safronov, "Islam in Turkmenistan: The Niyazov Connection," in Islam and Central Asia, 75.

(6) Many of the most important Sufi brotherhoods (tariqats) were founded in Central Asia, including the famous Naqshbandi brotherhood of Bukhara and the Kubraviya brotherhood of Khorezm. See Alexandre Benningsen and S. Enders Wimbush Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

(7) Roy, 7-12.

(8) See Mark Saroyan, Minorities, Mullahs, and Modernity: Reshaping Community in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Edward W. Walker (Berkeley: International and Area Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 1997).

(9) It is worth noting that many ethnically Slavic women--Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, etc.--also wore headscarves in rural areas. Most Slavs are of course traditionally Orthodox Christian, so headscarves were not an indicator of religious affiliation. On the Soviet "unveiling" campaign of the 1920s (i.e., the campaign to induce Muslim women to "modernize" by giving up veiling themselves), see Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919-1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

(10) The phrase is from Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

(11) This was particularly true of the settled Uzbeks and Tajiks, who had traditionally been the subjects of the region's multiethnic khanates and emirates. The nomadic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, in contrast, had long-standing foundation myths based on a single ancestral patriarch.

(12) On the continuing salience of regional identities and their relationship to Soviet-era institutions and patronage networks, see Pauline Jones Luong, Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Power, Perceptions, and Pacts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). On the role of clans in Central Asian politics, see Kathleen Collins, "Clans, Pacts, and Politics in Central Asia," Journal of Democracy 13, no. 3 (July 2002): 137-152.

(13) An academic with a degree in optical physics, Akayev was head of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences and a pro-Gorbachev delegate to the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies when he was elected president of the republic by the Soviet-era legislature-in October 1990. Karimov, Nazarbayev and Niyazov were all first secretaries of their respective republics, while Rakhmonov was a party first secretary at the oblast (regional) level (obkom).

(14) See, for example, Nancy Lubin, Central Asians Take Stock: Reform, Corruption, and Identity (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1995), 4-5 and 15-21. (31 May 2002) U.S. Department of State, Office of Resesarch Opinion Analysis, Russia Tops U.S. in Central Asia,

(16) The extent of commitment to Islam is of course very difficult to assess. It is one thing to identify oneself as a believer, and another to pray five times a day or make the hajj to Mecca. See David Pollock and Elaine El Assal, eds., In the Eye of the Beholder: Muslim and Non-Muslim View of Islam, Islamic Politics, and Each Other, special report of the U.S. Information Agency Office of Research and Media Reaction (August 1995); U.S. Department of State, Office of Research Opinion Analysis, Central Asians Differ on Islam's Political Role, But Agree on a Secular State, (6 July 2000); Joseph F. Fletcher and Boris Sergeyev, "Islam and Intolerance in Central Asia: The Case of Kyrgyzstan," Europe-Asia Studies 54 no. 2 (2002).

(17) Svante E. Cornell and Regine A. Spector, "Central Asia: More than Islamic Extremists," Washington Quarterly 25, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 193-206.

(18) Charles Fairbanks et al., Strategic Assessment of Central Eurasia, Atlantic Council of the United States and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (January 2001); International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Fault Lines in the New Security Map, ICG Asia Report, no. 20 (4 July 2001).

(19) I discuss the background of the Tajik civil war briefly below.

(20) I should note however that throughout the period 1992-96 the Uzbek government repressed political opposition of all sorts, including Islamists. For example, the leader of the Uzbek IRP, Adulla Otaev, was "disappeared" in December 1992, while the well-known Islamic activist, Abdulavi Qori Mirzoev of Andijan, suffered the same fate in 1995. But after the suppression of Adolat and the crackdown of 1992, Islamism was no longer a preoccupation of the Karimov regime.

(21) The SCO, which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as members, has made fighting terrorism a priority and has established a regional agency for coordinating antiterrorism efforts in Bishkek.

(22) Pauline Jones Luong and Erika Weinthal, "New Friends, New Fears in Central Asia," Foreign Affairs 81, no. 2 (March/April 2002): 61-70.

(23) Adrienne Edgar, "Genealogy, Class, and Tribal Policy in Soviet Turkmenistan, 1924-1934," Slavic Review, no. 60, (summer 200-1): 266-288.

(24) Safronov, 87.

(25) U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Demoracy, Human Rights, and Labor, International Religious Freedom Report, 2002, at

(26) Safronov, 82-85.

(27) See Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Turkmen Police Reportedly Capture Fugitive Former Foreign Minister," Central Asia-Report 2, no. 47 (29 December 2002).

(28) Ilan Greenberg, "When a Kleptocratic, Megalomaniacal Dictator Goes Bad," New York Times Magazine, 5 January 2003 34-37.

(29) flee, for example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Central Asia Report 2, no. 21 (16 August 2002).

(30) Martha Brill Olcott, Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002). Nazarbayev's critics assert that he has stashed over $1 billion in illegal gains into Swiss bank accounts.

(31) Olcott, 14. Ethnic Kazakhs made up some 40 percent, a figure that has since grown to well over 50 percent thanks to the emigration of Russians and higher birthrates among Kazakhs.

(32) The preamble of the 1995 Constitution opens as follows: "We, the people of Kazakhstan, united by a common historic fate, creating a state on the indigenous Kazakh land...." Kazakhstan Const, at kaz.html.

(33) Eugene Huskey, "Kyrgyzstan: The Fate of Political Liberalization," in Conflict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucaus, eds. Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 242-276.

(34) The most prominent political opponent of Akayev's to be arrested has been Felix Kulov. A former governor (akim) of Chu province in the north, mayor of Bishkek, and security minister in Akayev's government, Kulov was sentenced to seven years for corruption while governor in 2001, and then in May 2002 received an additional 10-year sentence for abuse power as minister of security (the latter was reduced to 6.5 years by a recent court ruling).

(35) International Crisis Group, Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the Island of Democracy, ICG Report, no. 22 (28 August 2002).

(36) Liberalization also led to the flourishing of many "non-indigenous" religions, such as Jehovah s Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, Bahais and Protestant evangelicals, particularly in the northern parts of the country. The Islamic establishment, Islamists and many average Kyrgyz citizens who feel they are affront to national traditions resented their proselytizing. John Anderson, "Social, Political, and Institutional Constraints on Religious Pluralism in Central Asia," Journal of Contemporary Religion, 17, no. 2 (2002).

(37) For background, see Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia, Report of the Ferghana Valley Working Group of the Center for Preventative Action (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 1999).

(38) The city of Osh was the scene of bloody clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 1990 over housing and land that killed hundreds.

(39) International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Border Disputes and Conflict Potential.

(40) International Crisis Group, Kyrgyzstan's Political Crisis: An Exit Strategy, ICG Report, no. 37, (20 August 2002).

(41) It is notable that Beknazarov's arrest in early January came several weeks after Bishkek agreed to allow coalition forces to use the Manas international airport outside of Bishkek in the Afghanistan campaign. The implication was that Akayev felt that military cooperation with United States meant less pressure to respect human rights or accept pluralism.

(42) It is worth noting that the leaders whose positions appear most precarious today are Niyazov in Turkmenistan, who has been the most repressive leader in the region, and Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, who has been the most liberal.

(43) The most notable example was Muhammad Rustanov Hindustani, who established a clandestine Islamist madrasa in Dushanbe in the early 1970s that was influenced by the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimim), and Abul Ala Maudidi, founder of the Deobandi school of Islamism that later served as the ideological inspiration for the Taliban. Hindustani was arrested by the Soviets and later died in prison, but two of his pupils, Said Abdullah Nuri and Muhammad Sharif Himmatzoda, would become leaders of the IRE Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 97-98.

(44) Saodat Olimova, "Islam and the Tajik Conflict," in Islam in Central Asia, 65.

(45) The IRP was established as an All-Union organization for Muslims throughout the former Soviet Union in June 1990, largely at the initiative of Volga Tatars. The party was legal under All-Union law, but it was banned in Central Asia.

(46) Barnett R. Rubin, "The Fragmentation of Tajikistan," Survival 35, no. 4 (Winter 1993-94); John Schoeberlein-Engel, "Conflict in Tajikistan and Central Asia: The Myth of Ethnic Animosity," Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 1, no. 2 (1994).

(47) The HuT is reportedly becoming increasingly active in Dushanbe, however. See Davron Vali, "Banned Islamic Movement Increasingly Active in Tajikistan," Eurasia Insight, 5 September 2002, at

(48) The 1997 peace agreement essentially left the Leninabadis (Khujandis) in the north, as well as Uzbeks in general, without a share of power. As a result, a group of Uzbeks led by a renegade military officer, Col. Makhmud Khuboyberdiev, attacked Khujand in November 1998 in effort to derail peace process. Dushanbe was convinced that the incursion was supported by Uzbekistan. International Crisis Group, Tajikistan: An Uncertain Peace, ICG Report, no. 30 (24 December 2001).

(49) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Tajikistan Facing Extremism at Home ...," Central Asia Report 2, no. 27 (18 July 2002).

(50) The Khanabad air force base in the south of the country was the most important staging area in Central Asia for coalition forces.

(51) Joint Statement Between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 12 October 2001, at

(52) William Fierman, "Political Development in Uzbekistan: Democratization?," in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott, eds., Conflict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 360-408.

(53) Rashid, 148.

(54) The IMU was also blamed for a bus hijacking in 1999 in which two civilians were killed along with several policemen. That same year, the IMU took a group of Japanese geologists hostage, and in 2000 it seized four American mountain climbers. The geologists were ransomed, and the mountain climbers managed to escape.

(55) In fact, even the 2,000-3,000 figure may have been a considerable exaggeration. I have been told by a U.S. official that the number was probably closer to 300 combat effectives.

(56) There has been speculation that Namangani survived and that he and some supporters have taken refuge in a remote part of eastern Tajikistan near the border with Pakistan. See Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Militants Making a Comeback," Central Asia Report 2, no. 24 (20 June 2002); Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Renewed Concerns That Terrorists Are Regrouping, Central Asia Report 2, no. 28 (25 July 2002).

(57) The State Department asserted that the IMU has close ties to Al Qaeda and has received Al Qaeda funds," and that the IMU was "planning for additional terrorist attacks." Statement by Richard Boucher, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, 25 September 2002. Kyrgyz authorities claim that the IMU has been transformed into the Islamic Movement of Central Asia, which unites remnants of the IMU with Islamists from Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Xinjiang under the leadership of Yuldashev. BBC Monitoring Service--United Kingdom, 10 September 2002.

(58) Rashid, 115-136; International Crisis Group, The IMU and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir: Implications of Afghanistan Campaign, ICG Central Asia Briefing (30 January 2002).

(59) Its website defines in its objectives as follows: "The Party, as well, aims at the correct revival of the Ummah through enlightened thought. It also strives to bring her back to her previous might and glory such that she wrests the reins of initiative away from other states and nations, and returns to her rightful place as the first state in the world, as she was in the past, when she governs the world according to the laws of Islam. It also aims to bring back the Islamic guidance for mankind and to lead the umma into a struggle with Kufr [i.e., non-believers or infidels], its systems and its thoughts so that Islam encapsulates the world." See

(60) Human rights organizations estimate that some 7,500 individuals are currently in prison in Uzbekistan for political or religious reasons, many whom were arrested for simply attending unofficial mosques. In its Annual Human Rights Report for 2001, the U.S. Department of State also asserted that "both police and the [National Security Service--the former KGB] routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions, which they then used to incriminate the detainees. Police also used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse." U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2001 Annual Human Rights, Report, March 4, 2002, at

(61) For example, on 17 September 2002 the Uzbek human rights activist Yoldash Rasulov was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, allegedly for disseminating literature for the HuT. Three other human rights activists were given 5-6-year sentences in a separate trial that same week. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "Uzbek Human Rights Defender Jailed," Central Asia Report 2, no. 26 (19 September 2002).

(62) See Luong and Weinthal.

(63) According to the International Crisis Group, "The group that appears to be most actively joining the Islamist cause appears to be the disgruntled middle class, including a large number of people whose high expectations for their lives have been dashed by unemployment ... A compilation, based on court records, of those who have been arrested and convicted for political reasons reveals that more than 80 percent of Islamist had secondary and vocational education, and the rest had higher had education." International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Islamist Mobilization and Regional Security, ICG Asia Report, no. 14 (1 March 2001), 18.

(64) For example, the mufti of Uzbekistan, Abdurashid Bakhramov, has issued a fatwa prohibiting contact with the HuT, apparently to little effect.

Edward W. Walker is Executive Director of the Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written and taught on problems of ethno-politics and ethnic conflict, federalism, secession and nationalism in post-Soviet Russia and the new states of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
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Author:Walker, Edward W.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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