Lena JONSON is Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm.
Although radical Islam has so far constituted a relatively limited phenomenon in Eurasia, its role is growing. In the Russian North Caucasus and in Central Asia a process of re-Islamization and politicization of Islam was initiated during perestroika in the 1980s. This process accelerated after the break-up of the Soviet Union as the societies in this region searched for their roots and for identity, norms and values. As a result Islam has become an important political factor.
Political Islam has a number of different faces. A crucial question for the future of these areas is the potential for political Islam to develop into a factor of conflict and instability. This question was discussed at the conference on ‘Political Islam and Conflicts in Eurasia’, organized by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs together with the journal Tsentralnaya Aziya i Kavkaz in April 1999.
Radical Islam is just one of the faces of political Islam, but it is the one that gives rise to most concern. In August 1999 the threat of radical Islamism received the attention of international media as Islamists took up arms in Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan. In central Dagestan Islamists had declared some villages ‘Islamic territory’. Chechen Commander Basaev then took control over Dagestani villages close to the Chechen border in an effort to set up an Islamic republic of Chechnya and Dagestan. In southern Kyrgyzstan ethnic Uzbek Islamists tried to force their way to Uzbekistan from Tajikistan over Kyrgyz territory to continue their struggle for an Uzbek Islamic republic.
These events arose from very specific circumstances, in which Islam was not the main issue but was used as an instrument in a political struggle. Still, these groups can be considered offshoots of a broader trend of re-Islamization.
Radical Islam is a new phenomenon in both Russia and Central Asia and it constitutes a challenge not only to the political leaderships and the traditional clergy but also to society as a whole. There is a risk that radical Islam may bring conflict and divisions to these societies. It is therefore important to at least find the tentative answers to the questions: What are the prospects for radical political Islam? What are the factors behind its growth? What is the response from the authorities to this challenge?
The Central Asian states (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) are all Muslim societies. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have a large ethnic Russian population (36 and 17 per cent, respectively), the influence of Islam is less felt than in the other three states. The Muslim population of Russia is estimated at between 11 and 22 million people – between 8 and 15 per cent of the total population. Islam is the second largest religion in Russia. The Muslims are concentrated in the Northern Caucasus and in Central Russia around Volga (mainly Tatarstan and Bashkortostan). They are also found in the large cities. There are between 600000 and 1.2 million Muslims in Moscow and the Moscow region.
The question of what constitutes ‘political Islam’ is discussed by Aleksei Malashenko in the first chapter of this volume. Malashenko points out that Islam does not recognize a division between politics and religion but is closely interwoven with all aspects of social life. Today, as was also largely the case during the Soviet era, Islam has a fundamental function in regulating social relations. In this sense Islam is and always has been political. In the process of politization of Islam since the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, Islam has also become a political instrument used both by the political establishment and by the opposition.
Malashenko makes a clear distinction between ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘Islamism’ (but this distinction is not followed consistently by the authors of the subsequent chapters). Fundamentalism is defined as an approach idealizing the golden past of Islam, calling for a return to ‘pure and original Islam’ and the construction of an Islamic state. It is a philosophical approach, and a fundamentalist, writes Malashenko, can be a law-abiding citizen throughout his life. He defines Islamism as the political practice of creating an Islamic state. Islamism can be radical/extremist or moderate. In most cases its followers consider the ruling political leadership to be illegitimate. The frequent labelling of fundamentalists and Islamists as ‘Wahhabists’ in the media on former Soviet territory is unfounded.1
In spite of the existing differences between the societies of the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, the growth of Islamic movements can be considered a general trend.
In the Northern Caucasus radical movements already constitute a serious problem and the war in Chechnya is a main factor behind their development. As pointed out by Vakhit Akaev, war and the destruction of normal social and economic life paved the way for extremists to play the role of saviours of the nation and fighters for the Islamic cause in Chechnya. Kidnapping and murder have become part of daily life and state power is in the hands of extremists. The political and economic chaos in Chechnya has a destructive influence on neighbouring republics. Fundamentalism is growing in Dagestan and according to official estimates it is supported by between 5 and 10 per cent of the population. How many of them would follow an Islamist cause is unknown, however. In August and September 1999 a very limited support for Basayev’s call for an Islamic Chechen–Dagestan republic was demonstrated.
Fundamentalist movements play a role in Central Asia and have a stronghold in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. Islamist movements are developing from Fergana but can also be found in Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan meet in the Fergana Valley, which means that radical Islam may easily be spread. The ethnic factor adds to the complexity of the situation. Kyrgyzstan and also southern Kazakhstan have problems with Islamists within their Uzbek minorities.
Many of the factors that explain the growth of Islamist movements will be around for many years to come. The deep socio-economic crisis and the lack of purpose and direction in society guarantee that people will search for an ‘Islamic alternative’ to the existing regime and for the ‘true Islam’.
Bakhtiyar Babadzhanov and several other authors conclude that the Islamists are attractive today as they are able to respond to the general dissatisfaction with the socio-economic situation. The Islamists do not have an economic strategy for solving the economic crisis, but they have a socio-economic programme for supporting the poor and the unemployed. The Islamists’ ideas of egalitarianism are attractive against the background of corruption and inegality. Their denial of any legitimacy for existing political institutions is in line with the popular discontent with the political leadership. The socio-political programme of the Islamists can be compared with Keith Martin’s description of the tactics of Islamist movements in other parts of the Muslim world, where these movements have been successful when they responded to relative economic deprivation. For example, they build neighbourhood organizations, which provide desperately needed services which the state cannot provide or provide for other than in a very corrupt and ineffective manner.
As is pointed out in several chapters, an additional factor behind the growth of radical Islam is the inability of the official Sunni clergy to respond to new demands in society, which leads many people to turn to the Islamists instead. If the traditional clergy is not able to win back the hearts and minds of the people and take the initiative, they will lose to the Islamists. A crucial factor for the future of the Islamist cause is of course the degree to which Islamist groups themselves are able to build an effective and coherent organization, formulate a policy on burning issues and find a charismatic leader.
The way in which the state authorities respond to the challenges posed by radical Islam influences the future development. The Uzbek authorities have responded and still respond with repression and persecution. This has radicalized parts of the official clergy and broadened support for the Islamists in society. In a first response in Dagestan in 1998 the republican authorities exercised strong pressure when the Buinaksk district was declared ‘Islamic territory’. This tactic was later replaced by dialogue. However, the August/September 1999 events resulted in the Dagestani authorities forcefully responding to Islamist rebels of Chechen as well as of Dagestani origin.
Even if terrorist and criminal acts have to be punished, most authors stress the importance of dialogue and a search for compromise between the authorities and fundamentalist and Islamist movements in order to avoid radicalization, conflicts and instability.
A most serious problem is external funding of Islamist groups. Anna Matveeva points to a close connection between organized crime and extremist groupings. Several authors claim that financial support to such groups is being supplied by Muslim states.
In Part I of this volume Aleksei Malashenko, Keith Martin and Anna Matveeva present the background to the emergence of political Islam and to factors underlying its growth. Malashenko analyses the different ways in which Islam is being used by the political establishment and by the opposition.
Keith Martin evaluates the prospects for radical Islamic movements by comparing the developments in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and northern Tajikistan with similar movements in other parts of the Islamic world. He raises the question of when and how these movements become a political force and discusses four different responses or ‘strategies’ of the opposition. Martin warns of the consequences if the ruling political elite allows the lion’s share of the benefits of state largesse (in the form of positions, subsidies, etc.) to go to the region, class or ethnicity in charge of the state. The effect is, he writes, to create ‘losers’, who feel disenfranchised by the process – particularly if they have previously held state power. If the Islamists are able to create an alliance with such ‘losers’ a dangerous and destabilizing development may follow. Martin regards this as a possible scenario for Uzbekistan, where political opposition is banned.
Anna Matveeva continues the discussion of factors behind the emergence and development of Islamist movements and pays special attention to the way the traditional Muslim clergy was co-opted by the ruling regime, its incapacity to provide moral guidelines and orientation, silence on the burning issues of social deprivation and injustice, and the absence of any attempt to initiate a social security network. As a consequence a gap developed between the official clergy and the population supporting non-conformist movements.
Developments in Russia are discussed in Part II of this volume. Amri Shikhsaidov and Vakhit Akaev contribute chapters on the Northern Caucasus. Developments there are contrasted with those in the Volga–Ural region, which is analysed by Aislu Yunosova. In a final chapter Leonid Sykiäinen discusses possible responses by Russian authorities to the challenge raised by radical Islam in Russia.
Vakhit Akaev analyses how the extremists (he calls them the Wahhabites) advanced on the political stage in Chechnya. He describes the intriguing struggle for power at the top and describes President Maskhadov as being under strong pressure from the extremists. In early 1999 President Maskhadov declared Shari’ah rule and thereby ended the parliament’s legislative work. This did not, however, strengthen his position but instead added to the chaos in Chechnya.
Akaev describes the strong antagonism between the traditional clergy and the extremists. The representatives of the traditional clergy have been the strongest critics and several of them have had to pay with their lives. This kind of conflict is also described by Shikhsaidov in his chapter on Dagestan. Shikhsaidov estimates the number of activists at only a few thousand, but as they are well-armed and financed from abroad their influence on the political process is much larger than this would suggest. The influence on the political process is contradictory, he writes, but it is evident from his analysis that a dangerous force has been triggered.
The Volga–Ural region shows a very different picture in spite of the fact that it has a strong concentration of Russian Muslims. The Muslims were forcefully assimilated and Islam has never played a dominant role in the life and politics of Bashkortostan. It will hardly do so in the future, writes Aislu Yunosova. Islamic institutes have always been weak in relation to the state. The geographical location of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as islands surrounded by Russian Orthodoxy has made the history of Islam in this region different from that in the Northern Caucasus. The large proportion of ethic Russians in these republics has been a restraining factor.
Leonid Sykiäinen argues in favour of strengthening the traditional Sunni clergy against the extremists. For this purpose he recommends that elements from the Muslim judicial culture (Shari’ah) be incorporated into Russian law, especially in Muslim-dominated republics.
In Part III of this volume the development of political Islam in Central Asia is discussed in chapters by Ashirbek Muminov, Bakhtiyar Babadzhanov and Saodat Olimova. Muminov presents the background of religious–theological schools in Central Asia. He briefly presents the evolution of the prevalent Sunni Hanafite school and introduces the forms and habits of ‘popular Islam’, which has strong roots in Central Asia. Local customs of ‘popular Islam’ were strengthened during the Soviet era when theoretical Islamic studies and debate were not allowed.
Babadzhanov argues that ‘popular Islam’ was often considered a deviation from proper Islam and, therefore, also became the target of fundamentalists and Islamists. He analyses the emergence and growth of the Fergana Valley as a ‘hotbed’ of fundamentalism in Uzbekistan. He describes how in the late Soviet era radical fundamentalism emerged because of the support of the Soviet Uzbek authorities. The authorities used the fundamentalists to fight ‘popular Islam’, which they considered a much larger danger, by allowing the fundamentalists to act and propagate. When the authorities understood that they were instead nourishing a force which was gaining support, they started persecuting the fundamentalists. As a result the fundamentalists were made illegal, and their popular support increased. Babadzhanov argues that ‘popular Islam’ had functioned as a barrier to fundamentalism and that when this barrier was undermined the fundamentalists could move forward more easily.
In her chapter on Tajikistan Saodat Olimova finds that political Islam emerged from the nature of industrialization and modernization, which preserved a traditional lifestyle in large parts of the country. Political Islam is a result of this contradictory process. The 1992–97 civil war made Islamism an important force in Tajik society and strengthened it within the United Tajik Opposition. Today the UTO, which is considered a moderate Islamist force, is cooperating with the Tajik Government in accordance with the peace agreement of June 1997. However, sociological studies show that the UTO is now losing popular support. The UTO, which includes traditionalists as well as radicals, is accused of being a ‘traitor’ and of giving in to the Tajik Government. A split in the organization can be expected and Olimova finds a breeding ground for extremist movements to be gaining ground, especially if the peace agreement fails.
All authors point to the future potential of Islamist movements, but none of them seem to believe that the majority of the population of these societies would ever accept Islamist rule. However, a further trend of growing Islamism in Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus poses the threat of conflict and instability. The authors share the view that Islamism cannot contribute to the consolidation of society, the state-building process or economic development. Religion is thus developing into an important factor creating cleavages in these societies.
It is interesting to note that the religious factor plays a completely different role from that predicted in the international debate a few years ago, concerning a coming ‘clash of civilisations’. The conflicts described in this volume are taking place within Muslim societies rather than between societies of different religions. Not even the Chechnya conflict can be described in terms of a ‘clash between civilizations’. Islam was being used as a political tool when Chechnya tried to break away from the federal centre, but Islam was never a main reason behind Chechen separatism.
The socio-economic conditions of Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus today provide a breeding ground for radical political Islam. Economic development and improved living conditions for the population would largely eliminate this breeding ground. However, if the socio-economic crisis of these regions is to be overcome, political and religious forces have to cooperate and reach agreements. In this process fundamentalists and even Islamists must also be regarded as legitimate partners. The question of how to manage this balancing act of fighting the extremists and inviting the moderates will probably continue to constitute the most serious challenge for the next generation of political leaders in these regions.
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