Whither Central Asias Islamic Radicals? A Comparative Framework for Examining Political Islam in Central Asia

Keith Martin

Keith MARTIN from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in Washington is a PhD candidate at MacGill University in Montreal.


Ever since the states of Central Asia gained unexpected independence in 1992, pundits, politicians and analysts have commented on the importance of political Islam in Central Asia. Those comments have seen many ebbs and tides: at times, the threat of fundamentalist Islam sweeping through Central Asia to the very doors of Mother Russia has been touted, while at other, calmer moments, political Islam in the region is dismissed as a grossly exaggerated phenomenon. In almost all cases, however, the study of political Islam in Central Asia has been descriptive or polemical, without even the effort of a search for comparative models in the broader Islamic world. At best, scattered comparative references are made, either to Central Asias past1 or to nearby states such as Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. The point of this paper is to assess the value of looking to a broader comparative universe of cases that of the Islamic world as a whole in order to bring the study of Central Asian political Islam into the wider fold of comparative politics. This author would argue that the experiences of countries as diverse as Algeria, Nigeria, Indonesia and Syria all have something to teach us about how we should look at Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. Such a comparative analysis will not provide students of this topic with the answers, but it should equip all of us with the tools to ask the right questions and to be able to fit our answers into a broader context that is more analytical and accessible to students of Islam in many other parts of the world.

The remainder of this introduction is dedicated to a discussion of the parameters of this paper, which largely arise out of the context of the authors Ph.D. dissertation. In the second part, comparative frameworks used for the examination of political Islam elsewhere and their applicability to the Central Asian context are discussed. Next follows an analysis of Central Asias current reality as seen through the prism of the aforementioned comparative frameworks. Finally, the conclusion draws together the lessons of these comparative experiences and illuminates some of the signposts analysts should be focusing on when examining the future of radical Islam in Central Asia.

Given the historical, geographical and ethnic realities of Central Asia, this paper focuses on Islamic movements in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. While the experience of Muslims in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan is obviously no less authentic, the history and contemporary role of Islam here has so far not produced strong political Islamic movements, nor is it likely that they will emerge in the near future. (It might be argued that, in Kazakhstan, an escalation of tension between Russians and Kazakhs could cause an appeal to Islam as part of Kazakh nationalist agenda, and there has been some evidence of this in the past in the proclamations of Alash, the Kazakh nationalist movement. While this may merit further study elsewhere, it does not fall into the scope of analysis here.)

Political Islam as an integrated part of advanced communal Islam has had a role in many areas that constitute present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and those parts of Kyrgyzstan located in the Fergana Valley for centuries. Much of what today is considered radical or fundamentalist Islam was practiced in the Khiva, Bukhara and Khivan khanates. When Muslims in Central Asia rebelled against first Russian, and then Soviet, rule their leaders were influenced profoundly by the thinking of Muslim activists elsewhere be it from Tatarstan or Pakistan. In this sense, the relationship of Central Asias Muslims to their brethren elsewhere was strong and they were affected, and confronted, by many of the same secularizing influences even before Stalins crackdown on Central Asias believers.

In a profound sense, the Stalinist repression of Islam in Central Asia was a Western technique of domination, rooted (in however perverted a manner) in Marxism and 19th-century socialist thought. While it is probably generally true that the Soviet Unions Muslims were fairly effectively isolated, as a broader community, from developments in Islamic thinking in other countries such as Egypt or India/Pakistan, one should not forget that many of the top clerics in the official Soviet religious establishment (e.g., the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan) studied and lived in Arab cities, where they would have come into contact with these thinkers or their followers.2 1979 marked a profound change in this pseudo-isolation. First, the Islamic Revolution in Iran energized the forces of political Islam to a virtually unprecedented extent even if the actual Shia content of the Islamic Republic which followed was not to become a model for other Islamic activists. Second, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought the issues of Islamic identity and of the struggle for an Islamic identity in the face of a secular, outside force to the Central Asians doorstep. In fact, given that a fair number of Central Asians, having been deployed in Afghanistan early on (or Tajiks serving as interpreters there throughout the intervention), joined the Afghan mujahedin and at various later points (see below) brought back the seeds of the current fundamentalist movements in Central Asia, one might say that the Soviet invasion actually brought the Islamists beyond the threshold, and into the house itself.

Since independence, the Central Asian states ties to the Islamic world have played a crucial role in those states efforts to forge new identities. As has been examined by many others,3 the Central Asian leaders, and especially President Karimov of Uzbekistan, have been attempting a very important but dangerous balancing act: emphasizing their personal commitment to Islam and their states connectedness with the Islamic world while suppressing and undermining any elements of political Islam that might be outside of their control. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that thousands of new mosques and dozens of new madrasahs and other institutions throughout the region are requiring trained personnel and financial assistance. The source of such outside training and funding is one of the most sensitive subjects in the region today, especially as concerns Saudi Arabias role, and we shall return to this topic in the conclusion of this paper.

This brief historical overview would not be complete without a brief examination of the Tajik civil war, which remains a grim reminder of the symbolic power of political Islam in Central Asia. Even if it is now generally recognized that as the author has long argued4 the main roots of the conflict in Tajikistan were regional, sub-ethnic rivalries that broke into the open after the collapse of the Soviet system, the role of the Islamic Renaissance Party and of the Tajik Qazi, Akbar Turajonzoda, remain a potent symbol of that conflict.5 Furthermore, all of the regimes in the region as well as Russia used the threat of an Islamist takeover of Tajikistan (fuelled by support from Afghanistan) as excuses to crack down on their own independent Muslim leaders or, at the very least, support the Rakhmonov regime in Dushanbe against the Islamic rebels.

In all of this there is the temptation to focus only on the current events of the region, and to lose sight of how they might fit into patterns found in the larger Islamic world. Scholars have, after all, been studying the emergence of movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in Egypt and Syria for a decade and more. In fact, while definitive explanations are always elusive in political science, we are now much more aware of the role that socio-economic change and relative deprivation of certain groups played in the development of Irans Islamic revolution or in the rise of Algerias FIS. Already, as the Soviet system of cradle-to-grave security crumbles in Central Asia, it is clear that the state (as an institution) is beginning to face some of the same challenges faced by Middle Eastern states. Given the combination of strong population growth, lack of improving economic prospects and increasing corruption in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, the similarities are only likely to increase as Soviet and Russian influence wanes.

The search for a comparative framework

The genesis of this study lies in the Fergana Valley, and centres on an intriguing question. In a valley that, historically, culturally and (multi-) ethnically, was a unified whole (see analysis below), why did the Uzbek part of the valley emerge as a hotbed of radical, political Islam, whereas the Tajik part became a veritable bulwark against the Islamic Renaissance Party and the forces supporting it? This question is particularly intriguing, since there is no historical evidence that the people of the Khujand region of northern Tajikistan were any less fervent believers in the pre-Soviet period than their brethren in Kokand, Namangan or Andijan.6 To find an answer, however, we must expand our vision beyond both Central Asia and beyond a narrow focus on what most current observers see as the context of political Islam in the region.

Theories of modern comparative politics that explore the relationship between economic, social, political and religious factors may hold the

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