The Rise of Islamic Extremism in Central Asia

Former Uzbek Ambassador to Iran and Afghanistan reviews the development of Muslim groups in his region as Soviet power faded and Saudi and Iranian influence grew.

The Rise of Islamic Extremism in Central Asia

By Leslie Evans

Long-time insider in the corridors of Central Asian power, Abdusamat A. Khaydarov traced the steady march of Islamic nationalism, extremism, and terrorism in his country and its neighbors as the restraining hand of Soviet communism lost its grip on Central Asia at the and of the 1980s. Khaydarov, in the days when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic, served in the Soviet Embassy in Afghanistan during the years that the Russian military backed a beleaguered procommunist Afghani regime. He returned to Kabul as ambassador from Uzbekistan after his own country declared its independence from Moscow in 1991. He later lived in Tehran for four years as Uzbek Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1996 to 1999. Ambassador Khaydarov delivered two talks while at UCLA. On April 26 he was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and on April 28 by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies. Following is a report on his April 26 discussion.
As all the principal Central Asian states are former Soviet republics, Khaydarov pointed to Soviet repression rather than anti-Americanism as the main force prompting today's Islamic reaction. Except for two brief periods -- right after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during World War II -- the government of the USSR harshly repressed Islam within its borders. By 1985 there were only 129 official mosques in the whole of the USSR, Khaydarov said, compared to 5,000 in tiny Kazakhstan in 1999, a few years after it gained its independence.

Even before the collapse of the USSR, under Gorbachev's liberalizing glasnost policies, Islamic political parties began to emerge in the Central Asian republics. "The new Islamic revival began in earnest in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union," Khaydarov said. In part, this was a reaction not only to the repression of religion in the Soviet period but also to elements of modernization introduced by the Russians that traditionalists sought to reject. Additionally, Khaydarov said, "Islamic religion was the most important element of national identification" in all the countries of the Central Asian region.

Ambassador Khaydarov distinguished two streams within the Islamic revival. One is moderately radical and the other "ultra radical." Both agree, he said, on working to establish Islamic states under Sharia law. The former have chosen peaceful political means to accomplish this aim; the latter have turned to terrorism.

"We saw the rise of an unofficial clergy, which broke from the Hanafi school of Islam, which tolerated secularism, and they support Salafi doctrines focused on the revival of early Islamic life." Numerous militant Islamic party-type organizations have formed over the last decade and a half. In Uzbekistan, Ambassador Khaydarov cited Tovba, Adolat, Islam lashkarlari, and Nur. In surrounding nations he listed the Movement of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan (MIRT), the Alash Party of Kazakhstan, and the Islamic Center of Kyrgyzstan. He called special attention to Hizb-ut Tahrir, a cross-border underground extremist Islamic organization that operates in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and southern Kazakhstan. Khaydarov also mentioned the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a splitoff from the Adolat party, which he said calls for eliminating the secular state.

Causes of Islamic Religious Extremism in Central Asia

Abdusamat Khaydarov proposed a number of causes for the Islamic revival. "It is in part a protest against communism and a response to the ideological vacuum" when communism collapsed. Economically, "it is a response to the drop in living standards, the mass unemployment in the region, the limited possibilities for these new states to solve problems. This spurs activist, politicized Islam."

Khaydarov also noted external influences: The 1978-89 Afghan crisis in which Islamic militants fought and ultimately defeated the pro-Soviet government, followed by years of infighting that ended with the capture of power by the Taliban in 1996, created regional Islamic networks "linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda." Another influence has been heavy spending by the Saudi Arabian government and foundations to build mosques and "support trusted groups in the region." Finally, "there was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the formation there of a theocratic government." The Saudis, he said, "propagandized their version of Islam in rivalry with the Iranian one."
The end of regional isolation of the Soviet period opened Central Asia to world influences of many kinds. "There was now more contact between the region and foreign countries, particularly Muslim ones. This was one aspect of globalization. It also integrated Central Asian Islam into world Islam."

In Tajikistan, there was a civil war between the pro-Russian government and armed Muslim rebels who sought to create an Islamic state. It lasted from 1992 to a formal cease-fire in 1996, drifting into 1997. Khaydarov commented that while this was the bloodiest clash between Islamic extremists and an established government in the region -- more than 100,000 people were killed -- that the Islamic Renaissance Party, the main leader of the Islamist fighters, joined the government in 1997 in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement that has been relatively peaceful.
Khaydarov also cited "a terrorist attack in Tashkent in 1999 in which there was an attempt to kill the president of Uzbekistan."

Regional Cooperation against Islamic Radicalism

The ambassador said that the principal efforts to combat Islamic extremism and terrorism have been through various multilateral regional organizations. First among these is the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), established in 1996. "This began as an economic cooperation. After 9/11 2001 it took on more of a security role." The four members are Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Russia joined CACO in October 2004.
Successful economic development will be essential to weaken the appeal of religious extremism, Khaydarov said. "Currently there are no programs for fighting poverty and unemployment. There is a sense of futility that leads to turning to religious ideology. The Central Asian states must integrate into the world community." Teachers in Uzbekistan, he said, make $12 a month. "Religious groups pay new members often as much as $200, mainly with funding from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also build many mosques."

A major difficulty in getting serious reforms, Khaydarov said, is that the governments of the region still are marked by considerable continuity from the communist period. "There is a lack of freedom. The lack of democratization in these countries makes for a lot of difficulties." He did note, somewhat surprisingly, that the Iranian government "played a positive role in persuading the Tajikistan Islamists to sign the peace agreement" that concluded the civil war in that country.

Attitudes toward the United States

All the Central Asian states, Abdusamat Khaydarov said, supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11 2001. "They regarded the American operation as a factor for stability in the region." This positive assessment deteriorated considerably after the American invasion of Iraq and a growing perception "that the U.S. and the West is becoming involved in the politics of Central Asia." Still, he added, that did not mean the governments of Central Asia want the U.S. to pull out of the region. They are equally afraid of unfettered influence of their other two big neighbors, China and Russia.
"We need external powers to maintain stability of the region, but don't want one dominant power, either the United States, China or Russia."

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Dr. Khaydarov is fluent in Persian, Dari, Farsi, Russian, and English and currently teaches international relations at the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies. This year he is a Fulbright scholar in the United States at the University of Georgia.