Uzbeki beki stan stan

Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Perceptions and state responses

In Joe Raimondi on January 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Proximity to Afghanistan and the evolution of terrorism have fostered much debate and analysis over the past few years about security threats posed by violent fundamentalist or extremist groups in Central Asia. In the context of places with relatively high-conflict potential, we have seen more emphasis placed on this region as a consequence of the spread of diffuse transnational organizations, prompting speculation about the spillover effect from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, Louise Arbour identified “Central Asia” in a Foreign Policy post titled “Next Year’s Wars,” though her analysis does place “insurgency” as one issue among many that contribute to instability in the region – including ethnic conflict, poor inter-state relations, and natural-resource issues. Fundamentalism and extremism exist in this environment but are hard to isolate from the broader range of political and socio-economic issues.

Two groups that have gained notoriety of late are the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – and more recently (and to a lesser extent), the Jund Al-Khilafah, a Kazakh group has taken responsibility for potentially religiously-motivated bombings, in Atyrau, Kazakhstan in October.

While Uzbekis are often the usual suspects for acts of terrorism and subversive behavior in Central Asia – a recent example being the tenuous claims about the IJU operating in the run-up to the Kyrgyz presidential elections in October – those involved in the Atyrau bombings as well as the attacks in Taraz, Kazakhstan in November don’t seem to be linked to any Uzbekistan-based groups or individuals. As far as the November attacks go, there is speculation that the man who carried out the attack in Taraz may have had links to Islamists based in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The mere existence of certain extremist groups operating within Central Asia is not unequivocal.

Real or perceived security threats – often in the form of externally and/or internally destabilizing groups and individuals – are useful issues for regimes concerned with population control. This logic extends to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) when assessing government depictions, analyses, and portrayals of different threats, often characterized under the umbrella of fundamentalism or extremism for political purposes. A look at a recent Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report is illustrative of the difficulty in assessing extremism in the CARs, especially for external observers trying to figure out where the security threat ends (in terms of potential for violence or conflict) and government tampering or even human rights violations begin. The most recent report (“speculation”), from December 2011, contains references to the imprisonment of 16 men in Uzbekistan – from an “unidentified illegal Islamist organization” – as well as the imprisonment of 28 men in Tajikistan for “supporting a terrorist group.” The point is not that these convicted men pose no threat, are unaffiliated with extremist groups, or have had their human rights trampled on, but that to what extent can we gain an accurate understanding of the threat in cases where the legal system abides by a different set of rules and the governments have a high capacity to manipulate the system and either eliminate or marginalize dissent?

President Imomali Rakhmon’s response to Islamism in Tajikistan illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and the state in the CARs. For at least the past year, there have been governmental shut downs as well as general police harassment of “men with beards.” Like other CARs, the conflation of endemic political corruption, constrained and suppressed media outlets, and the political utility of “threats” have undermined attempts to separate and identify real threats from manufactured ones, or ones based on expedience. George Camm frames the problem as such:

“Is it possible that some of the 1250 unregistered mosques really are fanning the flames of extremism? Certainly. But the work of determining   that with any degree of confidence is drastically complicated by the government’s perpetual exaggerations and non-transparency… With their ham-fisted policies, the authorities can’t seem to identify genuine threats to security. When officials do speak publicly on the topic, legitimate concerns are often so heavily laced with untruth that their claims elicit little trust.”

As in Kazakhstan, external assessments of extremism in Tajikistan entail analysis of highly repressive, opaque, and dysfunctional regimes which are noteworthy for dismal rankings on both corruption and press freedom indices.

Geographic proximity of the CARs to Afghanistan and Pakistan warrants comparisons of Islamism in both Central and South Asia, but is one plausible given the effect of decades of Soviet rule on religious life in the former? When we look at the CARs alongside the course of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s – specifically the influx of foreign money and manpower to fuel the jihad against the USSR, and the subsequent devastating effects on Afghan society, it is fair to say that religious life in South and Central Asia has developed in distinct manners. We have enough trouble with accurate depictions of religious life in Afghanistan in itself, let alone in a broader regional context.

At the same time, geography matters for analysis of extremism in Central Asia because porous borders and weak institutional capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical factors for operational capacity for Central Asian-based groups like Jund Al-Khilafah and the IJU. Radicalization in the CARs is also connected to broader jihadist movements, such as the one in the North Caucasus (the Caucasus Emirate), in terms of media and rhetoric (individuals from one region propagating jihad via videos, and the language used to do so), as well as training and manpower. One example: a Caucasian man named Magomed Bagilov, fighting for the Dagestani Vilaiyat, who received training in Waziristan with the IJU as well as religious education in Egypt.

There will likely be continued, localized, and sporadic violence emanating from the CARs, with responsibility being assigned to violent fundamentalist groups outright or individuals with alleged links to foreign/transnational groups. The recent government response to protesters in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen (the basis of which is unclear) will probably affect the Kazakh government’s response and posture towards future unrest. In terms of political and religiously-motivated violence, though, “ham-fisted” approaches by Central Asian governments blur the mixture of different security threats to these states, and those posed by fundamentalist groups represent just a portion of the larger picture. The state narrative will continue to utilize the expediency of this threat, whether real, perceived or overblown.

  1. An Interesting and thought provoking piece.

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