Here, deriving from a paper delivered at a conference in 2011, is a brief update on the previous post:
The goal of the conference was to debate the complex relationship between Islam and the modern state, an equation in which Central Asia is a key component, given that throughout its particular history, the region has developed a hybrid, moderate form of Islam, marked by the still recent experience of communism, an autochthonous religious sub-stratum and the nomadic culture that spread along the Silk Route and exchanged multiple influences.
One of the starting points for the debate was the affirmation that the Islamic Hanafite school was predominant in Central Asia. This is a school that is characterised by being moderate and deliberately separated from political power. It was also stated that, after the period of Soviet rule, this traditional Islam re-emerged in the region, though this time it had an official nature and was sometimes used as an instrument of social control. In some regions, such as the Fergana Valley (where, in the past, violent confrontations took place between different communities), a radical sector has sprung up with links to the Salafite school (which was also the origin of the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia). This radical sector seeks the introduction of a caliphate, the supranational body ruled by Islamic law. The radicals, who include members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), engaged in armed insurgency, but members of the subversive Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) are also present in the region. Their existence – albeit in a minority form at present – has been used by the region’s states to justify to their citizens the authoritarian nature of their control and their fight against so-called external influences. Within this network of religion and politics, Uzbekistan is of vital importance to our understanding of the past, present and future of Islam in Central Asia. Tajikistan is the other country analysed more deeply in this book.
One of the conclusions resulting from the debate was that Central Asian societies possess unique factors which, as we will see, create an ideal laboratory for reflecting on the relationship between the corners of the triangle comprised of Islam, democracy and authoritarianism. This produces questions such as the following. Rather than a clash of civilisations, would it not be more accurate to speak of a clash of institutions? Who are the sides in this clash, theocracies and secular states, or democratic and authoritarian systems?
If this is the case, the most suitable approach would be one that observes the dichotomy, not between democracy and Islam, but between an incipient democratic Islam and an authoritarian Islam, a dichotomy which, perhaps, more than in any other place in the world, serves to explain the events taking place in today’s Central Asia…
Currently, all Central Asian countries are experiencing a strong Islamisation. This process takes place at three main levels: a) the national level, characterised by integration into the Islamic world; b) the social level, characterised by connections between religious and secular institutions in societies; and c) the personal level, characterised by the transformation of homo soveticus into homo islamicus…
Against this background, in the process of transition, some people have been radicalised. The “radical strata”, albeit very thin, are composed of different types of religiously motivated groups. Some people from these strata found themselves to be deprived of necessary living standards, some people became religiously obsessed, others are involved in organised crime. The explosive mixture of deprived, fanaticised and criminalised people created the social, moral and financial space for the radicalised version of Islam.
Thus, independence and restoration of Islam not only brought about controversies in public consciousness; they also revealed Central Asia’s vulnerability to religious extremism. It should be noted, however, that extremist and fundamentalist waves penetrated Central Asia from outside the region rather than awoke as an immanent feature of the local branch of Islam. Islamism as a destructive political movement pursues the ultimate goal of establishing a theocratic state, the caliphate. Islamists totally deny democracy and any form of the secular state. They use all their means to achieve their goal, from propaganda to terrorism.
Particularly, discontent within a large portion of society over hardship and declining living standards, and the unfair way that national wealth is distributed, can be exploited by radical Islamists in their zealous attempts to discredit the current secular political regimes and replace them with theocratic ones.
As is well known, Islamic extremism in Central Asia has already revealed and manifested itself as a serious destabilising factor in a number of cases, such as:
the appearance of the first extremist groups in Namangan, Andijan and other towns in the Fergana province of Uzbekistan (late 1990s);
the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997);
terrorist attacks on the Cabinet of Ministers and other buildings in Uzbekistan (February 1999);
the Batken events in Kyrgyzstan (July 1999);
the IMU fighters’ incursion of Uzbekistan (2000);
the Taliban threat to Central Asia (from 1998 to 2001);
the Andijan events (May 2005);
small-scale incidents on the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (May 2009).
Initially, religious radicalism manifested itself in the early 1990s. In 1991, the first Islamist groups began to act openly: they attacked the hated police, established “fair order” in some provincial towns like Andijan and Namangan, and called for the creation of a caliphate. Many mosques turned into places of Wahhabi teaching and ideology.
Currently, the defenders of political Islam or Islamism in the region are mostly two organisations, the HT and the IMU. The former officially declares its adherence to a non-military, peaceful means of activity, claiming that the caliphate will evolve in the wake of their propaganda. The latter resorts to military means which take the form of terrorist acts. While the former tries to spread leaflets and hire followers, the latter tries to spread violence and hire fighters. The HT claims a membership of 15,000 and 100,000 sympathisers. The IMU, according to some estimates, can claim a membership of about 1,000.
The IMU maintains close contacts with a number of international terrorist organisations in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as some secret services such as Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan. The IMU also gets financial support from European-based foundations. Nowadays, Islamists adapt themselves to modern conditions and actively use the Internet as a tool for reaching and influencing the public consciousness.