Origins of Terror: Islam & Politics in Central Asia

Patrick Morgan

There is no simple explanation for terrorism. It is multifaceted, occurring in dictatorships as often as democracies, in rich nations and poor. The factors contributing to the radicalisation of a western European teenager will not be the same as an Uzbek farmer in the Fergana valley. Although overarching factors have been identified they vary in importance dictated by a region’s, or an individual’s, history and experiences. 

Central Asia’s relationship with terrorism is no different and reflects the regions own rich history and social experiences. This article will focus specifically on where religion meets the state by looking at the region’s unique relationship with Islam and how each regime’s interpretations of religious expression has affected radicalisation. These are not the only factors that contribute to extremism, but they are the most significant in a regional context. Particularly how each regime has reacted to the islamisation process taking place across the region. Either seeing it as a harmless process or the equal and precursor of radicalisation. This divergence of opinion has been created by Islam’s unique experience in Central Asia. An experience that has set it apart from the majority of the Islamic world.

Islam has been the religion of the mases in Central Asia for nearly 1,300 years, the majority of the regions populace are followers of Hanafi a moderate branch of Sunni Islam. However, over the last 100 years Islam has been supressed by the soviet authorities, most severely from 1917-1953. After Stalin’s death religious repression was lessened and the soviets instead tried to tie religious and national identity together. As they wanted to make faith an additional tool for state control, they achieved this by making religious identity subservient to national identity. This centralised control and pulled religious leaders under the state’s umbrella, while also leading to the secularisation of Islam, the state ruling the political, economic and social world and religion focusing only on non-conflicting moral matters. 

As time progressed nationalism continued to grow in the Soviet republics, as did an interest in Islam which was practiced more openly. This increase in religious practise was the initial stages of islamisation which has subsequently swept across the region, although importantly not amongst the republics Soviet elite. They have been educated through the soviet atheist system, as a result they not only lacked knowledge of Islam but they also treated it with suspicion if not open animosity. This continues to cause problems today as the political elite of Central Asia hale from this elite communist cadre.
The embers of nationalism and islamisation that was first stoked by the soviets took on a pace of its own after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Islam experienced a revival, leading to a widespread desire to re-join the wider Islamic world. Yet, the soviet experience had changed Central Asian Islam while also creating a multitude of problems. There was a severe lack of knowledge about Islam , this combined with the overwhelming desire to practise it meant that often people with a small knowledge of Islam were held in high regard. Unfortunately, several of these interpretations were influenced more by local prejudices than an accurate understanding of Islam. This created a diverse number of Islamic interpretations which has weakened the centralised religious control created by the soviets and made it harder for the state to identify radical elements. While also providing room for more extremist interpretations. 

Here is where we get to the crux of the matter. The rise of islamisation and the increasingly diverse nature of religious practise was perceived as a direct challenge to the ruling ex-soviet elite. Their natural scepticism of religion combined with their desire for complete control meant that all they saw was a threat. To them there was no difference between non-violent Islamic groups who use Islam as a source of moral authority and those groups which used Islam as a political to challenge the state. This despite the fact that the vast majority of Central Asian Muslims were and are heavily influenced by the secular interpretation of Islam, and as a result could easily fit peacefully inside a state’s structure. Central Asia has all the ingredients for a modern Islamic state, however the current generation of leaders are not suitable for the task, as they are too tainted by their soviet upbringing and their own ambition. 

The political elite’s confusion surrounding islamisation has manifested itself in several ways, most of them repressive. As a result, it has become one of the most significant factors in islamist radicalisation today. The natural disposition of central Asian governments has overwhelming been to react repressively towards Islam. There have been notable exceptions, Kyrgyzstan the democratic anomaly in the region has for the most part decided to take a more relaxed view of islamisation. While Kazakhstan has flirted between acceptance and repression. However, both still have aided in the radicalisation process by using heavy handed methods.
For authoritarian regimes, the idea of a counter narrative that had its own moral authority and considerable influence could not be tolerated. Maybe the leaders sensed their own illegitimacy stemming from their own lack of moral authority. Nevertheless in practical terms, it is easier to supress all forms of collective Islamic expression rather than conducting the difficult task of identifying specific threats. This was the attitude taken by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan which focused on attacking any form of Islam that did not fall under their own narrow definition. In these states the practises of banning beards, religious dress and arresting, torturing and public shaming are common, as many as 12,000 Muslims may be imprisoned in Uzbekistan for their religious beliefs. Even Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan which have taken more liberal attitudes to islamisation have acted in a repressive way. Kazakhstan’s ministry of Religious Issues and Civil Society made moves to ban Safism in December 2016. While Kyrgyzstan security forces are frequently criticised for their overzealous use of force and lack of differentiation between moderate and extremist religious groups. 

It is through these repressive measures that radicalisation has taken root in Central Asia. Collective punishment in most cases inevitably leads to the collapse of moderate groups and an increase in extremism and resistance. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan confrontational stance has certainly added to their own insecurity, most notably the Tajik civil war and the creation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan IMU. It is not just anti-religious repression than contributes to radicalisation, political disenfranchisement of minority ethnic groups also provides a ripe recruiting ground for extremists. One of the region’s most notable cases is Kyrgyzstan’s disenfranchisement of its minority Uzbek populace, which has resulted in a disproportional number joining extremist militant groups. 

Turkmenistan is an exception to the rule as due to their near complete overarching control of society they do not seem to have experienced anywhere near the same level of religious unrest as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, Turkmenistan’s repression is likely only to delay and intensify the inevitable islamisation trend. Even now concern is beginning to mount as many of the Afghan districts that border Turkmenistan have fallen under extremist control in the latest insurgent surge. Although the majority of these districts are controlled by the Taliban, IS affiliated groups have in the past exerted control over these border areas. The threat posed by returning fighters or islamist infiltrators is real, small groups having already been apprehended. Turkmenistan is hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in the coming months, a tempting target for any group wishing to increase its profile. 

Although religious repression is the main factor in radicalisation in the region its affect should not be over exaggerated as there are also a variety of economic and social factors. It is also worth repeating that the vast majority of Muslims in the region are not radicalised and do not believe in extreme interpretations of Islam. However, it is easy to see how state repression can provide legitimacy to extremist Islamic groups, particularly in nations where all-natural outlets of political opposition have been destroyed or suppressed. A disenfranchised populace is more susceptible to radical propaganda, whether as a result of anti-religious polices, or politically or ethnically motivated disenfranchisement. The propensity towards repressive measures reflect the current ruling elite’s lack of knowledge of Islam and their own paranoia about a possible influential counter narrative. Their resulting actions, which are most obviously characterised by the lack of differentiation between moral Islam and political Islam, only aids the radical fringe groups cause. As is fighting against the region wide islamisation trend. There are notable exceptions and Kyrgyzstan more liberal approach which focus has been on developing an inclusive secular state interpretation of Islam has limited the influence of extremist voice by creating an open space for religious expression. However even Kyrgyzstan’s security forces have used heavy handed measures, although admittedly not close to the level of violence conducted by the region’s other governments. The best cause of action to combat radicalisation in the region would be a more inclusive and open state interpretation of Islam, and an elite that understands the islamisation trend and Islam’s historical journey in the region. Although this is highly unlikely to occur until the leaders born in the Soviet period have relinquished control.

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