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Central Asia, Islamic Radicalism in

Paul Coyer
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Central Asia, Islamic Radicalism in

Islam plays an important role as a cultural marker and component of national identity in each of Central Asia’s five republics, with the particular form taken by Islam being mediated and shaped by local culture, ethnic and tribal history and realities, etc. The Ḥanafī school of Islam, the oldest and also the most tolerant school, has been the dominant school in the region since the Middle Ages, but a vigorous theological debate has also existed in Central Asia for many decades among reformers, conservatives, and fundamentalists. Islamist movements within the region, contrary to perceptions, were not the result of the renaissance of Islamic piety that followed the implosion of the Soviet Union and independence. On the contrary, research has shown that, although it is true that under atheist Soviet rule Islam was suppressed and tightly managed, the Soviet authorities themselves played a significant role in the rise of more fundamentalist forms of Islam in the region that are making themselves felt today (Peyrouse, 2007).

Early in the Soviet era the Bolsheviks suppressed the Ṣūfīs, whom they viewed as being obscurantist, while allowing some freedom of action to Salafist theologians, who opposed the Ṣūfīs and promoted what was considered to be a more modern version of Islam (Muminov, 2005). Beginning in the late 1920s, after consolidating Soviet control in Central Asia, Stalin severely repressed all forms of Islam. As a result, most theological education took place in illegal underground schools, many of which taught the Ḥanafī school of thought, but some of which espoused a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. These fundamentalist teachers, as Martha Brill Olcott has written, interpreted the threat from Soviet atheism as requiring a “return to the doctrinal purity of the period of Islam’s founding” as necessary in order to strengthen Islam to survive the Soviet challenge” (Olcott, 1994).

Stalin allowed Central Asia’s Muslims greater freedom in the face of the Nazi invasion in World War II in order to bolster Soviet national unity and strengthen the war effort. Stalin established the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM) in 1943, which, as Marlene Laruelle has written, “succeeded both in giving quasi-institutional support to fundamentalist conceptions of Islam and in introducing elements from other madhahib [schools of Islamic thought] into the predominantly Hanafi Islam of Central Asia” (Laruelle, 2012).

Soviet repression of reformist Islamic leaders during this period further helped lead to the rise of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. By the 1960s and 1970s Salafist views were becoming more widespread, particularly in the Ferghana Valley. Some of the informal Salafist schools and the theologians who led them in the Soviet era have an important influence in shaping the fundamentalist strains of Islam found within the region today (Olcott, 1994).

Islam began to take a more prominent role in public life in Central Asia in the late 1980s, when the level of control exercised by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began to wane and local officials were given greater autonomy, including autonomy in relation to ideology and religion (Olcott, 1994). Following independence the new Central Asian governments, led by former Soviet officials, were unsure how to handle religion. Initially, the regional governments encouraged Islam and saw its rebirth as a helpful tool in building a sense of national and cultural identity that differed from Russia. However, these Soviet-trained officials began to see Islam as an ideological competitor and a potential political threat (Peyrouse, 2010).

Although extremist forms of Islam developed in the region during the Soviet-era primarily indigenously, outside actors began to play a larger role upon independence, many of them advocating on behalf of more extremist views of Islam. While Iran has not played much of a role in this regard, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree Turkey, have funded madrasahs and mosques in the period just after independence, with the Saudi money supporting Wahhābī teachings.

Some governments in Central Asia fought insurgencies against armed Islamic groups in the 1990s and early 2000s. In Tajikistan, for example, the Islamic Renaissance Party participated in that country’s civil war, which began shortly after independence and lasted until 1997. The party agreed in talks to give up armed struggle in exchange for being allowed to take part in the political process. (The revoking of the party’s status as a national political party by the Tajik government in August 2015, however, based upon the accusation that it was seeking to overthrow the government, threatened to lead to a potentially violent backlash, lending credence to the charge that heavy-handedness on the part of the region’s governments toward all political involvement on the part of Islamic parties was counterproductive). Another high profile armed Islamic group in the region that conflicted with several regional governments was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had a reach beyond Uzbekistan, advocated the establishment of a Muslim caliphate, and was an active military force in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Since then, most militant Islamic groups have been disbanded, militarily defeated and/or forced out of the region. The eradication of these threats was assisted substantially by United States and other Western trainers, who arrived in the region following the attacks of 9/11 given NATO’s need for Central Asia as a transit and basing area to support the Western effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The security training provided by the US and its allies helped the region’s security services to develop into much more efficient, effective, and professional forces than had previously been the case (although the Pentagon and other Western militaries have found it a constant struggle to provide such training while minimizing the opportunities for Central Asian governments to use it in order to more effectively monitor and suppress domestic political dissent). Due to this increased efficiency and effectiveness, the chances of an armed extremist group organizing, sourcing weapons, and planning and successfully carrying out an armed attack, all without attracting the notice of the government security services, have been significantly reduced.

Border control in Central Asia is another area that has received extensive Western assistance, and this, too, has buttressed Central Asian security and minimized the chances that spillover from a security vacuum in northern Afghanistan will be a serious threat to its neighbors to the north. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, the three Central Asian states bordering northern Afghanistan, have all strengthened security along their borders with Afghanistan, adding bases, manpower, and equipment. The threat from Islamic radicalism, both real and imagined, has been an important factor driving Moscow’s engagement with Central Asia, and has been a tool used by Moscow in order to justify increasing its presence in the region through the claim that it is seeking to stop the spread of radical Islam. Shared concerns between Russia and China have been a factor motivating cooperation between the two in the area of security provision—previously solely a Russian concerns, but increasingly seeing more active involvement on the part of Beijing in the form of joint antiterrorist exercises and intelligence sharing. China has pledged to build eleven border guard posts along the Afghan–Tajik border, as well as a border guard training center. It also held the first ever joint, bilateral military exercise in Tajikistan in late October 2016, and although the Chinese contingent was relatively small, the fact that the exercises took place at all signaled some concern in Beijing.

It is not easy to obtain accurate information on radicalization among Muslims in Central Asia, partially due to the fact that regional governments many times purposefully make that task difficult. Studies have shown, however, that the level of influence of Islamic radicalism differs significantly from region to region within Central Asia. The densely populated Ferghana Valley, shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, has been home to a significant number of radical Islamic teachers and schools since the Soviet era. Other geographic areas in which concentrations of Islamic radicals exist have included Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. Areas that have had much lower levels of radicalism include northern Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan has succeeded in suppressing and/or expelling extremist organizations that have attempted to gain a foothold in the country.

Implicit in the suspicion with which the secular, post-Soviet Central Asian governments approach Islam in general, and particularly the attempt on the part of Muslims to become politically active, is the view that a revival of expressions of Muslim piety among their populations since 1991 are worrisome because such a revival of faith will lead to extremism and violence in the name of Islam. Addressing these concerns Chatham House published a study in November 2014 which argued that an increase in piety and interest in their religion among the region’s mostly moderate Sunnī Muslims following the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union has not translated into an increase in violent extremism. One reason for this is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the region adhere to more moderate understandings of Islam. The study also emphasizes the continued, complex role of secularism within Central Asia, arguing that: “Secularism is a powerful force in the post-Soviet Muslim world that has multiple and contradictory effects. It limits radicalism but also generates overblown fears about Islam. The secularism of post-Soviet societies serves as a foil for a small number of militant groups but also reduces the appeal of those groups to wider society” (Heathershaw and Montgomery, 2014).

Governments in the region remain highly sensitive to expressions of political Islam and to potential extremist threats, however, and have been repeatedly accused of conflating political dissent and criticism of corruption with Islamic radicalism in order to justify heavy-handed crackdowns on legitimate political dissent. The sense that stability within the region is fragile has contributed to sensitivity on the part of the regional governments to any potential threats to that stability. Factors such as a prolonged and severe economic downturn (due both to low energy prices and to spillover from Russia’s economic difficulties), anger at the endemic corruption that characterizes the region’s regimes, and concerns about succession crises (highlighted by the death in 2016 of Uzbekistan’s longtime president Islam Karimov), have all added to the sense that Central Asia is not as stable as it appears to be.

A sense of insecurity within the region has been heightened by fears that Central Asians fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will begin returning home as the Islamic State continues to lose territory and suffer defeats, becoming a source of instability and terror attacks across Central Asia. Although estimates of how many Central Asians have fought with the Islamic State vary, terror experts agree that the IS has targeted Central Asia as a recruiting hub. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at Kings College, London, which has tracked foreigners fighting with the Islamic State since 2012, put the total number of Central Asians fighting with the Islamic State as of late 2014 at around fourteen hundred (Neumann, 2015). According to a more recent (October 2016) study undertaken at National Defense University in the United States, Central Asia is the third largest point of origin among Salafī jihadist foreign fighters in the conflict. The study authors estimate that a little more than four thousand Central Asians have fought with the Islamic State since 2012, with approximately twenty-five hundred joining the fight in 2014 and 2015 alone (Lynch et al., 2016).

Despite understandable nervousness on the part of Central Asian governments, and despite the threats made by some Central Asian fighters to return home and pursue jihad, there is little reason to believe this will actually occur. A primary factor mitigating against such a return is the fact that many Central Asians, whether they were recruited in Russia where they were part of the large Central Asian migrant population or in Central Asia itself, left in order to start a new life altogether and have little desire to return.

Incidents of violent Islamic extremism in Central Asia have been rare and have occurred within a local context, usually as reactions against suppression of religious and other civil liberties and rights on the part of authoritarian governments. Nevertheless the spate of attacks in 2015 and 2016, including attacks on police in Aktobe and Almaty in Kazakhstan in June and July 2016, respectively, as well as an attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan by a suicide bomber, have played on regional fears that incidents of violent extremism are on the rise. Illustrating a tendency of Central Asian governments to blame external forces, after the shooting in the western Kazakh city of Aktobe in June 2016, in which eight people, including three soldiers, were killed by a couple dozen men with suspected links to Islamic extremism, the Kazakh government initially attempted to link the attacks to Syria, but dropped that idea when it became clear that there was no evidence to support it (Kazakhstan, 2016).

A legitimate shock to the region occurred in the spring of 2015, when Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, a commander of Tajikistan’s elite OMON (paramilitary police), who had received training in both Russia and the United States, disappeared and several weeks later reappeared in either Iraq or Syria and declared in a twelve-minute-long video that he had joined the ranks of the Islamic State in order to protest increasing restrictions on religious freedom on the part of the Tajik government, and vowed to pursue a violent jihad against the Tajik government. Halimov’s defection sent shock waves not just through Tajikistan but throughout the whole of Central Asia, as it represented just how alienated a substantial portion of Central Asia is and how potentially vulnerable the regimes are.

The total numbers of Muslims holding more fundamentalist perspectives on Islam remains relatively small, yet the proportion varies by country and locality. Recent studies by the Pew Research Center, for example, have shown that the percentage of Muslims who would favor making Sharīʿah law the official law in their countries range from a low of 10 percent in Kazakhstan to a high of 35 percent in Kyrgyzstan. While there is little danger that this minority will become a mass movement, and many constraints exist on the growth of extremist sentiment within the region, there is much evidence (including the defection of Colonel Halimov) to suggest that the approach of Central Asia’s secular governments to its Muslim majority populations is counterproductive and helping to create conditions within which extremists will have an easier time recruiting the disaffected. Repeated examples of government heavy-handedness, including accusations of extremism against Muslim leaders guilty only of criticizing government corruption (and who in some cases, contrary to government claims, were well known to have condemned examples of Muslim extremism), lend credence to this fear.


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