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Force Is Not the Way to Meet Central Asia’s Islamist Threat.

Comment by Gareth Evans published in the International Herald Tribune, 10-11 March 2001

BRUSSELS - The Taleban’s crazy destruction of Afghanistan’s heritage is not the only new problem in Central Asia. Further north, concern is mounting about Islamist revolutionaries, apparently inspired and supported by the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s terrorists (and some drug smugglers for good measure) seeking to topple the post-Soviet regimes in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Insurgents and government troops have been battling for two summers. Terrorist attacks have included bombs meant to kill President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and kidnapping of Japanese and Americans. Support for extremism is growing among a population traditionally highly respectful of authority.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are trying to coordinate security. The big powers are taking interest. China, fearful of encouragement for the revolt among Muslims in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Region, is a major supplier of military aid.

Russia, spooked by its Chechnya experience and determined to draw a line against new Islam-driven instability, is providing troops to patrol the Tajik-Afghan border. The United States, worried that Mr. bin Laden or the Taleban may gain new adherents, sent last year a stream of high level visitors.

There is certainly plenty to be concerned about. Unless trends are reversed, the nightmares of both the regional governments and the major powers could acquire some real substance.

It is time, however, to take stock of just how serious the Islamist threat is. The International Crisis Group, active in the region since August, thinks much of the danger is the product of policy misjudgement and overreaction from the regional governments themselves.

Islam reasserted itself in Central Asia as the Soviet Union collapsed. This was tolerated initially but the ruling elites in the new states, little changed from Soviet days, soon concluded that independent Islamic activities threatened their power. They cracked down heavily on any religion-related activity not controlled by the semi-official religious administrations established in Soviet times.

The governments justify repression by pointing to real enemies, especially the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which pledges to overthrow the region’s strongest government, and operates on the territory of all three. The focus for President Imamali Rahmonov of Tajikistan remains the United Tajik Opposition, the partly Islamic coalition that fought a civil war from 1992-1997.

All three governments profess concern about Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a movement that wants to restore the Caliphate, the religious state which once united Muslim lands - and, of course, about the Taleban and Mr. bin Laden.

But the evidence suggests that the threat is being overstated. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has only 1,000 fighters. A senior Uzbek official admitted privately that claims of an partnership between the movement and Hizb-ut-Tahrir are propaganda. Ethnic differences prevent much cooperation the movement and the Taleban, with which regional governments are making their own accommodations.

What is evident is growing repression of all Islamic activity not under tight government control. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s claim that 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims are in Uzbek concentration camps is unconfirmed, but the government acknowledges camps, and International Crisis Group’s fieldwork indicates that arrests have been occurring on a large scale.

Hardly a young practising Uzbek Muslim is without a story of harassment. Entire villages increasingly define themselves in opposition to the state.

Citizens have not yet fully identified with the revolutionaries but the disaffected increase daily. Moreover, economies are badly depressed. Rural distress exacerbated by drought and growing gaps between rich and poor add classic pre-revolutionary elements.

If concerns over terrorism, drugs, and the Taleban lead the West to acquiesce in suppression, there is a risk of repeating the Iran experience, where foreign support for an unpopular leader fostered worse leadership and provoked outright antagonism toward the West.

Policy makers must distinguish real from imagined dangers. Central Asian governments are at risk but military aid and border controls are unlikely to help. The most useful support is economic and the best security measure each local government is to practice greater tolerance and more democracy.

Copyright International Herald Tribune



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