April 18, 2010
Islamic Mobilization in Central Asia: Trends and Prospects
Tolga Turker, Ph.D.
Radicalization of Muslims has often been regarded as a major threat to the stability and security of the regions ranging from Europe to the Middle East, Central Asia to South East Asia and Africa to South Pacific and to Western interests within the Muslim world. The Iranian Revolution, attacks on Western embassies, hostage takings and other violent acts by Islamist radicals have all led to expectations of inevitable clash between a militant Islam and the West. Unrest within Muslim populations of former Soviet Union from Caucasus to Central Asia, in former Yugoslavia, in Xinjiang in China, in Palestine and in North Africa have strengthened the image of a potentially explosive Islam in global politics. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Islam in Central Asia, in addition to other identity issues, constitutes a potentially very powerful transformational force; one that could be mobilized in several ways and push in one or more directions.
I- Historical Overview
In Central Asia we can speak of two variants of Islam, corresponding to an opposition between tribal zones and the urban city centers that were conquered by Muslim Arabs. This latter form is a product of the religious schools (madrassas) of Samarkand and Bukhara and is often fundamentalist Islam. The dominant figures are the clergy. In tribal zones, Roy mentions, Islam imposed as late as in eighteenth century and penetrated through the intermediary of Sufi brotherhoods such as the Yasawiyya, which incorporates elements deriving from the shamanistic traditions of Turkic nomads.
Islam in Central Asia was quietist, following generally the apolitical Hanafi Sunni School as in Afghanistan and throughout the Indian subcontinent only to be challenged by Wahhabism starting in the 1970s. Central Asia was also the birthplace of at least two major Sufi orders. The most important is the Naqshbandiyya order, found in Bukhara during 14th century in a Persian-speaking environment; the other is the Yasawiyya order found during 12th century. The Yasawiyya, whose practices included old shamanic rites deriving from the nomadic tribes, developed principally in the Turkic world. This school gave rise to the Bektashi of the Ottoman Empire. Sufi affiliations do not necessarily correspond to political affiliations, which may contribute to political mobilization. In Central Asia they do not have a direct political expression.
Under the Soviet rule, Islam throughout the Central Asia had been driven underground, but even Soviet totalitarianism could not suppress it entirely. Mosques have been closed, destroyed, or turned into something else. Young Muslims joined the Soviet youth organization, rather than going to the mosque. Nevertheless, in most communities, the older generation passed on the knowledge of Islam to their children. During the Soviet rule Central Asia was on the edge of the Islamic world, with no contact with the major centers of Islamic civilization. The Israeli-Arab conflicts, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Palestinian issue and much more had passed them by.
The repression of Islam under Stalin was very severe from 1927 onwards. In 1943 Stalin set up a system of four muftiyyas with territorial coverage. These muftiyyas did not have a national anchor point. Two offensives against Islam were to follow after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev delivered the heaviest blow by forcing the closure of 25 percent of official mosques between 1958 and 1964. The effect was particularly felt in Tajikistan (16 out of 34) and Uzbekistan (23 out of 90). The four official mosques stayed open in Turkmenistan and of the 26 Kazakh and 34 Kyrgyz mosques only one in each republic closed. These figures are indicative of the greater weight of Islam in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan compared with the other three republics. The last offensive was under Gorbachev in 1986, which was largely overshadowed by the general liberalization atmosphere.
A wave of radicalization affected all the Muslim areas started in 1970s, accelerated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and matured by the end of 1980s. For instance in 1990, the Islamic Renaissance Party was set up. The party, headquartered in Moscow, published various journals in various languages of the USSR and its aim was “to unify Muslims all over the entire Soviet territory”. The party presented itself as and social and political organization, denounced ethnic and national conflicts and was respected the constitution and rejected terrorism. However it has lot in common with militant fundamentalism as they emphasized preaching and conversion, denunciate the official clergy, demanded for Islamic schools, called for Islamic justice based on Islamic tax.
In 1991 as borders reopened, the Central Asian states were suddenly thrust back into the main current of a turbulent global religion. The region’s political leaders were often poorly informed about Islam and their secularism was hardly dented by the cultural practices and Islamic traditions of the past. However many ordinary people began seeking religious answers in the ideological vacuum that followed the collapse of Communism. Missionaries from the Middle East were well equipped to provide simple answers to the complex questions of identity and purpose that accompanied the political turmoil of independence.
Two points can be made so far with regard to Islam in Central Asia. First, the religious revivalism which emerged since the 1980s, after a period of underground development is not foreign import. According to Roy, “It is the public appearance of a culture and a religious practice that never entirely disappeared”. Second, by the same token political Islam or radicalization of Islam in the region is not an import either. The militant networks existed under the Soviet Empire such as Adolat (Justice), Taubat (Repentance), Baraka (Blessings) and Islam Lashkarlari (Warriors of Islam). These groups existed underground during the Soviet Union and re-emerged on the surface with the political reforms in the 1980s.
II- Central Asian Context
In Central Asia, Islam has rarely if ever been characterized by a single tradition, and the original texts of faith have always been challenged by pre-Islamic and non-Islamic beliefs that have been incorporated into mainstream Islam. In addition to a decentralized nature, Islam has long become interwoven with the beliefs and practices of mountainous and steppe cultures. As Zanca points out “To Central Asians tendencies have rarely proved immiscible, extending back to eight century.” Given this one can expect concerns with militant and anti-Semitic groups such as the IMU and the Hizb ut-Tahrir and their arguments in favor of jihad and the recreation of seventh century caliphate to fall mainly on deaf ears.
Government propaganda in Central Asia tends to put all pious believers into a broad melting pot of Islamic radicalism. However different groups had very different ideologies and tactics. Some were committed to violence, such as the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that eventually became closely linked to Taliban and then to Al-Qaida. Others, like Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islamiyya [The Islamic Party of Liberation] (HT), sought radical change but proclaimed their commitment to peaceful means. Islamic groups are divided by ideology, personality and resources; at other times they have recognized a common cause such as opposition to the Uzbek regime. But they rarely cooperate openly and most suffered from the tendency of all radical movements to fracture and split over strategy and money. Therefore it is difficult to research them but some general groups are clear. After a discussion of the hotbed of religious extremism in Fergana Valley, the rest of this section will provide a short survey of these two radical Islamic groups active in the region HT and IMU.
In Central Asia, the focus of Islamic revivalism and radical Islam has been the Fergana Valley, a fertile and densely populated region with deeply religious residents divided between three different republics Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In the Soviet period border between the republics were meaningless and people crossed back and forth without border or customs control. In the post-Soviet era, as relations between republics worsened borders became bolder with barbed wires and land-mines.
The valley has traditionally been the center of political activity such as secular nationalist Birlik party, which was crushed by the Uzbek government and served as the main entry point to the region. Major radical groups which could be considered as precursor to IMU and HT such as Adolat, Taubat, Baraka and Islam Lashkarlari were active in the valley. The methods and strategies of these groups differ, but they do share the common goal of overthrowing the secular government and establishing an Islamic state. Radical Islam is most active in Fergana Valley in Central Asia, but as a result of governmental repression many members have moved to neighboring countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and to Afghanistan and Pakistan, two primary bases for terrorists and radical sympathizers. In turn those members have become excellent missionaries for Islamic radicalization of people at large.
Hizb ut- Tahrir
Hizb ut-Tahrir, set up by a Palestinian Islamic scholar and political activist, Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, in 1952, was a marginal group in most Muslim countries. HT combined many aspects of socialist party organization with a commitment to the creation of an Islamic state and the restoration of the original Islamic caliphate. HT sought to overthrow of all Muslim regimes, since they had failed to implement Islamic norms, and the unification of all Islamic countries in a recreation of the Caliphate, which had been abolished in 1924. Tactically, HT differentiated itself from other radical organizations and it did not join coalitions with other groups and refused to work within constitutional systems.
The group’s presence in Central Asia started in the mid-1990s and grew quickly despite the government’s attempts to repress it. After the Tashkent bombings of 1999 and 2004, many of its members were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. The group’s organizational skills were instrumental in recruiting ordinary criminals to their cause and some of the already members were hardened by the prison experience and when released they were more radical than when they entered. The government’s repression has also forced HT to operate even deeper underground than before.
HT’s membership was at first confined to ethnic Uzbeks, based in Fergana and in southern Kyrgyzstan and grew quickly among ethnic Uzbeks in the Kyrgyz cities Osh and Kara-suu. According to ICG the group has captured some followers in the north of the country as well. Since 2001 its recruitment has been boosted by international events, notably the war in Iraq, and also by US support for the Karimov regime, which feeds into their view of the world, in which the US and Israel are leading an anti-Islamic crusade with the assistance of the Muslim regimes around the world. Overall, in terms of political opportunity and framing argument, HT had managed to benefit both from its organizational skills in domestic politics- e.g. prisons and careful framing of the events in the international to gain further adherents.
Despite Uzbek government claims to the contrary, there was not much of any evidence that HT was involved directly in any violence in Central Asia. Their most frequent activity was the public distribution of one page leaflets on political problems. HT mostly wrote about Uzbekistan, about the closure of bazaars, about repression of its members and the US military presence in the country. Currently the main concern with HT was that it would eventually tire of its opposition to violence and resistance to government and reinterpret its ideology to permit some kind of armed resistance. Another possible scenario is that it would experience a split, with some followers moving into a more active, and violent, phase of their political struggle.
Both of these concerns have empirical validity. Since 2001 there has been a consistent trend toward radicalization of HT. In June 2001, the group’s publication stated that it is acceptable carry out suicide attacks with explosive belts. In March 2002, HT declared that suicide bombs in Israel are legitimate tactics of war. Over the next few years HT leaflets and writings continuously emphasized in the context of clash of civilizations, offensive jihad against the Americans and the Jewish people is acceptable. On the other hand while in principle it is a centralized organization, HT is known to have splintered into specific Central Asian groups such as Al-Muhajiroun (1996), Akramiyya (1995), and Hizb un-Nusrat (1996).
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
The IMU was formed in 1992 by Tahir Yuldashev in the Namangan region of Uzbekistan. Yuldashev’s views have extensively been shaped by travels to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan where he was influenced by Wahhabism. His radical message spread throughout the network of mosques and madrassas in the Fergana valley. Throughout the 1990’s Yuldashev managed to unite multiple small radical groups under the IMU’s framework and they were able to disseminate their propaganda in the Fergana Valley and recruit many more followers. At the same time Juma Namangani, an ally of Yuldashev assumed the leadership role for the military wing of the organization. By 1998, there were reports of hundreds of mujahidin training in and operating between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan taking advantage of the Tajik civil war.
The first instance of IMU violence occurred in February 1999 when a series of car bombs exploded in Tashkent. The government announced that the bombings had been the work of Islamic extremists from Namangani’s group with support from the secular opposition. A massive crackdown followed and during 1999- 2000 up to 5000 people may have been arrested related with this incident. The next incident that established the group as a potent force in the region occurred in August 1999 when the IMU fighters crossed the border from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and kidnapped four Japanese geologists and some Kyrgyz officials. Eventually the hostages were released weeks later after the Japanese government paid a multi-million dollar ransom. The IMU staged other smaller incursions in 2000 and 2001 but finally the Tajik government persuaded it to move away to Afghanistan, where the IMU became an increasingly close ally of the Taliban, eventually merging with other foreign fighters.
In Central Asia the impact of the US- led Afghanistan intervention in 2001 was immediate. IMU camps near Kunduz were among the first targets of the bombing campaign. In one attack, Namangani was reported killed along with many others. When Americans arrived at the base they found many documents, videos and training manuals which suggested that the IMU had become a significant ally not only of the Taliban but also of Al-Qaida, although its literature still reflected a focus on Central Asian political goals. As a result of the US –led intervention, the threat from IMU was reduced and countries in the region felt relatively secure from intervention by insurgents.
Overall countering the Islamist threat has driven the government agenda of newly independent Central Asian republics since 1999 and the central focus of the governments’ response has been repression. The campaign against Islamic radicals is broadened to general curtailment of all religious activity that is not controlled by the central authority. On the other hand, enjoying their independence Central Asian leaders have demonstrated strong reluctance to becoming overly dependent on regional powers such as Russia and China, and regional security alliance such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on their struggle with radical Islam. In addition unresolved disputes over borders, trade and natural resources such as water and gas hinder cooperation among the central Asian states themselves.
According to International Crisis Group (ICG), the most recent trend in revitalization process of radical Islam is the increasingly important role played by women in movements such as HT. In Kyrgyzstan, increasingly repressive policies by government towards HT “will play into HT’s hands and may even accelerate its recruitment” ICG reports. HT frames itself on political repression and social injustice and views the prison as the ultimate test and political crackdown as the opportunity to produce martyrs and hire new recruits. Women, either already members of the groups or whose husbands are arrested increasingly feels more compelled to associate themselves with HT organization argues the ICG report.
Furthermore, a suicide bombing in Andijan in May 2009 and armed clash between security forces and militants in an Uzbek town Khanabad suggest that anti-Taliban operation taking place in Pakistan and Afghanistan are pushing the terrorist to flee for safe havens in Central Asia. According to Eurasianet report, “a security source in Tashkent suggested that “a lot of arrests” had been made in the Andijan region and other locations in Uzbekistan, in the weeks prior to the Khanabad incident”. Increasing anti-Taliban activity in Pakistan coupled with heavy handed rule in Central Asia, we might see a trend toward revival of insurgency in the region.
In addition to the suicide bombing and clash in Khanabad increasing radical Islamist activity in the region is also substantiated by the arrests of three suspected IMU members in Tajikistan who were involved in anti-government protests in Waziristan (Pakistan) last July and shootout in Tashkent in June which was linked to IMU militants. Add to this list is the increasing security concerns for the Northern Distribution Network which provides a vital blood line for US –led NATO operations in Afghanistan. All kinds of support material passing from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan and then to Afghanistan increasingly became the focus of attacks.
Developments covered in this paper with regards to radicalization of Islam in Central Asia in the last quarter of the twentieth century, current events and reactions by central authorities suggest that the specific relations that tied groups such as IMU and HT’s ideas to their structures, activities, and beliefs and practices offer the key understanding to their survival in Central Asia today. The relationships ultimately allowed such groups simultaneously to appeal to segment of the population and to negotiate the difficult landscapes dominated by authoritarian states.
What then, in the final analysis, does the future hold for Central Asia’s radical Islamic groups? First, while some might argue that in the post 9/11 era Islamic militancy in Central Asia is in demise, the trajectory of groups like HT and IMU has laid the foundation for a trend that will likely persist. Especially given the fact that dissatisfaction with and opposition to authoritarian regimes and corrupt ruling elite are growing, we will likely to see revitalization of radical groups. Second, external factors such as war on terror in Afghanistan and regional instability have been and will continue to be substantial for the dynamics of Islamist mobilization in Central Asia. These regional and international security threats provide excellent opportunities for Islamists to further mobilization of their constituents. Third, political extremism and organized crime will likely continue to feed the militant mindset in the region. Income from organized crime such as drug-trafficking and hostage taking help fund extremist groups. Political extremism and militancy in turn creates better conditions for these groups since it destabilizes society and exert pressure on governments. Finally it is clear that central authorities in the region, especially Uzbekistan, are convinced that the iron fist is the best way to protect the stability and security of their country. This repression and consequential exclusion of Islamic groups from legitimate governmental procedures will continue to cause them to seek out different ways to express their grievances.
- Tolga Turker is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research,
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 Roy , Olivier. 2000. The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations, New York: New York University Press, pp 143- 144
 Lewis, David. 2008 Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia, London: Hurst Publishers, p 185.
 Wahhabism in the strict sense practice puritan religious doctrine preached in Saudi Arabia.
 Roy, Olivier. 2000. p 149
 Anderson, John. 1994. “Islam in the Soviet Archives: a research note.” Central Asian Survey 13(3).
 Roy, Olivier. 2000. p. 154. Roy mentions that his source of the party’s program was a journal published by the party in Tajik, Hedayat, no. 1, June 1990, no place of publication.
 Roy, Olivier. 2000. p. 144
 Zanca, Russell. 2004. “Explaining Islam in Central Asia: an anthropological approach for Uzbekistan” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 99- 107
 Nevertheless we cannot simply label HT as group committed to peaceful means. See discussion on following section.
 Ilkhamov, Alisher. 2001. “Uzbek Islamism: Imported Ideology or Grassroots Movement” Middle East Report, no. 221, pp. 40-46.
 Taji-Farouki, Suah. 1996. Hizb al-Tahrir and the Search for an Islamic Caliphate. London. Also see detailed analysis of Zeyno Baran, Hizb ut-Tahrir: Islam’s Political Insurgency. Washington DC: The Nixon Center, 2004.
 Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty “Uzbekistan: Security Service Rebuts Charges It Knew of Tashkent Bombings in Advance” 29 November 2003, < http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/rights/articles/pp112903.shtml>
 International Crisis Group. 2002. “The IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir: Implications for the Afghanistan Campaign” Asia Briefing 11(30).
 ICG. (2003). Asia Report 58 and ICG. 2009. “Women and radicalization in Kyrgyzstan.” Asia Report 176(3).
 For more detail see Baran, Zeyno,. 2004.
 Groups such as Adolat, Tawba, and Islam Lashkarlari all of which predate the IMU. For more info see Naumkin, Vitaly. 2003. “Militant Islam in Central Asia: The Case of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.” Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post- Soviet Studies Working Paper Series (Spring), p. 52 and Baran, Z. et al. 2006. p. 26
 David Lewis (2008) describes Namangani as “the train robber from Namangan”, p. 188.
 For further detail on IMU see Naumkin, V. ( 2003).
 Bensman, Marcus. 2002. “The IMU in Retreat” Reporting Central Asia, IWPR, 19 July, quoted in David Lewis, p. 190.
 International Crisis Group. 2009. “Women and radicalization in Kyrgyzstan.” Asia Report 176(3).
 Central Eurasia Project, “Uzbekistan: If a Taliban Outpost Falls in Pakistan is the Ripple Felt in the Fergana Valley?” <http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav052609.shtml>, 26 May 2009.
 Central Eurasia Project “Afghanistan: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters active in Kunduz” <http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav091409a.shtml#> 14 September 2009
 Central Eurasia Project “Afghanistan: Northern Distribution Network Grapples with Growing Security Threat”, <http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav090809a.shtml> 9 August 2009