WASHINGTON, DC – Tuesday, September 28, 2010 – The following is the third and final piece in our series examining religion in Central Asia.
The role of extreme or revolutionary Islamic movements in Central Asian affairs is usually exaggerated by Western pundits. In fact, the most serious internal threats to peace, stability and security in Central Asian nations have usually had other causes that are directly rooted in economic or clan conflicts.
Extreme Islamist movements have tried, so far with a remarkable lack of success, to take advantage of these other causes. And whenever conditions of economic hardship or conventional political conflict have been lacking, extreme Islamism has been able to make no progress at all.
Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been rocked by serious internal violence in recent years. In each case, there have been widespread suspicions and accusations that extreme Islamist movements instigated the violence, but on closer investigation, their role was found to be peripheral.
There is no indication that extreme Islamist movements, most notably Hizb ut-Tahrir, were responsible for wave of anti-Uzbek rioting in the southern Kyrgyzstan cities of Osh and Jalalabad from June 11 to June 14 this year. At least 370 people were killed in the clashes and the full death toll may have been as high as 3,000. Some 400,0000 people, most of them ethnic Uzbeks, fled their homes, of whom 100,000 temporarily found refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva said shortly after the clashes that her government had evidence that the clan and supporters of ousted Kyrygz President Kurmanbek Bakiev instigated the riots on the night of June 10-11. While evidence is still patchy, this still seems to be the most likely explanation for how the violence there began. Bakiev and his supporters were certainly capable of courting more radical Islamist elements. But no evidence has emerged that hard-line Islamist groups planned the violence or supplied weapons before or during the riots.
In fact, the timing of the violence supports the assessment that President Otunbayeva made publicly at the time: She said her government had evidence that the Bakiev clan specifically wanted to stir up riots or inter-communal violence in early June to discredit the planned June 27 referendum that was to be held on a new and more democratic constitution for the landlocked and resource-poor nation.
In fact, the referendum went ahead and the new constitution was approved with a 90 percent approval rate and a 70 percent turnout of eligible voters.
Similarly, when the Uzbek city of Andijan was rocked by violent protests in 2005, there were widespread accusations and suspicions that Hizb ut-Tahrir was behind it. Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders fiercely rejected the claim and the pattern of evidence supports their contention.
Andijan in Uzbekistan in 2005, like Osh and Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan in June this year, was an economically impoverished city Osh and Jalalabad had been destabilized earlier this year by the popular revolution that overthrew President Bakiev in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on April 7. Similarly, Andijan was affected in 2005 by the overthrow of Bakiev’s predecessor, President Askar Akayev, in Kyrgyzstan.
The Uzbek government of tough, experienced old President Islam Karimov certainly acted at the time as if the protests in Andijan were motivated by democratic, U.S.-backed forces rather than by Islamist ones. Karimov lost no time in expelling the U.S, Air Force from its use of the Karshi-Khanabad, or “K-2,” air base which was being used to fly supplies to U.S. and NATO forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Again, the pattern of developments was that the protests were caused, not by pro-Islamist movements and sentiments, but by pro-Western, pro-democratic ones. At least 600 to 700 people were killed when the Uzbek security forces repressed the riots. An Uzbek security forces defector some years later claimed the real death toll was more than double that – around 1,500.
The violence currently shaking Tajikistan appears to be far more Islamist in nature than either of the previous two cases. But here too, the real picture is more complex.
As many as 100,000 people were killed and 1.2 million made homeless in a terrible civil war in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997, in which Russian military forces of insignificant numbers supported the established government of President Emomali Rahmon, who remains in power to this day. Tajikistan has a population of only 7.3 million.
But the same local, economic and tribal forces that operated in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan also have been operating in Tajikistan. Both the 1992 civil war and the new outbreak of violence that has erupted there over the past month took place in the same mountainous areas around the Rasht Valley area. Tajikistan was torn apart by feuds and vendettas between rival clans. Islamist movements and teachings certainly played a role, but only because the political and tribal fault lines were there in the first place.
Kazakhstan too has a large degree of clan or tribal identity shaping its domestic politics. But the general standard of living and longer-term economic prospects under President Nursultan Nazarbayev remain high. And the Kazakh clans, unlike the Tajik ones in particular, have a long and successful tradition of mediating their rivalries and interests peacefully and through negotiation and compromise.
Extreme Islamist violence should therefore be seen not as a major driving force or independent threat to the stability and survival of the governments of Central Asia. Instead, it seems to be a symptom that appears when economic policy fails and when the local political processes fail to produce peaceful means to mediate and resolve conflicts and grievances.
This relatively optimistic picture could certainly change in the future, particularly in Tajikistan. But it has held true for almost 20 years since the nations of the region became independent, and in general they have prospered and survived far better than most Western pundits thought they would.