KYRGYZSTAN SPECIAL REPORT: Muslim Responses to Attacks on USA.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 26 September 2001

Local inhabitants in the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana valley - one of the most devoutly Islamic regions in Central Asia - are convinced that, if war does begin in Afghanistan, Central Asia will inevitably be drawn in, Keston News Service learnt on a three-day visit to the region. Practically all the local inhabitants Keston spoke with are watching television almost constantly and discussing whether Washington will bomb Afghanistan. While the overwhelming majority expressed sympathy for the American victims of the attacks, the more devoutly Muslim section of the population is clearly ambivalent towards the events in the United States. Some argue that the attacks were 'God's punishment' on the United States.

The Fergana valley's inhabitants practise their faith far more intensely than Muslims in other areas of Central Asia. Even in the Soviet era a whole network of underground madrassahs (Islamic divinity schools) and mosques operated here outside the control of the communist government. The Fergana valley is more densely populated than anywhere else in Central Asia, exacerbating problems such as the serious shortage of land and mass unemployment.

In essence, the situation in the Fergana valley determines the social and political stability of Central Asia, and so it is especially important to understand how the population of this region has reacted to the recent acts of terrorism in the United States, and how it regards the possibility of raids by United States armed forces launched from Central Asia against Osama bin Laden's fighters in Afghanistan.

Keston spoke to Muslim clerics attending a conference on Islam and family planning in Osh between 19 and 20 September funded by the United Nations Population Fund, in which almost all the imams of Kyrgyzstan's section of the Fergana valley took part. Around half the clerics were ethnic Uzbeks, and it is likely that their views on the attacks are the same as those of their relatives across the border in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley.

In views which echoed those of many of the clergy attending the conference, the president of the Islamic Centre of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, the ethnic Uzbek Sadikjan Kamuliddin, condemned the acts of terrorism in the United States which had led to the deaths of innocent people, but argued that the terrorists' actions had been provoked by what he called the 'anti-Islamic' policy pursued by the United States. 'The problem of Palestine has still not been resolved. War continues in Afghanistan. All these calamities in the Islamic world are connected with Washington's foreign policy,' Kamuliddin told Keston on 19 September.

'A global catastrophe has taken place. It's not simply that innocent people have perished. The world has lost brains that were worth billions of dollars. And in the buildings that bore the brunt of the terrorists' attacks was the elite of American society,' declared Dilmurat Haji Orozov, mufti of the Jalal-abad region of southern Kyrgyzstan. 'Today, Washington is accusing Muslims of causing the tragedy,' he told Keston on 19 September. 'But if you don't say hello to someone, it's not worth wondering whether he will greet you in return. The United States has tormented the Muslim world. That country inflicts misfortunes on Muslims in different parts of the world: in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.'

Kamuliddin was particularly concerned at the knock-on effects of the attacks within the region. He believes the position of Muslims will now worsen in Uzbekistan. 'Today, Uzbek television began again to show court cases against so-called Islamic terrorists from within the country. Tashkent has launched a propaganda campaign under the slogan "every man must look after his home", which could turn into repression against Muslims in the republic.'

Members of the underground Islamic party Hizb ut Tahrir were even more outspoken. Party members in Osh, who asked to remain anonymous, told Keston on 20 September that they were against the use of violence and therefore could not welcome the acts of terrorism in the United States. At the same time, they maintained that the attacks were 'God's punishment for sins'.

The Hizb ut Tahrir party, founded in 1953 in Palestine, aims to achieve the unification of Muslims throughout the world under one caliphate. The party believes that western democracy is unacceptable for Muslims and that Muslims must be ruled by shariah law. States such as the United States, Israel and Great Britain have been declared to be the offspring of the devil. The party - which is banned throughout Central Asia - has been active in the Fergana valley since the mid 1990s. Nevertheless, as Azizulla Gaziyev, an analyst at the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project, who is based in Osh, declared in March, 'Hizb ut Tahrir has today become the most popular political organisation among Uzbeks and Tajiks in the Fergana valley'.

The Kyrgyz city of Osh is situated in the Fergana valley, 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the border with Uzbekistan. The Fergana valley - which is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - is one of the most turbulent regions in Central Asia and it is here that the arbitrary drawing of borders between republics in the 1920s has had the most serious consequences. Kyrgyzstan's Osh region is densely populated by Uzbeks. The Uzbeks believe this region belongs to them historically, while the Kyrgyz are 'incomers' who do not belong. Bloody clashes here in 1990 between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz left around 320 people dead.

'The acts of terrorism in the United States have caused serious concern to local residents in Central Asia,' declared Kathleen Samuel, the political/human dimension officer of the office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Osh. 'The majority of them are frightened that if Washington starts bombing Osama bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan, Central Asia might also be drawn into the war,' she told Keston on 19 September.

'Today, anti-American sentiments are widespread among a section of the population of Central Asia, but this phenomenon is less characteristic of this region than it is of many other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan,' Samuel reported. 'Nevertheless, if the United States launches a military operation against Afghanistan, the proportion of the Central Asian population that is anti-American may increase. It is very likely that the Hizb ut Tahrir in Central Asia will change its tactics. If there is a war in Afghanistan, southern Kyrgyzstan is likely to see an increase in anti-American/anti-Western sentiments, particularly among more radical religious groups and beliefs.'

Samuel also expressed the fear that the authorities in the Central Asian republics might use the terrorist attacks in the United States and their consequences as a justification for further restricting freedoms. (END)