CENTRAL ASIA SPECIAL REPORT: Likely Responses to Afghanistan Raids.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 10 October 2001

How likely is a sharp increase in Islamic radical influence in Central Asia (and consequently the destabilisation of the region) in the wake of Washington’s attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan in response to the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington?

To gain an insight into these issues, Keston’s correspondent travelled through the region of Central Asia most vulnerable to instability, the Fergana valley, between 18 September and 4 October. Of all Central Asia, the Fergana valley has seen the highest levels of widespread unrest. In 1989 there were pogroms of Meskhetian Turks here, in 1990 there was armed conflict between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks, and in 1991 Islamic fundamentalists made their appearance. An additional cause of tension is the fact that in the 1920s the borders between the Central Asian republics were drawn arbitrarily taking no account of ethnic and political realities. The single ethno-cultural territory of the Fergana valley was divided between three republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Fergana valley is one of the most densely-populated regions of the world. One village merges seamlessly with the next and so it continues the length of the entire valley. Over-population has given rise to serious problems, including a severe shortage of land and mass unemployment. Today, the overwhelming majority of the rural population here lives on the brink of starvation. On farms, wages have not been paid for years, while private plots of land are too small to grow enough crops to feed a family.

The population of the Fergana valley is much more religious than in other parts of Central Asia. Even in the Soviet era a network of underground madrassahs and mosques operated here, outside the control of the communist government. Since the Central Asian countries gained independence, Islamic preachers have been active, calling for the formation of an Islamic state in the valley. ‘The people live in dreadful poverty,’ numerous local residents told Keston. ‘Today, you can buy a prostitute for just two dollars. A shot of heroin costs the same. The corrupt authorities are preoccupied only with their own problems and care nothing for the problems of the population. We will flourish and have order only when Muslims start to live by the Shariah law.’

The first deputy president of the Uzbek government’s committee for religious affairs Shoazim Minovarov also acknowledges that the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists may be put down to social problems. ‘Since the acts of terrorism in the United States on 11 September it has become clear that if a third world war breaks out it will be the fault of Islamic fundamentalists,’ he told Keston in Tashkent on 25 September. ‘In my view, the West must understand that the most needy sections of the population form the main social base of Islamic fundamentalists. Accordingly, if the developed countries want stability in the world, they must give economic aid to needy Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalists first appeared in our country in the early 1990s, i.e. at a time when we were experiencing temporary economic difficulties.’

Keston found that residents of the Fergana valley regard the 11 September attacks as events that affect them directly. People watch television almost constantly, and - ahead of the start of the raids – were discussing whether Washington would start to bomb Afghanistan. Additionally, almost all the local inhabitants who spoke to Keston were convinced that if there were a war in Afghanistan, Central Asia would inevitably be drawn in. The overwhelming majority of people feel sympathy for the American victims of the tragedy, but the more religious section of the population is ambivalent towards the September attacks.

The president of the Islamic Centre 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 the ‘anti-Islamic’ policy pursued by the United States. ‘The problem of Palestine still has not been resolved,’ Kamuliddin told Keston on 19 September. ‘War continues in Afghanistan. And all these calamities in the Islamic world are connected with Washington’s foreign policy.’

Dilmurat haji Orozov, mufti of the Jalal-abad region in Kyrgyzstan’s section of the Fergana valley, took a different view, bewailing the loss of innocent life, particularly among what he regarded as the ‘elite of American society’. But he too placed some blame on the United States. ‘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.’

Similar views were expressed by Sadynbai Sultanov, the imam-hatyb of the mosque in the town of Gafurov, situated in Tajikistan’s section of the Fergana valley, 30 kilometres from the regional centre of Leninabad region, Khojand. ‘There hasn’t been a war in the United States for 200 years,’ he told Keston on 29 September. ‘Washington has preferred to unleash war in Muslim parts of the world, thousands of kilometres away from home. But if you play with matches all the time, sooner or later you’ll set fire by chance to your own home as well. Today, Americans are answering before God for their own sins.’

The Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which exists underground in all the Central Asian republics, is even more openly anti-American. The party aims to achieve the unification of Muslims throughout the world under one caliphate and, according to its manifesto, demands that adherents of non-Islamic religions adopt Islam, as followers of other religions are ‘infidels’. The party has been active in the Fergana valley since the mid-1990s. Immediately after the 11 September attacks, Hizb-ut-Tahrir distributed leaflets in Central Asia written in Tajik and Uzbek claiming that the U.S. and Israeli special forces carried out the acts to ‘launch a war against true Muslims’.

Offers by Central Asian governments of air bases to the U.S. armed forces so that they can carry out revenge attacks are likely to increase sharply the number of those supporting Islamic fundamentalists. Islamic radicals dissatisfied with the ‘betrayal of Muslim interests by the authorities’ may go so far as to organise acts of terrorism and large-scale riots.

Uzbekistan is the most vulnerable. Even before the 11 September attacks, Hizb-ut-Tahrir was distributing leaflets in which Uzbek president Islam Karimov was called ‘a Jewish infidel and Muslim-hater’. Now that Tashkent has offered military facilities to US forces, Islamic radicals will have additional grounds for accusing the president of betraying Muslim interests. Uzbekistan’s section of the Fergana valley was the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose fighters are now on Taliban-controlled Afghan territory and have close links with the man accused by the U.S. of masterminding the September attacks, Osama bin Laden.

In 1991, in the town of Namangan, one of the regional centres of the Fergana valley, a movement called Adolat (Justice) unexpectedly emerged. Adolat supporters formed something similar to the Iranian Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Young men wearing green bands appeared dealing at their own discretion with those they felt had broken the law. The punishment for the thieves and prostitutes they captured was quite bizarre from the point of view of western jurisprudence: they were sat back to front on a donkey and paraded around the town or tied to pillars on squares where passers-by spat in their faces. The accused were also beaten with whips in mosques. The undisputed leader of this ‘Islamic police’ was then 24-year-old Tohir Yuldashev. The Uzbek authorities were quick to stamp out the Adolat movement, arresting activists and handing down lengthy prison sentences. However, Yuldashev and several of his supporters managed to escape from Uzbekistan, going on to form the IMU in exile.

Central Asia’s secular regimes have not been not strong enough, at least up to now, to counter effectively the Islamic radicals, who are well organised and have sizeable financial resources. The military effectiveness of the Kyrgyz army (IMU fighters attempted to force their way through this republic to Uzbekistan in August 1999 and in August 2000) leaves much to be desired. Created practically as a carbon copy of the Russian army, the Kyrgyz army shares many of its deficiencies: soldiers are badly paid, leading to corruption, discipline is poor and alcoholism is rife. But in Kyrgyzstan, which is poorer than Russia, these problems were exacerbated. The monthly pay of a mercenary who took part in the campaign against Islamic radicals was less than 30 US dollars, making it naive to count on a strong fighting spirit among the soldiers.

Nor is Tashkent’s position strong. Extreme poverty is encouraging the population to revolt. Last March, the head of the Andijan section of the unregistered Society of Human Rights of Uzbekistan, Muzafarmirzo Iskhakov, told Keston that if IMU fighters appeared in Uzbekistan’s section of the Fergana valley, their numbers would increase twenty times at a stroke. Iskhakov sees the IMU’s potential supporters including not only disillusioned unemployed people and relatives of those who have been imprisoned, but also mafia groups excluded by President Karimov from access to wealth.

The ubiquitous corruption among Uzbek officials at all levels also works to the IMU’s advantage. Since the acts of terrorism in the United States, Tashkent has introduced strengthened military patrols throughout the country. For example, more than 10 army checkpoints have been set up on the road from the Fergana valley to Tashkent. However, it seems that if there were a genuine attack by the fighters, these precautionary measures would be in vain. The car Keston used on 22 September was not checked once. The driver preferred to hand over a bribe at each check-point.

A revolt against the authorities by the fundamentalists would almost inevitably spark international conflicts as well. The most volatile area in this respect is the Kyrgyz section of the Fergana valley, which has a concentration of ethnic Uzbeks, who regard this territory as historically theirs, while the Kyrgyz are ‘incomers’, people who do not belong.

There were bloody confrontations between the local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region in 1990, which led to the deaths of around 320 people. Among the Kyrgyz - nomads in the recent past - religious practice is more important on a social level and is interpreted only as an obligation to observe the rituals. Even the Friday visit to the mosque is sometimes not observed strictly. It is significant that the majority of fervent worshippers at Kyrgyzstan’s mosques are ethnic Uzbeks. It is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of Kyrgyz members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir are ethnic Uzbeks. ‘Today there is a danger that conflicts between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks will be repeated, but this time they will take on a religious nature,’ Kamuliddin of the Islamic Centre of Kyrgyzstan told Keston. ‘There have already been articles in the Kyrgyz media in which all Uzbeks in the republic have indiscriminately been called members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.’ (END)