Central Asia between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’: fundamentalism on the rise

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (TCA) — A growing number of commentators and other observers, both in the west and in the former USSR, are casting doubt on the distinction between “radicals” and “moderates” among “Muslim activists” both in Syria and the world outside it. If there is one place in the world that shows how justified such suspicions are to some extent, it must be Central Asia.

Oil or no oil, gas or no gas: Central Asia’s post-Soviet republics share (at least) one common feature: ever since the socioeconomic umbrella held up by the Kremlin disappeared, life has become extremely prosperous for happy elites while for the bulk of the population it became very difficult.  Squandering natural and human resources has thus led to a new generation refusing to believe in unkept promises any longer and ready to follow anyone who comes up with a different idea. And the idea that appears to appeal to people’s imagination has nothing to do with solving socioeconomic inequality and deprivation but leads to nihilism and irrationality.

Virtually from day one, post-Soviet governments have created a debt burden worth twice or more their national resources’ net value. As long as commodities were overvalued due to speculative trade which prevailed on world markets, the whole scheme, which could be seen as a global fraudulent scheme on an unseen scale, fell through – starting in 2007 and entering its fatal stage in 2014.

Governments, now far less able to attract new borrowed funds, are steadily draining their cash reserves. With no more money around to make ends meet, an equally steadily growing number of people turn to hysteria. Governments tend to respond with oppression, which only appears to speed up the process. The trouble is that in predominantly Muslim countries, it is hard to get a clear picture of who the alleged “activists” are and where they are located. Sometimes, people who have nothing to do with the “extremists” are taken for such whereas others who display innocent faces are all too much engaged in undermining activity.


Uzbekistan is the clearest example of the state of confusion Central Asia finds itself in. “Most of the Muslims arrested and convicted in the 2000s were labelled members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a banned group still active in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and known for its cruelty,” a report by Al-Jazeera posted on January 8 this year read. “Others are alleged to belong to Hizb-ut Tahrir, a group that strives to restore a caliphate – but rejects violence. But in recent months, Uzbek authorities have started jailing alleged sympathizers or members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mostly labour migrants returning from Russia, Western Europe or Turkey.” According to the report, “at least 12,800 people” including more than 300 in 2015 alone have been imprisoned for “extremism” since the country’s independence back in 1991. But to claim that all of them have been “peaceful Muslims” as the report claims seems way over the top. One could blame the authorities for failing to distinguish the sheep from the wolves, but ignoring the presence of an extremist threat in a country bordering Afghanistan in the frontier areas of which ISIL has been reinforcing its positions, along with the indigenous Taliban, for years now, looks incredibly naïve.


Other Central-Asian states are more selective in picking out suspects. “Thirteen members of a moderate Islamist opposition party went on trial behind closed doors in volatile Tajikistan on Tuesday, accused of fanning a wave of unrest that killed dozens of people last year,” a report by Agence France Presse posted on February 9 read. “The 13 members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) face an array of charges including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and organising a criminal group.”

The IRPT, seen as a “moderate” force in the complex Tajik political landscape, has been excluded from the government coalition formed at the end of the civil war and was subsequently banned last year after a failed coup in September by one of its prominent members, ex-deputy defence minister General Abduhalim Nazarzoda, followed by clashes in which dozens, including the general, perished on both sides. The rebels, reportedly aided by ISIS (Daesh) and the Taliban, are believed to maintain several strongholds in the east of the country, and could strike again any day. Among their fifth-columnist preparing the mental ground in the more prosperous west of the country is an imam called Muhammadi Rahmatullo, better known as Mullah Muhammadi, who was recently arrested on charges of “inciting religious tensions”.


In Kazakhstan, which is closer to the Russian Federation and shares no borders with unruly Afghanistan, the main target is a movement called Tabligh Jamaat, which also professes the creation of a “caliphate” and for which, like its Uzbek and Tajik counterparts, Daesh is a shining beacon. It was only banned in December, and only eight of its members were brought to justice and put behind bars with eight more on trial and risking the same fate. Even though none of them has been directly connected with a number of terrorist attacks in various parts of Kazakhstan bearing the signature of “Islamic” extremists, the organisation is widely considered far bigger and far more dangerous than has met the eye so far.


In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan the threat has become far more visible, culminating in a shoot-out late last year between a terror group and police which had managed to locate the culprits’ hideout in a suburb of Bishkek, in which most of the latter perished. Several activist groups and their alleged members have been listed in following investigations, but few arrests have been made and the authorities for the moment focus on recruiters of “volunteers” to be sent to Syria or Iraq and join Daesh on the territories it occupies.


About the situation in the reclusive Turkmenistan little is known. Across the Caspian, though, in predominantly shiite Azerbaijan, fundamentalism is nevertheless on the rise, led by a cleric called Taleh Bagirov who has put himself at the head of the Muslim Unity Movement, established in January 2015, and rival to the older Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA). In all cases, clearly identifying groups and individuals engaged in the extremist threat remains the main obstacle to effectively combatting them.