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Militants on the Steppes | The Nation

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Militants on the Steppes

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A visit to Uzbek courts is a good way to see this machinery in motion: the steady spinning of the gears that wind moderate Muslims into radicals. Here too, the display is one of the precarious fragility of Uzbekistan's current order, and I can think of no better corollary to Rashid's careful descriptions of a region approaching the edge of chaos than the observations of Bill Berkeley, a journalist who has spent numerous years reporting from Africa. "Many suppose that tyranny and anarchy are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum," Berkeley has written. "But often they are side by side on what might better be described as a circle: the one is a product of the other, and vice versa." For a number of Central Asian states, that circle has been getting tighter and tighter over the past decade, and the ouster of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan has done little to prevent it from shrinking toward its explosive focal point.

About the Author

Raffi Khatchadourian
Raffi Khatchadourian has written on militant Islam in Central Asia and North Africa for several publications, including...

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In the desert steppe of northwestern Uzbekistan, great dust storms lift toxic pesticides into the air, and a powdery, desiccated brine known as the "dry tears of the Aral Sea" contaminates the so

The anarchy of tyranny is starkly evident in a place like the Akmal Ikramov District Court. After Gairam Muminov and the other families had waited for several hours, frustration and impatience set in. A few splintered off to find a bailiff or clerk, but no one was able to find out when, exactly, the sentencing was to occur. An Uzbek journalist waiting with me explained: "The authorities do this on purpose. They want to wear people down; they are counting on people like you and me to get tired, hungry. Maybe we will have to leave for business or lunch, and then suddenly the doors will open and court begins. This way they can say they are being open but attract the minimum amount of attention." However, at 3 pm, when Judge Nizom Rustamov, a stout and smug man in a shiny sharkskin suit, finally ambled up the courthouse steps, a slightly different picture emerged--that of the unaccountable bureaucrat who probably decided against rushing to work simply because he could. Matilda Bogner, Uzbekistan's Human Rights Watch representative, described the judge this way: "Rustamov is known to have sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of explosives."

Such capricious power infests Uzbekistan's neighboring governments as well. As the Soviet Union began to implode, none of the five Central Asian republics rushed to embrace independence, democracy or economic reform. Indeed, leaderships in a number of the republics actively plotted to stymie the demise of the Communist system, however rotted, because it had been nourishing them so well. As Rashid demonstrates, this reluctance to break away was to a large degree ironic, given the region's vast reserves of natural resources--primarily in oil, gas and minerals--and its potential for prosperity (not to mention the potential to funnel that prosperity into the hands of local elites). Moreover, as he points out, "the Soviet policies of closed borders, forced cotton agriculture, farm collectivization, population relocation and--most significant--Stalin's redrawing of the map of Central Asia to create five incongruous states had left the region economically hard-pressed, [and] ethnically and politically divided."

Ten years on, much of Central Asia remains mired in its Soviet inheritances: petty and sometimes not-so-petty corruption are a part of everyday life; news is censored, often heavily; dissidents are imprisoned, exiled or caused to disappear; resources are squandered; environmental damage continues unabated. Yet, as the region remains politically and in many ways economically stagnant, it is experiencing a demographic surge. "The population gets younger," Rashid notes. "More than 60 percent of the region's 50 million people are under the age of 25. This new generation is unemployed, poorly educated, and hungry--how long will it continue to tolerate the decline in living standards and the lack of rudimentary freedoms?"

There is no easy answer to this question. And Rashid is shrewd enough to avoid offering one. Just as he is sensitive to the dangers that could well belong to the region's future, he shows with great nuance that important differences among the five republics have already led to a diversity of outcomes. Turkmenistan, for instance, is now ruled by a bizarre hermit-dictator who had himself decreed President for Life, a position he plans to hold until 2010, when he intends to retire. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, the only country of the five not to become an immediate heir to its Soviet-era leader, has shown a promising willingness to reform, even if that willingness has waned over the past several years. However, if these two countries sit at the region's political poles, the most intriguing case among them may be Tajikistan, which in Rashid's eyes serves as both a warning and a potential model for its neighbors.

Not long after the Soviet collapse, mountainous Tajikistan fell into a five-year civil war that appeared to mirror the conditions in neighboring Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1997 the multiparty conflict, which primarily cut across clan lines but also included Islamic rebels, democrats and former Communist bosses as the main combatants, claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people and forced roughly 750,000 people from their homes. In Rashid's view, the primary engine of that conflict was the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP--Central Asia's first popular Muslim fundamentalist movement--which led a unified band of rebel groups from headquarters based in Afghanistan and Russia. The fighting might have ground on indefinitely (or remained frozen in stalemate), but in 1996 "the regional equation changed dramatically when the Taliban captured Kabul," says Rashid. Fear that the Taliban regime would project its influence into Afghanistan's post-Soviet neighbors pushed the rest of Central Asia and Russia to force the Tajik government into making the necessary concessions for peace. A year later, the parties signed an agreement that legitimized the IRP and brought it into Tajikistan's new coalition government.

The complexity of Tajikistan's civil war makes it difficult to summarize neatly, and perhaps for this reason, coupled with its remoteness, it received scant attention in the West. For Rashid, though, the outcome is one that must not be ignored, not only because the peace agreement held the country together over subsequent years but also because the radical IRP has seen a dramatic loss in popular support since its inclusion in government. "In many ways," Rashid argues, "Tajikistan is the key to peace and stability in Central Asia--something the international community must recognize, and soon." The logic being: Bringing fundamentalist Islamic groups into the light rather than driving them underground is the best way to show that their platforms are unworkable and at odds with the region's traditionally moderate religious sentiments.

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