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Militants on the Steppes | The Nation

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Militants on the Steppes

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This may be true, but Tajikistan's civil war is an unlikely example to prove it, primarily because the conflict was largely one of regionally based clans vying for political and economic power. Although radical Islam colored the conflict, it was by no means the driving force. The coalition government, if anything, was a joining of competing warlords dressed in various ideologies and beliefs rather than a bridging of deeply held convictions on secular and Islamic fundamentalist state-building. This difference must be obvious to Rashid, who awkwardly suggests the coalition government is an instance of the latter while acknowledging the former, sometimes in dramatically confusing ways. At one point, he writes that Soviet "collectivization...had fragmented the clan structure.... Thus, many Tajiks saw the Islamic revival as a means to cement a Tajik identity and ensure Tajikistan's development as a unified state." Then, later, he writes that "most Tajiks identified with their regions and clans rather than with their country." And later again: "The civil war had quickly become a battle between clans rather than an Islamic jihad." This last statement is by far the more realistic and complete assessment--one echoed by Central Asia scholar Martha Brill Olcott, who has argued that the "larger issues contested in Tajikistan's civil war were clearly those of economic and political control."

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 fact, the weakness of the government--its inability to protect Tajikistan's borders and control its rugged territory--has made the country an ideal base for the region's most extreme militants and best organized drug traders (often one and the same). Today, roughly 70 percent of the world's heroin funnels through Tajikistan from Afghanistan, and since the early 1990s Tajikistan's Tavildara Valley has been an important training area for the IMU's charismatic military leader Jumaboi Khojaev, a former Soviet paratrooper who later assumed the name Juma Namangani after his hometown, Namangan, Uzbekistan. The kind of detailed portrait Rashid has sketched of Namangani, who was recently reported killed alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban units during the latest war in Afghanistan, is unparalleled. This is where Rashid is at his best, especially when he shows how the secretive Central Asian rebel makes unusual company with Osama bin Laden, despite their close ties. During one of Rashid's many exclusive interviews in the region, a former Namangani compatriot explained how the notorious rebel was "shaped by his own military and political experiences rather than Islamic ideology, but he hates the Uzbek government--that is what motivates him above all. In a way, he is a leader by default because no other leader is willing to take such risks to oppose Karimov."

This in many ways appears to be a capsule characterization of militant Islam in Central Asia, where religious extremism is primarily harnessed to the cause of political and military aims, whether in internecine clan warfare, in insurgencies acting against repression or in the meddling of outside empires. As readers of the great historian Peter Hopkirk might recognize, Namangani's pragmatism situates him in a long-running Central Asian tradition in which strategic objectives rather than fundamentalist religious ones ultimately lie behind the call to jihad. It was a move even the Soviets tried. In 1920 Grigori Zinoviev, a close associate of Lenin, called the Muslims of Central Asia to battle at a weeklong rally in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Brothers," Zinoviev boomed to a wildly fervent crowd brandishing swords and revolvers, "we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against English imperialism!" This display fell in with a briefly held plan Moscow had at the time: fomenting a chain of uprisings and establishing an "Army of God" that would penetrate India through Afghanistan and trigger enough Muslim unrest there to subvert Britain's hold over South Asia. However, as Hopkirk notes in Setting the East Ablaze (and as the United States learned painfully after aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s), cultivating pan-Islam "could be double-edged." Religious and nationalist sentiments could just as easily flow against Moscow. The Basmachis, Central Asia's homegrown mujahedeen, resisted Soviet power for more than a decade after the Russian Revolution--and with a good deal of support from the British, who slipped them caravans of arms and munitions from India.

Today, although the spirit of jihad has largely been unhinged from the machinations of outside empires intent on controlling the region, its proponents see themselves very much as bearers of the Basmachi tradition, as Rashid demonstrates. But his book is also instructive in pointing out differences between the region's Islamic groups of then and now. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing popularity suggests that outside influences of a very different kind are leaking into Central Asia. (Along with the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents subscribe to the strict Wahhabist brand of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia, rather than the more indigenous Sufism, which tends toward mysticism rather than millenarianism.) This time it's happening at the grassroots--and feeding off the criminality of local regimes.

There is probably no way to know whether Gairam Muminov's son, Abdulvali, was truly a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir or was simply caught praying in the wrong place, or listening to the wrong person, or carrying the wrong leaflet. I'm sure even his lawyer doesn't know. When one of the accused suggested that they had been tortured to confess (to "anti-constitutional crimes"), Judge Rustamov would not hear of it. The next day, I watched Muminov's hands shoot up to his face when Rustamov sentenced his son to ten years of imprisonment. And as the father slowly drew his shaky fingers away, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned blank. I wondered: Earlier, this man shrugged off my criticisms of Uzbekistan's ironfisted approach to dissent, saying he had all the freedom in the world--limitless choices in the marketplace, among whichever apples and oranges he desired. Was that still good enough for him?

That is a question the United States must begin asking if it intends to become more active in fostering stability in the region. Rashid's book--which follows his bestseller, Taliban--was rushed to publication after September 11, so it is understandably short on evaluating current US Central Asia policy. But it is the first good, hard look at the region's Islamic movements and deserves the attention of policymakers and interested everyday readers alike. The careful consideration Rashid has given the grassroots causes that set these insurgencies into motion will keep this book relevant for a long time to come. As Rashid argues: "The Clinton administration policy of helping Central Asia's repressive governments combat terrorism whilst mildly lecturing them on their human-rights violations did not constitute a strategic vision for the region." It still doesn't. Under the George W. Bush Administration, military and economic aid to the region has increased; so too, it seems, has the repression.

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