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Militants on the Steppes | The Nation

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Militants on the Steppes

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It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep furrows and strained by even

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

deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden religious group. Although Muminov's job as a builder prevented him from attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali's sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.

When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road beside the city's Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights. The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime's harsh crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually unforgiving Uzbek justice system might--just this once--tilt toward leniency.

It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls "the most popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan." The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 1953, foresee "a moment when millions of its supporters will simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments--particularly the Karimov regime--by sheer force of numbers." In place of the region's various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to western China and beyond. It's a threat that the local autocracies, as well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid argues: "The fear is that young [members]... may soon ignore their elders' advice and turn to guerrilla warfare."

That fear may be somewhat hasty. But for the government in Tashkent, it has been amplified by the activities of a much more militant insurgency known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose leaders made just such a transformation from nonviolence roughly ten years ago. Since 1998, when the IMU officially came into being, it has clashed with the government forces of three states, engaged in kidnappings and the drug trade, and engendered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility among the region's strongmen. The movement's leadership has established close links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and even moved the IMU headquarters to northern Afghanistan when the more welcoming Taliban regime was in power. Uzbek President Karimov blames the IMU, among other opposition groups, for detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999. The explosions killed thirteen people, injured more than a hundred and touched off the latest and harshest in a series of government campaigns against independent religious expression and political dissent. Following the bombings, Karimov announced that even the fathers of sons who participated in IMU activities would be arrested. "If my child chose such a path," he said, "I myself would rip off his head."

However, again and again, Rashid rightly argues in Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia that the growing popular support for groups like the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely a response to the corrupt Karimov government's inability to bring even a modicum of economic prosperity or democracy to Uzbekistan, the region's natural axis of power. Central Asia has known harsh leadership and violent upheaval before. Prior to the Soviets there were the czars, and prior to the czars there were the local khans, who ruled brutally. However, when the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan fell into independence following the collapse of Communism, they not only experienced a crisis of national identity (none had ever existed before as an independent state), they also joined a more integrated world, where political and economic expectations for open and fair governance are arguably higher than they have ever been. All this, at a moment of religious reawakening across the region.

In this context, Central Asia's radical Islamic movements were very much forged in a modern political pressure cooker. "In a series of crackdowns in 1992, 1993, and after 1997, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary pious Muslims for alleged links with Islamic fundamentalists, accusing them of being Wahhabis"--converts to the strict brand of Islam embraced by the Taliban--"closing down mosques and madrassahs, and forcing mullahs into jail or exile," Rashid writes. "The result of these repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared: extremist Islamic militancy."

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.

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.

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."

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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