Militants on the Steppes | The Nation


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."

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