If the terrorist attacks on September 11 left Americans grasping for new ways to define the world, they also reinforced a growing division in Central Asian societies. Since these states became independent, they have grappled with rising Islamic radicalism. All of the states, particularly Uzbekistan, have sought to control religious expression. Given the tragic turn of events in the United States, some experts suggest, countries with restive Muslim populations will find it more tempting than ever to formally outlaw or persecute certain forms of religion. But finding a stable battlefront will be just as difficult within these states as it is for the rest of the world.
On the surface, the atrocities of September 11 may provide support for the policies of repressive governments, such as President Islam Karimov's administration in Uzbekistan. For the past three years, Uzbek authorities have battled Islamic insurgents, which are backed by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. In connection with anti-insurgent efforts, human rights groups say the Uzbek government has arbitrarily sentenced thousands of citizens to lengthy prison terms for supposed links to radical Islamic groups. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. This campaign against religious extremism had drawn increasing criticism from the United States and other Western powers. But in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, the tolerance for rights violations, committed in the name of combating terrorism, seems likely to increase, some experts say.
"Quite obviously this was a service that the terrorists have rendered to just about every government that sees Islam as a sort of negative force," says Shireen Hunter, who directs Islamic studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It will be hard to chart how this will play out specifically. Hunter expressed doubt that any head of state in Central Asia would openly tie anti-Muslim crackdowns to the attacks, but she said the World Trade Center tragedy will "create, perhaps justifiably, an atmosphere in which any Muslim is at a disadvantage. I think maybe President Karimov will say,
Alec Appelbaum is a contributing editor to EurasiaNet.