Central Asian leaders are exaggerating the danger posed by Islamic radicals, two experts asserted during a recent discussion at the Open Society Institute. They contended that the influence of radical groups is waning at present, as regional residents appear to prefer moderate organizations that focus on economic initiatives.
David Abramson, a Central Asia analyst at the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and Alisher Khamidov, a Kyrgyz journalist now pursuing a doctorate from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, were the featured speakers at an April 10 Open Forum examining recent trends concerning Islam in the Ferghana Valley. Abramson contended that the known radical groups in Central Asia, especially the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahir, are "not all that significant these days."
Authoritarian-minded leaders have continued to portray the radical groups as a major security threat to justify political clampdowns, Khamidov said. By "painting them [radical groups] as a threat," Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, have been able to "target political opponent and postpone much needed reform." Khamidov estimated that about 11 percent of the Uzbek population holds radical Islamic views, but added that only about half of those radicals favor the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.
In recent months, regional residents frustrated by declining living standards have tended to shun radical groups in favor of so-called jamiyats described by Abramson as "Islamic self-help organizations." In English jamiyat is translated as meaning either "society" or "association." In the Central Asian context, jamiyats have formed in order to plug wide gaps in government safety nets in some Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan. Abramson explained that jamiyats provide "social welfare - extending employment to families." According to Khamidov, these groups are not militant and "don't want the establishment of an Islamic state. What they want is a greater role for Islamic values in society."
Increasingly, officials have come to view the economic work of jamiyats as a threat to their political positions. Karimov in particular has attempted to portray jamiyats as extremist in orientation, intending to disband the organizations and tighten his grip on power. The most notorious example of this trend occurred in 2005 in Andijan, where leaders of a local jamiyat were accused of membership in a banned extremist group known as Akromiya. Their trial sparked a chain of events that culminated in the Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Abramson and Khamidov asserted that Akromiya should be classified among the more moderate jamiyats, contradicting Karimov's claim that the organization is "an Islamic extremist group bent on the overthrow of the government."
The State Department's most recent Country Report on Uzbekistan's human rights practices, released in March, provides backing for Abramson's and Khamidov's assertions. The report characterizes Akromiya as "a religious association that promotes business, not extremism." It goes on to state that the Uzbek government's tendency to brand political opponents, both real and perceived, as Islamic radicals has prompted officials to engage in widespread "surveillance or harassment" of "more religiously observant (yet nonextremist) persons."
Khamidov argues that a distinction needs to be made between pious Muslims and extremists. "Just because these people want Islam to have a greater influence in society doesn't mean they advocate Sharia law. They do not."
Abramson predicted that if Karimov maintained his hardline policies, Uzbekistan would experience the "increasing Islamization" of society. Islamization, he added, is a symptom of "deeper political and economic issues" that, if not addressed, could have a "destabilizing effect on the region." Uzbek repression may end up having a boomerang effect, Khamidov added. "Groups with radical agendas thrive in areas... where the pent up frustration of the people can't be channeled through legitimate secular means." he said. "An Islamic call to revolution will find greater resonance under such regimes that exclude political competition."
Havilah Hoffman is an editorial assistant for EurasiaNet in New York.