Evaluating The Appeal of Islam in The Ferghana Valley

A repetition of last summer's Batken hostage crisis so far has not materialized as many experts and local government officials had feared. The inability of Islamic militants to mount anti-government operations this year may be connected with their failure to attract a broad popular following. Indeed, many residents in the Kyrgyzstani portion of the Ferghana Valley tend to make a clear distinction between political discontent and religious beliefs.

The Batken hostage crisis began in early August 1999, when a band of approximately 1,000 armed Islamic militants, most of them ethnic Uzbeks living in exile, moved out from bases in Tajikistan and occupied the mountainous area of southern Kyrgyzstan. The militants' original aim supposedly was to foment an Islamic uprising in Uzbekistan. Those plans were frustrated, however, by the presence of a large contingent of Uzbek troops in the Ferghana Valley. Unable to continue their advance, the Islamic militants resorted to taking hostages, including four Japanese geologists, in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The standoff between the militants and Kyrgyzstani government forces lasted over two months. After protracted negotiations, resulting in a multi-million-dollar ransom payment, the Islamic group released their prisoners last October and returned to their base in Tajikistan. Subsequently, the militants reportedly relocated to bases in Afghanistan. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight archive].

The Batken affair accentuates the political differences between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While Uzbekistan has ruthlessly sought to crush unsanctioned Islamic practices, Kyrgyzstan has been glaringly ineffective in combating the cross-border flows of arms, drugs, and literature connected with political Islam. The Kyrgyzstani part of the Ferghana Valley, where Batken is located, is reportedly a haven for political Islamic activists. The Interfax news agency reported that authorities detained six reputed members of the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Jalalabad on July 31, alleging that the suspects were distributing leaflets that called for the establishment of an Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley.

Regional governments are taking the threat posed by Islamic militants seriously. Shanghai Five member states -- including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - decided at their July summit meeting to establish a "regional antiterrorist structure," to be headquartered in Bishkek

In trying to gauge political Islam's threat to regional stability, it is necessary to accurately assess how much attraction it actually holds for ordinary people living in the region. A sampling of attitudes among ethnic Uzbeks in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's largest city in the Ferghana Valley, suggests that there is no present danger of widespread support for political Islam in Kyrgyzstan. To be sure, there has been a surge of Islamic activity among Uzbeks in Osh since Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991. Literally hundreds of small neighborhood mosques, which were utilized as warehouses and shops during the Soviet era, have been restored and reopened. Formerly banned religious holidays are communally celebrated. Every year hundreds of pilgrims go on the Haj from Osh, enduring an arduous weeklong bus ride to Mecca. In addition, Islamic study groups have spontaneously formed within Osh's Uzbek neighborhoods in the past ten years. These self-run home groups of about 15, called ziyofats, gather weekly to study Islam over tea and food.

During recent visits to ziyofats in the old Uzbek core of the city, a local imam was observed teaching the neighborhood's young men how to pray. Meanwhile, a group of elderly women was learning basic Arabic, a language that few knew during Soviet times. Another ziyofat, comprising elder men, discussed doctrine from an old Turkestani commentary.

The city's official clergy does not supervise ziyofats. One teacher at a Friday mosque in Osh expressed confidence that the groups are not a threat to stability. The teacher asserted that "Wahhabism," as political Islam is labeled locally, has little appeal in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Why are many Osh Uzbeks demonstrating a commitment to Islam? Some place a high value on rediscovering their pre-Soviet cultural roots. One woman explains, "After Independence, our (Islamic) hayits, Nawruz (New Year) celebrations have returned, and we now know who we originally were." Islam is also a marker of prestige within the community. Those with knowledge of Arabic are accorded a particular respect evident in social gatherings. But there is also the communal pressure to conform. When asked why local youth were expressing an interest in Islam, one young man responded: "It's not a question of interest. We have no choice. If we don't practice, there would be shame on our family."

Islam appeals to Osh Uzbek elders because they believe it can address the social and economic problems facing independent Kyrgyzstan. It orients the community toward a productive work ethic, lower criminal activity, and peaceful interethnic relations - a lingering sore point since the 1990 Osh Riots between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

At the same time, most Osh Uzbeks express horror and disgust at "Wahhabism," drawing a sharp distinction between it and the Islam of their ancestors. They oppose movements that aim to overthrow current governments and administer Islamic law. Many view the state's proper role as a provider of political stability, which facilitates macroeconomic development. They also believe Islam can provide a moral framework to strengthen local communities.

Many Osh Uzbek interviewed favor vigorous government measures to combat Islamic extremism. Some even express strong approval for such drastic measures as Uzbekistan's move to seal its borders, which has resulted in widespread economic disruption. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight archive]. They also tend to view Uzbekistan as the only viable guarantor of regional security.

"I am for the closing of the border. Because otherwise, much crime would invade Uzbekistan. Wahhabis still pose a threat to the peace of Uzbekistan," said Akmal, an Osh resident who declined to give his last name. "But the bad side is that it is difficult when I, an Uzbek, try to travel to Uzbekistan. I've got relatives over there, but I can't go freely."

Many, like Akmal, are willing to tolerate the hardships associated with strict border controls, including the harsh economic consequences, as long as they believe such actions strengthen the security environment.

"Hindering the economy harms us, because economic development also promotes peace," Akmal said. "But in my opinion, security is our paramount concern right now. After there is peace, then let us build our roads, our factories, our schools."

Morgan Y. Liu is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Evaluating The Appeal of Islam in The Ferghana Valley

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