Radical islam in Central Asia. Myth or reality?

Slavomir Horak, MA – Emil Souleimanov, PhD.

(Brief summary)

If we put aside the consideration of state terrorism produced by local regimes, the main ideology that can become the basis for international terrorism in Central Asia continues to be religion, in this case, primarily Islam. From a theoretical standpoint, religious terrorism is now becoming the most important factor in this field. Very radical groups and terrorist organisations often use moderate religions as a front.

If, however, these theoretical standpoints are applied to the Central Asia region, the situation is far from being straightforward in cases where the ruling elite label some group as terrorists. The religion factor, in this case Islam, is present with groups given that designation, but their labelling as terrorist groups is quite problematic upon closer examination. An example is Hizb ut-Tahrir, the activity of which is analysed in the text in detail, along with certain other organisations like Akromija.

Some cases of alleged religious terrorism in Central Asia (the so-called Batken wars in 1999-2000) were actually provoked by a group that proclaimed the ideological goal of spreading Islam in the region and declaring an Islamic caliphate (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). It turns out, however, that this plan was of secondary importance to the chief figure behind those attacks (Juma Namangani), serving primarily as a cover for his economic or, rather, criminal aims.

Other manifestations of so-called terrorism can, on the other hand, have their roots somewhere entirely remote from proclaimed Islamic radicalism. They find their origin in local clan structures and the struggles amongst them (for example, the alleged assassination attempt on president Karimov in 1999). So far there are no written sources on the background of the entire event, and the facts have been gathered from reliable sources, but so far, only by word of mouth or from speculation in secondary literature.

There is yet another cause that can be behind the phenomena of so-called terrorism in Central Asia – the social and economic situation in the countries of the region. Those states are generally very poor. The population (at least for the most part) moreover feels great frustration with the decline of their standard of living as a result of the break-up of the USSR and the attempts or faked attempts at an economic transformation in the countries in question. Together with the constant pressure of the regime (political, social, religious), hotbeds are created for the manifestations of a population dissatisfied with the central government, especially in areas that are constantly underestimated (e.g. the Ferghan Valley). In those regions, fertile ground is formed for the transition from protests on a social basis to mass rallies based upon any principle at all, including religious extremism. During the initial phase (social unrest), relatively peaceful demonstrations have so far been suppressed in Andijan in May 2005.

The overview stated above also describes the structure of the study (theoretical departure points, their application to appropriate groups, and the genesis of the entire problem). It is also quite obvious that the country most threatened by possible manifestations of Islamist (pseudo-Islamic) terrorism in Central Asia is Uzbekistan (plus the corresponding border territories of the surrounding countries). This arises not only from the demographics of that country (dense population, a relatively high level of Islamisation within the context of the region, long-term unresolved economic and social problems), but also the character of the political system. In the other countries, that threat is relevant to a certain extent in Tajikistan, which has similar basic conditions (a relatively heavily Islamic population in a regional context). In that country, however, vivid memories remain from the bloody civil war during the first half of the 1990s, which greatly limited the social base for any Islamic radicals.

Under the given circumstances, we see the most important steps with respect to the countries in Central Asia that are potentially threatened by this phenomenon as leading in two directions:

  1. Draw attention to repressive practices of the Central Asian regimes in question. This task is, however, more of a task for nongovernmental organisations that can afford to take a firmer stance towards those regimes. Instigating regime change from the outside, however, does not make any sense when it could lead to unforeseeable consequences.


  1. Analyse regions (Ferghan Valley) or groups (possibly the revival of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) that could be a real threat to the stability of Central Asian states, and cooperate with local representatives in the struggle against those groups. For the interests of the European Union, Russia, or the individual Central Asian countries, it is important to focus attention primarily on such groups that are not merely organisations with support from abroad like Hizb ut-Tahrir, but rather on those whose resources come from local, very dubious or even criminal practises (such as narcotics trafficking).

The authors are aware that there is a very fine line between these largely mutually exclusive approaches, and it is usually very hard to guess which state activities are worth supporting and which are merely an ideological front for state repression.

Radical Islam as such does not currently possess more influential groups in the region that would have the direct resources for a regime change “under the green banner”. Still, in view of the proclaimed secularism of the local, mostly very unpopular regimes, the activity of such movements cannot be ruled out from a medium-range perspective.