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Central Asia: Are Governments Too Quick To Blame Unrest On Islamic Militants?

  • Charles Recknagel

Almost as soon as violence broke out in Uzbekistan last week, regional government leaders blamed the unrest on Islamists seeking to subvert the rule of law. The immediate attribution of blame from Tashkent, Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Moscow placed the events squarely in the framework of the global war on terrorism. But the swiftness with which blame was assigned also fits another pattern -- an almost reflexive tendency to pin all domestic unrest in the authoritarian Central Asian republics, not on economic or political conditions, but on renegade groups. [For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan --> /specials/uzbek_unrest/ ]

Prague, 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has said repeatedly that the violence in Andijon and elsewhere in the east of the country was organized by Islamic radicals intent on overthrowing his government.

He said on 15 May that the unrest was carefully planned. "The events in Andijon did not take place spontaneously," Karimov said. "We have enough information to be sure that the preparation of the demonstration in Andijon must have taken between three and six months."

He has specifically identified the violence as the work of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Uzbek government has long accused the group of using violence in its declared quest to create an Islamic state. But the group itself says it is nonviolent and did not instigate the recent events.

Other governments in the region have also blamed Islamic radicals for the unrest that began on 13 May.

Interim Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said on 14 May that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group linked to Al-Qaeda, also bears responsibility.

"This happened because of what we call the IMU, or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir. In any case, this [violence] does not lead to a good life. I think there should be peace. I don't support the views of those who want to establish a state under management of a religious body," Bakiev said.

A top adviser to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmanov took a similar position. Essamudin Salahiddinov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Hizb ut-Tahrir is to blame.

"As far as we know, and according to our intelligence services, these events in Uzbekistan have been provoked by the leaders of the banned hard-line Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir," Salahiddinov said.

Regional experts say there is no question that radical Islamic groups operate in Central Asia and have been behind earlier attacks on Karimov's government. But they say such a quick chain reaction of charges by regional leaders raises questions of whether the current case has been adequately investigated -- or if the governments are simply acting reflexively.

Felix Corley is editor of Forum 18, and independent group that promotes religious freedom worldwide and pays close attention to events in Central Asia. Corley says regional governments have fallen into a pattern of blaming a variety of violent and nonviolent challenges to their rule on radical Islamic groups.

"The Uzbek government has really taken the lead in blaming Islamists, as it sees it, for all manner of opposition activities, not just peaceful demonstrations and underground organizations, but they also blame Islamists for the latest uprisings in Andijon and Karasu," Corley said. "And the other governments of the region have sort of followed down this track. They also have been blaming them for a lot of underground activities."

Moscow, too, has said Islamic radicals are behind the recent violence in eastern Uzbekistan.

Corley says some Islamic groups have, indeed, carried out violent attacks on Central Asian governments, including bombings and shootings in Tashkent last year. The IMU, for example, has staged raids into Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan.
"The issue of the Islamic fundamentalist element in Uzbekistan has been overplayed by the West, to a certain extent in the press, and certainly by President Islam Karimov." - James Nixey


He also says that many of the Islamic groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, share an agenda that many mainstream Muslims would find objectionable if they came to power.

"There are violent or potentially violent Islamists in the region. We can look back to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. [And] there is the underground Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which claims to reject violence, but some of its literature is very unpleasant. And also our correspondent has spoken to a lot of Hizb ut-Tahrir activists in the region, who openly say that when the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization comes to power in Central Asia and the Islamic caliphate is reestablished, then there will not be religious freedom for minorities. There will not be human rights in the modern sense of the term," Corley said.

Regional leaders appear to hope to maintain public tolerance of their authoritarian style of rule by blaming opposition on unsavory opponents. But some analysts say the policy may backfire by making the extremist Islamic groups appear to be stronger than they really are. And that may win the groups sympathizers who do not embrace the radical values of the groups themselves, but who do want change.

James Nixey, a regional expert at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, says Karimov's policies risk creating new recruits to radical Islamic groups. He suggests Tashkent would do better to recognize that opposition to a government has a variety of causes, including political and economic conditions created by that government itself.

"The issue of the Islamic fundamentalist element in Uzbekistan has been overplayed by the West, to a certain extent in the press, and certainly by President Islam Karimov," Nixey said. "He will indeed use it as any excuse for anything -- from the protests we have been seeing recently, and the violence, to the dire economic situation in the east of the country. And in fact the economic situation in the east of the country has far more to do with a Soviet-planned central-command economy than it has to do with Islamic extremism."

The government says 169 people were killed on 13 May in Andijon, most of them "bandits" who themselves had killed civilians and security officials. An Uzbek opposition party says it has compiled a list of 745 dead.



Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.


See also:

What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon

Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'
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