Some Islamic scholars say fundamentalist radicals in Central Asia represent a fringe movement, whose actions are not endorsed by the majority of pious believers. However, they also say that most Americans, policymakers included, have a limited understanding of these nuances and resort to stereotypes. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports from a conference in Washington that explored these issues.
Washington, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- While the threat of armed Islamic extremism has hovered for decades, recent incidents in Central Asia and the Caucasus suggest that the insurgency has finally touched down. And discussions that were once academic now have real-world applications.
Within the last few years, the Islamic fundamentalist movement has gained momentum. Regional experts say Afghanistan, the Taleban-controlled country, houses many fundamentalist groups and represents the source of most of the region's troubles. But fundamentalism has emerged in the secular countries of Central Asia, leading some to worry that a regional uprising may soon occur.
Uzbekistan, once seen as an island of stability, has been rocked by bombings and a hostage crisis last year. An Islamic fundamentalist group based in the Ferghana Valley declared a jihad against Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
The United States considers Central Asia and the Caucasus a strategic buffer against Russia, a critical barrier to drug trafficking and terrorism, and a potential source of natural resources. These interests underlie policymakers' sudden interest in Muslim religion.
More than 100 academics, administrators, and analysts gathered in Washington on 11 April at a conference devoted to discussing the issue of religious extremism in Central Asia. The topics ranged from ideology to influences, and social context to governmental response.
At the heart of the debate is how U.S. policymakers can best respond to the region's troubles. But religion has rarely factored into policy debates, so diplomats lack the proper framework to understand today's problems. Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins University explains.
"The tone of policy discussion is a dry, analytical tone in which motives are always analyzed in terms of interests, not in terms of beliefs or goals or aspirations."
Islam has been part of the region for centuries and is embedded in the culture. The religion is based on the teachings of the Koran, or holy book, and the traditions passed down by the Prophet Muhammad. In its essence, scholars say Islam teaches love and tolerance. But some contend that radical elements have hijacked the original message.
Sheykh Hisham Muhammad Kabbani, of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, says that power lust lies behind the actions of Islamic extremists in the region. But their behavior, he says, runs counter to true Islamic beliefs.
Sheykh says that traditional practitioners and radical elements do not differ in their underlying beliefs. Both groups adhere to the religion's obligations, believe in the oneness of god, and follow the prophet's message. But how the two camps manifest their beliefs is another matter.
"The problem is they differ in their opinion on authority -- on who is going to rule. They mix religion with politics. When we begin to mix religion with politics, we are going to end in such furious situations."
Afghanistan's "fury" spread to Uzbekistan last year. Sodyq Safaev, Uzbekistans ambassador to the United States, told RFE/RL that the majority of devout Muslims experienced a renaissance of their faith following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, the recent problems with Muslim fundamentalism in the Ferghana Valley attest to the fact that religion and politics can conspire in a toxic brew. Safaev says:
"We believe that their interpretation of Islam doesn't have anything in common with real Islam -- Islam which teaches love, teaches tolerance, teaches the peace and accord among people."
To understand how the two Muslim camps manage to justify such divergent behavior can be found in interpretations of Islamic law.
Paul Hardy, a research fellow of the Center for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, identifies the root of extremist behavior in the teaching that gives Muslims the right to "correct by the hand." While this message can be interpreted as meaning "writing," Hardy says that extremists find in this teaching an endorsement of violence.
"Nowadays, amongst extremists, the most common interpretation is correction by the sword. And it means armed resistance to any regime that is in place that they can object to, for whatever reason."
Hardy says that true Islam seeks accommodation with the current regime because for Muslims, the most important thing is carrying out Islamic duties. Being a Muslim, says Hardy, does not automatically mean being an extremist. Just like Christians and Jews, Muslims are mainly concerned with raising their families and making a living. And when situations are thrown into disarray, it makes it very difficult for Muslims to carry out their duties.