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Uzbekistan: The Ferghana Valley -- A Breeding Ground For Extremism?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is often quick to point to the Ferghana Valley as a hotbed of Islamic unrest and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. But some analysts say Karimov himself is to blame, for having imposed harsh strictures on dissent and leaving no option to those opposed to him other than fundamentalism. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch looks at the history of the Ferghana Valley and assesses its alleged role as a breeding ground for extremism.

Prague, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In February 1999, a series of mysterious bomb attacks rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent, leaving 16 dead and scores wounded. Uzbek President Islam Karimov was quick to blame obscure extremist religious groups for the bombings, which unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression against government opponents.

Over the past several years, using the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a pretext, Karimov has crushed any sign of dissidence within Uzbekistan. He has banned opposition newspapers and jailed journalists and members of the opposition Erk (Freedom) Party.

For Karimov, himself born in the southeastern Samarkand region, the main danger comes from the Ferghana Valley to the north of his homeland. Extending across Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the mountain-ringed valley has a tradition of religious dissidence. In 1912, a Medina-born cleric set up the first Central Asian cells of a movement known as Wahabbism in the valley. It was named after Abdul Wahab, a religious thinker who two centuries earlier had fought the influence of Sufism in Sunni Islam.

Ferghana also has a tradition of resistance to central authorities. During the Russian civil war, it took the Bolsheviks more than a decade to quell the Basmachi guerilla bands and to establish their rule over the valley.

Nine years after Uzbekistan's accession to independence, authorities in Tashkent still see the region as a reservoir of political opposition.

No doubt the Ferghana Valley has a great potential for social unrest. Experts point to a demographic explosion in the region, caused by a skyrocketing birth rate and resulting in a population density that is one of the highest in Central Asia. There are no reliable statistics, but the valley is known to have a very high unemployment rate, higher than elsewhere in Uzbekistan. That also helps explain the rapid spread of religious fundamentalism, especially among the youth.

But above all, outsiders who know Uzbekistan well blame Karimov's authoritarianism. Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Paul Bergne explains to RFE/RL:

"Young people are idealistic and always looking for a cause. And if they are unemployed and have an unpromising future without work and without career, then clearly they will turn to idealistic solutions. And just at the moment, the only opposition to regimes like the regimes in Central Asia is the Islamic opposition because all the secular opposition parties have been banned."

Among Karimov's favorite targets is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose members are often referred to as "Wahabbis." That's a generic term used by the Uzbek government to designate Ferghana religious fundamentalists.

In addition to its alleged involvement in the 1999 bomb explosions, the IMU has claimed responsibility for armed forays into southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from Tajikistan, both in 1999 and earlier this year. Last month, IMU founding members Takhir Yuldash and Djuma Namangani were sentenced to death in absentia by an Uzbek court. A week later, members of Humanity and Humaneness -- an organization created in 1991 in the Ferghana town of Kokand to fight drugs and prostitution -- were sentenced to prison terms of 16 to 20 years for attempting to create an Islamic state in the valley.

Eager to win support for his regime, Karimov has succeeded in internationalizing his domestic problems by accusing IMU leaders of being linked with Afghanistan's Taliban ruling militia.

That the Taliban control lucrative weapons- and drug-smuggling to western and Persian Gulf markets is not in dispute. But experts are divided over the extent of the Taliban's influence over the Uzbek guerillas.

Shirin Akiner is an expert with the London-based School for Oriental and African Studies. She says it is hard to assess the situation correctly:

"What exactly is the cause for this militancy? Well, I think there are two extremes. At one extreme, certainly, there is Islamic radicalism. At the other extreme, there is drug smuggling and organized crime. In between there is a gray area. Some people may both be drug smugglers and extremely devoted Muslims. Some people may be more inclined to use whatever methods there are at their disposal to spread Islam. Others may be interested simply in using Islam to further their criminal activities. I think we simply do not know where to draw the boundary."

Russia, once the region's undisputed ruler, also considers Islamic radicalism a threat to its security.

Last spring, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of further instability in the region and promised military aid to the Central Asian states. Moscow is anxious to depict the war in Chechnya as a fight against religious extremism and international terrorism. It claims that the Central Asian "Wahabbis" aim at setting fire to the entire Caucasus through fellow believers in Chechnya and Daghestan.

Olivier Roy is a Central Asian researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research (known as the CNRS). He does not rule out sporadic anti-government street protests or isolated terrorist actions against Uzbek officials in the Ferghana Valley. But Roy does not believe that what fundamentalism does exist in the Ferghana Valley represents an overall Islamic threat in Central Asia.

"I do not believe in the contamination theory. The reasons why the Ferghana Valley has become a hot spot of Islamic mobilization are well-known, but ideas do not travel like germs. In terms of political mobilization and regionalism, there is a general trend in Central Asia: When one region strongly identifies itself with a particular ideology, other regions usually do not follow it -- precisely because they oppose the region to one degree or another."

Some believe the Ferghana Valley may witness ethnic clashes similar to those that opposed Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks in 1989 in the Uzbek part of the valley and, a year later, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Although Roy dismisses these fears as groundless, he admits that an overall land privatization advocated by the International Monetary Fund -- or IMF -- could aggravate the economic situation, and thus create further problems.

"If privatization is carried out in full, which is what the IMF is asking for, this would create an enormous exodus from the land. Half of the population would be forced to look for jobs in the cities. But the cities are not prepared to integrate so great a rural emigration, and industry could not cope with the situation."

Roy believes the solution to the problems of the Ferghana Valley lies in the hands of the Uzbek authorities. He says that genuine democratization, greater representation of Ferghana in the Uzbek government, and a sounder economic policy all could help avoid social unrest in the region.

(Abbas Djavadi of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)