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Central Asia: ICG Reports Warn Repression Of Islam Will Further Destabilize Region

  • Charles Carlson

Two recent reports on Islam in Central Asia suggest that governments' indiscriminate repression of both moderate and radical Islam could prove counterproductive.

Prague, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two reports recently published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Belgian-based organization specializing in global conflict resolution and monitoring, advise Central Asian governments to re-examine the policies toward Islam and rely less on repression, which, the authors predict, will only fuel destabilization.

The reports include detailed recommendations to Central Asian countries and the West on the need to differentiate clearly between radical and moderate Islam.

The report, titled "Central Asia: Islam and the State," takes a broader view of the historical role of Islam in Central Asia and the varying forms the Islamic revival has taken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The report says, "While each country has imposed different degrees of repression, all have sought to control any appearance of political Islam, whether moderate or extreme, and all have sought to use Islam as a tool of the state."

The report offers a country-by-country breakdown of government action taken against Islamic groups. In Uzbekistan, it says, "restrictions [on Islam] have pushed religious teaching underground...provoking widespread discontent and fuelling political Islam as a focus for opposition."

In Tajikistan, "the role of Islam in state-building was a contributory factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1992."

In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, "non-traditional Muslim tendencies have appeared, and there is a debate over the role of religion in society and in politics." In south Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, "the growth in influence of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir has sometimes been exaggerated, but they do have a committed following."

And in Turkmenistan, "Islam has only weak roots, but President [Saparmurat] Niyazov has combined widespread repression of any religious activity with attempts to create a pseudo-Islamic spiritual creed centered on his own personality."

The report concludes by advising the leaders of the five Central Asian countries not to overreact to manifestations of religious belief and to step back from indiscriminate reprisals which could prove counterproductive.

"Undifferentiated repression of religious activism is likely to lead to more radicalization rather than less," the ICG's Central Asian project director, David Lewis, warns in the first report.

Repression in these countries has provoked "widespread discontent and fueled political Islam as a focus for opposition," ICG Asia Program Director Robert Templer wrote in the media release preceding the reports.

The second ICG report, "Radical Islam in Central Asia: Responding to Hizb ut-Tahrir," focuses more narrowly on the Islamic party, which it estimates has recruited thousands of supporters across Central Asia since the mid-1990s. While not advocating or resorting to violence, Hizb ut-Tahrir nevertheless advocates the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an Islamic state "in the form of a recreated caliphate." The ICG describes Hizb ut-Tahrir as the largest radical Islamic movement in Central Asia, with an estimated 15,000-20,000 members, mostly in Uzbekistan but also in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

The report characterizes Hizb ut-Tahrir as a political party rather than a religious organization aimed at bringing all Muslim lands under Islamic rule and establishing a caliphate where Islamic law -- Sharia -- is applied. It stresses that there is no evidence to substantiate claims by regional governments that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been involved in terrorist activities.

The report concludes that wider policies of repression by governments in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, may have contributed to the growth and radicalization of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The lack of alternative forms of political opposition in these countries, it feels, may attract new members into the party, especially among the youth. But at the same time, Central Asia project direct Lewis said he doubts that Hizb ut-Tahrir will abandon its self-imposed rejection of violence.

"I think in Uzbekistan there is a chance that some group within them could emerge that would argue that the present tactics are not working and they will become impatient and frustrated. So far, there is no sign that they will change their tactics. There is no evidence that they will move on, and you've got to remember they suffered a enormous amount from suppression of the Uzbek government and that hasn't yet forced them to change their mind," Lewis said.

Both reports appeal to the international community to encourage Central Asian governments not to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir but to take urgent measures to "change the environment" in which it thrives. The reports say that "closed political systems, lack of freedom of speech, lack of economic progress, and unreformed and brutal security services all contribute to the growth of radical opposition groups."

Lewis admits there are few prospects that Hizb ut-Tahrir will eventually participate in political life, given that its members reject the existing political system of the countries in which they live. This is particularly true for Uzbekistan, Lewis said, where there are no legal opposition parties at all, either secular or religious. Lewis also said that many Hizb ut-Tahrir members are not particularly religious, but are attracted to the party because it is the only vehicle for expressing their discontent with the existing political system.

But French scholar Olivier Roy pointed out that there is a precedent for a Central Asian government embarking on talks on power sharing with an Islamic party. Such a power-sharing agreement was one of the components of the agreement that ended the Tajik civil war in 1997.

Roy noted that the ICG report suggests that the Uzbek government could diminish some of the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir by promoting political liberalization. "The report concludes that the best way to deprive the Hizb ut-Tahrir of its basis, especially its appeal for the youth in Uzbekistan, is also to amend the political scene and to improve democracy in the whole area, especially in Uzbekistan," Roy said.

Lewis also highlighted the varying approaches among the Central Asian states as to how to deal with the threat posed by movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. "I think in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan there is some openness among officials to new ideas, to alternative ways of struggling with the Hizb ut-Tahrir. I think in Uzbekistan at the moment there is a deafness among officials to alternative policies, not just in the religion sphere, but in all aspects of government policy. But there are people close to the government in Uzbekistan who understand that this policy is self-defeating in the long term. But unfortunately at the moment they don't have the influence to put their policies in place," Lewis said.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)