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Uzbekistan: Heads of State Agree To Combat Central Asian 'Fundamentalists'

Prague, 6 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov met Boris Yeltsin today in Moscow - and, at the conclusion of their meeting, Karimov said Russia and Tajikistan would coordinate policies with Uzbekistan to combat the spread of fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia.

Fundamentalists have been on Karimov's mind a lot lately.

Uzbekistan's Parliament May 1 passed a new version of the freedom-of-conscience law, which now requires religious groups of more than 100 people, and all mosques, to be registered with Uzbek authorities. If there was any doubt at whom the law was aimed, Karimov removed it when he addressed Parliament. Karimov reminded deputies of the events in Namangan, and claimed the Wahhabis sought "a replay of events which pushed Tajikistan decades back... ." According to Karimov, the Wahhabi plan included "killing officials, destruction of food factories, water reservoirs, power stations and other strategic installations." He told deputies, "such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself, if you lack the resolve."

The resurgence of Islam in Central Asia concerns leaders in all the countries of the region. But Karimov's remarks highlight an important point. Though hardly anyone ever heard of the Wahhabis until last year, they have acquired an extremely bad reputation among the governments of Central Asia, and are generally seen as 'public enemy number one.'

But Wahhabis, or students of the teachings of Mohammed ibn-Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth century founder of the sect from Saudi Arabia, are not so numerous in Central Asia, and, yet, the warnings from government officials in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan continue - as do the arrests. However, there are many political groups the governments of this region consider troublesome, and doubts arise that it is actually only Wahhabis who are the targets of these campaigns.

The five-year Tajikistan civil war has been seen by leaders in the Central Asia region as a preview of what lies in store for many of their countries, if certain Islamic groups can establish a strong presence in the region. Though a peace accord was signed between the Tajik government and its "Islamic" foe, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), last June, there have been incidents of fighting in Tajikistan, in which Islamic groups battled against government forces, and, in defiance of the orders of the UTO's leadership. The UTO already has representatives in the Tajik government as part of the terms of the peace accord. During the Tajik civil war, the Uzbek President often referred to the UTO as "fundamentalists," so, the part of the agreement granting the UTO a place in government does not please the Uzbek government.

The continued problems in Tajikistan, despite the peace agreement, alarms not only the government in Tashkent but in other countries of the region. But, while there is not much these other countries can do about the Tajik peace arrangement, measures are being taken to curb the activities of Islamic groups from China's Xinjiang Province through the Fergana Valley.

Last week's fighting in Tajikistan, which briefly spread to the capital Dushanbe, was again blamed on elements of the UTO. Not much further east from Dushanbe, in Kofarnikhon (25 kms from Dushanbe), there was fighting in March between government troops and forces nominally loyal to the UTO. The field commanders involved in that fighting had titles such as "Mullo" and "Ishan."

These are clearly Muslims as "Mullo" or "Mullah" is an Islamic teacher and "Ishan" denotes a descendant of the prophet Muhammed.

Uzbekistan has already confronted the Wahhabis, in the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan. Namangan is in the Fergana Valley which is divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The valley is the richest agricultural area in Central Asia, and, hence, the most populated and most difficult to police. The murders of several police officials in Namangan were blamed on Wahhabis in the area last December. The Uzbek government poured troops into the area and arrests numbered in the hundreds, certainly, and thousands, possibly. Details of the arrests have not been made public, but it seems the net caught more than Wahhabis.

Amnesty International released an appeal May 1, citing the "ill-treatment of alleged Wahhabists," in eastern Uzbekistan. But, the report also notes that there are many Islamic groups in the Fergana Valley, which do not choose to associate themselves with Uzbekistan's Spiritual Directorate for Muslims, a state-sponsored organization. "This growth of such unregulated Islam has provoked a backlash from state authorities. There have been wide spread reports of harassment of independent Muslims..."

This implies more than Wahhabis are involved.

It is likely that fearing influence from the Tajik section of the valley where "Islamists" can now freely roam, the Uzbek government has taken additional measures to fortify its part of the valley against "fundamentalists-extremists."

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev made a visit to China in the last week of April. China has its own problem with religious extremism. Some radical Uyghurs, a Turkic, Muslim people, are seeking independence from China. The extremists have been accused of several acts of terrorism, including planting bombs in China's capital, Beijing, on the day of long-time leader Deng Xioaping's funeral. Dozens of Uyghurs, at least, have been executed in China's campaign to reign in these "separatists." There are about 300,000 ethnic Uyghurs living in the CIS, mainly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which, along with Tajikistan, border Xinjiang Province.

May 1, ITAR-TASS news agency reported that 20 Uyghur "terrorists" from the organization "For Free Eastern Turkestan" had been arrested in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The Kyrgyz daily newspaper Vecherny Bishkek clarified the situation in an article the same day. The paper reported that the arrests actually began at the start of April, when ethnic Uyghur and Chinese citizen "Kasarli" was caught by Kyrgyz police. Kasarli's arrest led authorities to others, and to the group's headquarters outside Bishkek where weapons, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and videotapes and other material, including, conveniently, Wahhabi instructional material were found. Kyrgyzstan's Security Ministry told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service May 4 that all but Kasarli had been released, after several days.

The newspaper article also claimed there are at least 200 such 'terrorists' from Kyrgyzstan training in Pakistan. The paper reported that such groups were active, not only in southern Kyrgyzstan near Osh (also in the Fergana Valley), but, also around Bishkek and in Kyrgyzstan's section of the Chu Valley.

The Chu Valley stretches into Kazakhstan, where incidents with Wahhabis have not been reported. However, it seems likely that, if Wahhabis are in the valley in Kyrgyzstan, they are also in the Kazakh section, yet, there are no reports from Kazakhstan about Wahhabi activity. There are about a quarter-of-a-million Uyghurs living in Kazakhstan. Events in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and, even China recently, now raise questions about last week's announcement that Kazakh Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev will be in Beijing on Thursday (May 7).

It appears the states which border Tajikistan are beginning a campaign to drive out all politicized Islamic groups, perceived as a threat to the region's stability. Though such groups have previously been identified as "fundamentalists," "separatists" or "extremists," these vague designations have been refined and all these enemies, and maybe more, can now be called "Wahhabis."