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Central Asia: Analysis from Washington -- Leaders Fail To Read Fundamentalism Right

Washington, 6 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Many Central Asian leaders have failed to recognize that repressive policies are more likely to strengthen Islamic fundamentalism in their countries than to weaken or destroy it.

That they should make such a fundamental error is not surprising given their experiences in Soviet times, their desires to remain in power regardless of the consequences, and the often uncritical support they have received from Russia and the West for just such an approach.

But at least some Western leaders appear to be changing their views on this point. And that shift is likely to have major consequences for the policies of Central Asian governments over the longer term, even if -- as seems certain -- this change in the West will have little or no impact in the near term.

Two weeks ago, the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislav Geremek, met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to discuss how Tashkent is coping with a rising tide of Muslim activism both in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

As he has before, Karimov insisted that Islamic fundamentalism was the main threat to stability in his country and across the region, that such a movement could either destabilize the situation as in Tajikistan or bring to power a theocratic regime as in Iran. And he further argued that the West must understand the need to take strong, even repressive measures against such Muslim activists.

In the past, such arguments often were sufficient to forestall most criticism from Western leaders who themselves fear instability or Iranian radicalism. But in a meeting that his spokesmen characterized as "frank," Geremek responded to Karimov in a way that suggests that era may be ending.

During his April 20 meeting with the Uzbek president, the Polish foreign minister pointed out that in many Muslim countries, government moves against what some call politicized Islam and others Islamic fundamentalism had actually strengthened these groups. Indeed, Geremek suggested, in many cases, such extremists had no chance to win power unless they were perceived as being persecuted.

Geremek's argument is interesting in three respects. First, it is not directly about human rights. Instead, it is about stability and thus challenges the claims of Karimov and others that their policies will work to control the situation.

Second, it suggests that governments bear a heavy responsibility for how much Islamic fundamentalism there is: If they are repressive, there will be more. If they are not, there will be less of it.

And third, by focusing on the responsibility of individual governments for dealing with Islamic challenges, Geremek's argument undercuts those both in Uzbekistan and elsewhere who suggest that Islamic fundamentalism is spreading out like a tidal wave from Iran or Algeria or Afghanistan or some other center of infection.

Not surprisingly, Karimov has not been led to change his position overnight. Last Friday, for example, he told his country's parliament that Muslim activists were so dangerous that they "must be shot in the head." And he added that "if you lack the resolve, I'll shoot them myself." Unless the parliament was prepared to follow his lead, Karimov continued, "Tajikistan will come to Uzbekistan tomorrow."

In response, Uzbekistan's rubber-stamp parliament adopted a new "freedom of conscience" law that requires all religious groups with more than 100 members and all mosques to register with the state. This measure will give legal cover to what a variety of Western human rights groups, Western journalists and Western governments have described as Tashkent's increasingly repressive policies toward Islam.

Many officials across Central Asia undoubtedly still feel that they have no choice but to follow Karimov's line, especially since until recently, they could count on nearly unanimous sympathy for such a position from both Russia and the West.

But now that Geremek has spoken out, perhaps ever more people there and elsewhere will begin to understand what a mistake it can be to purchase short-term control at the cost of long-term stability. And to the extent that that happens, they can begin to correct a mistake that has already given rise to so many tragic consequences.