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1999 In Review: Islam, Politics Mix In Regional Conflicts

By Charles Recknagel/Bruce Pannier

Islamic militants were often in the headlines this year, from Chechnya and Dagestan to Kyrgyzstan, and from Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to Pakistani insurgents in Indian Kashmir. In this year end report, RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Bruce Pannier look at the conflicts and at perceptions of Islamic fundamentalism in the CIS.

Prague, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When Muslim militants from Chechnya invaded Dagestan this year, they shocked many of the region's leaders by proclaiming they wanted to unite the two republics into a new Islamic state.

The attempt -- led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and a little-known Jordanian militant -- was beaten back by Moscow and then overshadowed by Moscow's attack on Chechnya. But it caught the region's attention by raising a perennial fear: that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise and spilling across the border regions of the Muslim world.

That fear was heightened by three other major events during the year.

In Central Asia, Uzbek gunmen based in Tajikistan twice took hostages in Kyrgyzstan and battled security forces there in the name of their own goal of turning Uzbekistan into an Islamic state.

Nearby, the Taliban -- who have imposed a severe form of Islam in most of Afghanistan -- became locked in a diplomatic standoff with the West. They refused to hand over Saudi national Osama bin Laden despite UN sanctions and U.S. claims he was behind terrorist attacks.

And in Pakistan, an Islamic militant strike force invaded then reluctantly withdrew from Indian-controlled Kashmir after bringing Islamabad and New Delhi close to war.

Taken together, the events might seem to indicate a coherent strategy by Muslim militants to press forward on many fronts in the common goal of building new Islamic states. And some countries -- particularly Russia and in Central Asia -- seem to see the militants just that way. Across the former Soviet Union, leaders and the media have given all Islamic militants a common designation as "Wahhabis."

The name "Wahhabi" would seem to suggest that all the militants are adherents of a single sect, specifically "Wahhabism," or the austere form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

But analysts say that viewing all militants as part of a single whole is to miss some very important distinctions between them and the conflicts they are engaged in.

David Nissman, a regional expert at RFE/RL, says that the region's Islamic militants may share a common use of Islam as a rallying cry to their cause. But their conflicts are distinctly local in character.

"The cause for militancy in these areas differs from area to area. They all have their own objectives and the circles which may be causing, or prompting, these disturbances -- while they have no connection necessarily to the Wahhabi movement -- do have their own problems ... The current situation in Chechnya is not brought about by similar factors to those bringing about, let us say, the entrance of another group of militants from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan."

Nissman says that the umbrella use of the term Wahhabi for Islamic militants began in the former Soviet Union in the 1980's when Moscow began to liberalize its policies on religion and small delegations from Saudi Arabia came to Central Asia to help finance the re-building of mosques. Nissman:

"In late Glasnost, and in the early years of independence, the Saudis were very instrumental in sending delegations to reconstruct mosques and these were mostly conducted through the area by the Saudi ministry of religious guidance ... [but] there is no record of they're having played any other role than of building mosques ... We are talking maybe of 20 or 30 Saudi Arabians for all the former Muslim Soviet Union."

Wahhabism arose in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century as a Sunni protest movement to return Islam to what members called its original values. Wahhabi forces shocked the mainstream Sunni Muslim world by attacking Mecca and Medina in the early 1800s to destroy saints' shrines they said had become places of idolatry. They delivered another blow to the Shiite Muslim world by destroying shrines in Karbala, now in Iraq. The Wahhabis were crushed by Ottoman authorities but rose several generations later to conquer all of what is now Saudi Arabia and create the Saud dynasty.

Ironically, Soviet leaders and media began using the term Wahhabi for militants at a time when many in the Soviet Union feared a wave of Islamic militancy could sweep into the region from Shiite Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But to call a Shiite a Wahhabi is to confuse two highly inimical forms of Islam and insult both.

Over the years, the fear of radicalism from Shiite Iran has evaporated. Instead, recent decades have seen Soviet troops fighting Afghan Sunni nationalists and, now, Soviet successor states battling with a variety of forms of militancy.

Moscow is locked in conflict with Chechen nationalists who practice a mystical version of Sunni Islam called Nakshbandi Sufism, which is characterized by the veneration of local saints and by brotherhoods which practice their own rituals.

Meanwhile, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are actively backing the anti-Taliban alliance which still controls some 10 percent of Afghanistan in a bid to keep the radical Sunni militia back from their borders.

And Uzbekistan is engaged in a continuing crackdown on radicals within in its own Sunni population in a contest which is increasingly spilling over into other Central Asian states.

If there is a common thread in these conflicts, it comes from the readiness of some Islamic militants in one country to take part in what they see as a holy war being waged in another. Many of these traveling combatants hail from Pakistan, which is home to large Islamic movements radicalized by fighting side-by-side with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But when fighters from one country, or militant group, arrive to aid another, they often find that off the battlefield they have little in common. Islamic law as implemented in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia differs widely and so do religious practices. Once fighting stops, the militants from different parts of the Islamic world usually part company.

Analysts say that by focusing on similarities in the contests begin waged against them in Islam's name, governments in the region succeed only in persuading some of their citizens -- and perhaps themselves -- that their problems are not internal but external.

"It is definitely an attempt to establish in the minds of the people that it is not a homegrown movement that grows out of their own needs or demands but something that came out of foreign manipulation."

But Nissman says this does little to address the complex mix of ethnic, social, political and economic tensions which underlie most of the region's conflicts and makes them very much domestic.

"Militancy has always been perceived by certain people as one way out of a closed-end situation and whether that militancy is Islamic, whether it is some other form of ideological movement, whether it is economic or whether it is discriminatory, every government anywhere would be well advised to determine what the problem is and try to rectify it in a way that does the least damage and will be most productive for the state in the long run."

And that, he says, could help end conflicts which otherwise are bound to repeat in the years ahead, no matter what names are given to the instigators.