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Uzbekistan: Analysis From Washington -- Terrorism And Political Change

Washington, 18 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has thrown its weight behind the current efforts of Uzbekistan and other governments in Central Asia to combat terrorist insurgents, at least some of whom are members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

But Washington has made it very clear that this common struggle does not justify any campaign to destroy opposition groups, Islamic or otherwise, who reject terrorism in the pursuit of their political agendas.

The U.S. government last week added the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to its list of 28 foreign groups which Washington has concluded participate in terrorist activities.

It did so after the group took four Americans hostage and after Washington concluded that the IMU is linked to Osama bin Laden, who is alleged to have financed attacks on Americans and American institutions in the past.

In making the announcement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has threatened the lives of civilians and regional security and undermined the rule of law."

By taking this step, the U.S. makes it illegal for American citizens to contribute money or other material support to the group; allows the State Department to deny IMU members visas to the United States; and directs the U.S. Treasury to seize IMU assets in the United States.

Even more, however, this announcement sends an important political message that the United States views the actions of this group as being beyond the pale of civilized behavior and thus supports the efforts of those opposed to IMU terrorist activities.

As one State Department official put it, Washington and Tashkent "see eye to eye on this decision. I'm sure," he said, "they'll consider this helpful."

But precisely because the Uzbek authorities appear likely to overread this action as giving them carte blanche to crush all Islamic-based opposition to the regime of President Islam Karimov, other U.S. officials warned against such a broad interpretation.

Michael A. Sheehan, the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, pointed out that the U.S. finding that the IMU had engaged in terrorism was intended to encourage it and other groups to drop the use of terrorism in the pursuit of their political goals.

This listing, he continued, must not be construed as an indication that the United States "is against opposition forces to governments around the world, including Islamic groups." Rather, "what we're against is their use of terrorism as an instrument."

Indeed, he said, once the IMU or any other group stops using terrorism as a means to advance its political ends, "we will drop them from the list."

Together, this American decision to list the IMU as a terrorist organization and the American commentary about this decision highlight the difficulties governments around the world have faced in combating groups that, in the name of Islam, use terrorist means.

When governments denounce these groups because of their activities, such governments often appear to open the door to the suppression of all legitimate opposition activities taken by Muslims and even to promote anti-Islamic prejudices in the broader population.

Such dangers are likely to be compounded if other Muslims view the basis of these decisions to be anti-Islamic prejudices and thus become even more willing to support those Islamic groups who use terrorism to advance their goals.

But when these same governments fail to denounce these groups out of a fear that such denunciations will be misread or misused, they may tie the hands of law enforcement officials who are engaged in the legitimate task of maintaining law and order.

Moreover, a failure to denounce terrorism in any particular case may lead those most immediately involved in combating it to draw conclusions that may further exacerbate the situation.

On the one hand, they are likely to view such decisions as a reflection of a selective morality, one in which governments only criticize those terrorists who directly attack them rather than terrorism as such, and thus be less willing to listen to these states on other issues.

But on the other hand, these governments may also become more likely to listen to those countries which call for a draconian approach to terrorism, an approach which promises temporary stability but is likely to promote longer term chaos.

The American actions last week represent an effort to navigate between these twin dangers, to oppose terrorism without opposing the possibility of political change toward a more democratic future.