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Central Asia: A Visit To Ferghana Valley -- Exploring The Roots Of Religious Extremism

The Ferghana Valley is known as one of the main centers of Islamic activity in the region. The radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other extremist groups were founded in the valley, which straddles the territory of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Nineteen-year-old Kayumars Ato Ato has spent most of his life in Pongoz, a Tajik village in the densely populated Ferghana Valley. Like young people everywhere, Ato is dynamic and curious and wants to know about the world outside Tajikistan.

Unlike many young people, however, Ato is pessimistic about his future. "I have no reason to believe that I will have a bright future and comfortable life," he says. "I have to be realistic."

His friend, 20-year-old Shuhrat Mirzoaliyev, shares the same opinion.

What makes these young men so pessimistic at such a young age?

Both Ato and Mirzoaliyev are studying journalism at the provincial Khojand University but say hardly anyone finds a good job after graduation. According to local statistics, more than 70 percent of the male population of Pongoz between the ages of 17 and 50 works as migrant laborers in Russia.

Ato and Mirzoaliyev also complain about a deteriorating quality of life. There are no leisure centers, sports clubs, cinemas, discos, or even coffee shops. Most students have no concept of computers, the Internet, or email.

For the young people of the region, Ato says, life is like an "informational or spiritual vacuum." Religious extremist groups, such as the banned Hezb ut-Tahrir, have been quick to fill the vacuum.

Ato says young people are in a desperate situation, with little or no educational or job opportunities. He says they are vulnerable to other, bitter options.

"I think money plays a significant role in promoting extremist ideas among the young people of the Ferghana Valley. If our youth had money and jobs, they would never get involved with extremism. They know that it is bad, that it is evil to be extremist, but sometime it is the only choice to make your living. Who would imagine that two young people from Isfara [a town in the valley] would go to Afghanistan to fight as mujahedin? They are now in [the U.S. prison camp] Guantanamo [Bay, Cuba]. The only reason behind it is financial," Ato said.

Mirzoaliyev notes that the outlawed Hezb ut-Tahrir movement has been able to grow in the region while other political parties flounder.

"Why is Hezb ut-Tahrir getting stronger despite all of the pressure from the government? Officially registered political parties in Tajikistan have not been able to function with much success, but a banned group -- Hezb ut-Tahrir -- is functioning and widening its operations," Mirzoaliyev says.

Suhrob Sharifov, head of the Center for International Relationships in Dushanbe, agrees that Islamic extremists have more sympathizers in the Ferghana Valley than in other regions. But he blames the Uzbek government for radicalizing peaceful Muslims by oppressing them and leaving them with few alternatives.

"Many experts believe that the Uzbek regime is to blame for the spread of religious extremism in the country because they arrest and insult both guilty and innocent people. People join extremist groups to express their protest to the regime," Sharifov said.

Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda is a spokesman for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only officially registered Islamic movement in Central Asia. He tells RFE/RL that governments should not exaggerate the threats of extremism to justify political oppression and human rights abuses.

"When authorities put pressure on religious people, they sometimes respond with anger against the authorities' violent behavior. In other words, they are forced to react this way. If you treat these religious people by moderate means, I don't think they would behave in violent, extremist, or radical ways," Saifullohzoda said.

Shirin Akiner is an expert on Central Asian affairs with the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She says authorities should allow people to openly discuss Islamic values.

"I think it would be helpful to have a broader discussion in the societies toward what the rules of Islam could be and should be in today's world. Since there are not enough open discussions or virtually no discussions of this, I think it makes people look for their own solutions, and they are then tempted to follow all sorts of different paths," Akiner said.

Ato supports this opinion. He says extremism is a desperate choice for men who have "no money, no job, and no hope."

"Who can convince us that we will have a better quality of life in the foreseeable future?" Ato asks. He says he does not believe the Tajik government is capable or is willing to improve people's lives.

"I don't hope that our government or parliamentarians will be able to give us a better future. We see our MPs only in pre-election campaigns when they come with hundreds of promises. My only hope is Russia. If not for Russia, where would we go? It is only brother Russia who has been supporting us all along," Ato said.

Mirzoaliyev is more optimistic. He says that if Western countries, such as the U.S., are truly concerned about the spread of religious extremism in Central Asia, they should support Central Asian youth through expanded educational projects.

"America is capable of a lot of things to improve the lives of Tajik youth. There are so many international organizations functioning here. America could work with our youth through these organizations. Besides, I think it should pay attention to propaganda work. Even in the 21st century, our youth still have the Soviet mentality. They simply don't understand democratic values and their own rights," Mirzoaliyev said.

Both students say young people should not be left without hope.

"No one is born an extremist," Mirzoaliyev says, "but some circumstances make people go for extreme options."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.