Sunday 24 March 2013

The ‘problem’ of Islam in Central Asia: Kazakhstan

In South Kazakhstan, traditional Islam is under pressure with the rise of conservative Islam, with uncertain consequences (photo: Ripley's Blog

If there is a sensitive issue in Central Asia, one that regularly is highlighted even in Western newspapers (which by and large ignore everything coming from the Former Soviet Central Asian countries), is the supposed “threat” of radical Islamism. Even before the attacks launched by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) between 1999 and 2001, there is some sort of hysteria in all countries in the region regarding the subject. Analysts usually appear in the media to speak about Salafist movements reorganizing their ranks in these countries, particularly the poorest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I, myself, have been a strong believer that something indeed might happen again in the region, some sort of conflict between Salafist militia and government troops, though I certainly did not and still do not know when this is going to take place. Moreover, I also believe that this can still be averted, but not with the use of force by the local authorities.

The problem of militant Islam in Central Asia, however, is not that it is a threat. The problem is that it has been used for a long time as an excuse by the local authoritarian regimes to maintain a tight control over the population, curb their freedom of assembly, faith, political mobilization and even dictate the “appropriate” way they should get dressed. This obviously alienates the population, particularly those who are practicing Muslins. When local leaders talk about conservative and practicing Muslins in their countries, often they use the word “terrorism” and “terrorists” in the same sentence. And seldom they take time to analyse the roots of radical Islam in Central Asia – poverty, lack of perspectives, unemployment, lack of channels for political engagement – and how to address these causes to solve the problem.

To add insult to injury, in the press, when analysts approach the problem, they often reverberate official views and issue opinions with very poor sourcing. Take this article, with the title ‘Revival of extremism in Eurasia concerns Russia`. The author starts by saying: “Recent developments suggest that extremist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) are attempting to proliferate in Central Asia and Russia, and spread radicalism in Eurasia”. The recent developments listed in the article are 1) Uzbek authorities arrested 15 women in Fergana which are connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a militia, can’t be compared to the IMU, for example. They advocate peaceful means, even though, in the future, they would like to see a caliphate in the region like the IMU. But the Uzbek government treat them as “radicals” in the same way it would treat Jihadist with AK 47s, and the article simply reinforces Tashkent’s myopic view. 2) A Kyrgyz authority says the prisons are becoming a “major recruiting ground for extremists”. This can be true, but the article blindly presents this statement as a proof of the proliferation of radical Islam in the country, again just repeating something that supports a repressive agenda.

In this post, however, I intent to focus on the situation of Islam in Kazakhstan. Since 2011, when the Zhanaozen clashes took place, Astana has moved towards increasing its control over the already weak opposition in the country. But also in 2011, Kazakhstan was taken by surprise with a series of explosions linked to a hitherto unknown Islamist group called Soldiers of the Caliphate. This was a real strange development. There is no tradition of a strong militant Islam in the country – historically, Islam developed weakly among the country’s original nomadic population, with the notable exception of the South, where the Sufi Naqshbandi order has had a strong influence, particularly around cities like Shymkent and Turkestan. After the attacks, Astana adopted a new religious law with made it mandatory for religious groups to register with the authorities. The same law banned, for example, praying places in government buildings. Moreover, old practices that affect conservative Muslins – like the non-official but widespread discouragement of using Muslim clothing or long beards for civil servants – gained a new momentum.

I have reasons to believe that the Islamist attacks were used – and perhaps overestimated - by the Kazakh government to push their agenda, including the new law and also the view that there is no space for an opposition in the country. Talking to a former teacher who made some research in Southern Kazakhstan in 2012, I heard that, when she was talking to local practicing Muslins in Shymkent and Turkestan, no one mentioned the Soldiers of the Caliphate organization. The impression is that that was an alien movement, which, although had Kazakh members, was based overseas and did not take root in Kazakhstan. Following this logic, the attacks in 2011 would have been isolated incidents. Indeed, since 2011, not a single attack linked to the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Kazakhstan was reported. To tackle this “threat”, in my opinion, it was enough for the Kazakh government to quietly use intelligence (and probably it did). But the government made the “threat” appear much bigger than it really was, which reinforced the view that the country needed a strong government to maintain stability and harmony – the mantra repeated during the last 20 years by president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

This is not to say that there isn’t some sort of islamic threat in Kazakhstan. When I visited Shymkent in 2012, I realized that the traditional Islam, linked to the Sufism, was under increased pressure from followers of a more conservative branch of Islam which has not historical roots in the region. This, by the way, reflects a situation that is taking place in other parts of the former Soviet Union as well. The implications of this transformation in Kazakhstan in the future are difficult to foresee. But certainly South Kazakhstan could become a place more and more suitable for militant Salafists if the government don’t tackle the roots of the problem, such as poverty and unemployment.

In the next post I will focus on the appalling political situation in Tajikistan and the situation of Islam there.

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