Islam in Central Asia

The people of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have always lived under
despots. Their history is so dismal that Communism for
them was a time of relative prosperity. Now, 10 years
after they became independent nations, they have once
again become sultanates, ruled by tyrants who maintain
tight control of political and economic activity. 

While the governments claim they are a steadying
force, their repression is creating instability.
Uzbekistan is leading a regionwide crackdown on all
forms of Islam that are not state-controlled 
repression that is driving entire villages into
opposition and forcing religion underground. An
Islamic guerrilla movement seeks to establish an
Islamic state in Uzbekistan, but its 1,000 or so
fighters are mainly active when the snows blocking the
mountain passes between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan melt
each August. Far more dangerous is the crushing
response of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's authoritarian
president. If a Taliban-style threat arises in Central
Asia, it will be because the dictatorships
inadvertently helped to create it. 

When the Soviet empire broke up, millions of people in
Central Asia began to practice Islam. Unfortunately,
local governments saw religion that was independent of
the state as a threat. In Uzbekistan, the most
populous of the Central Asian nations, with 25 million
people, the government has arrested thousands of
religious Muslims and sentenced hundreds of them to
long jail terms, even though they were not accused of
violent acts. Thousands of villagers in Islamic areas
have been forcibly resettled. 

The current guerrilla movement arose in part because
of government actions. When the mass arrest of Muslims
began in 1997, young religious men went underground or
fled to safety in Afghanistan or Tajikistan, where
they made contact with more militant movements. Mr.
Karimov has used an unsolved February 1999 bombing,
which some believe was carried out by the security
forces, as a justification for an even wider

While American officials talk about human rights when
they meet with their Central Asian counterparts,
Washington's interest in the region's oil and gas
reserves and fear of another Afghanistan limit
American criticism. Washington has never counted
Uzbekistan among the nations that violate religious
freedom. It richly deserves to make the list in
September. The military and economic cooperation given
in the name of assuring stability may in fact be
helping to brew dangerous instability. The real
parallel for Central Asia could be Iran under the
Shah, who suffocated his nation into revolution. 


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