Religion, politics and moderation

Islam in Central Asia 
Religion, politics and moderation 
From The Economist print edition

DILOROM'S husband is behind bars, together with his
two brothers. He was sentenced to 12 years, accused of
being a member of Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT), a radical and
anti-western Islamic movement that wants to recreate a
caliphate in Central Asia. She maintains that the
police planted HT leaflets on him, and that her
family's only “crime” is to be religious. Earlier this
year she protested at one of Tashkent's markets
together with 40 other women who were demanding that
their husbands be released; they were beaten up by the
police and arrested.

An estimated 6,500 people are in jail in Uzbekistan
because of their religious or political beliefs. More
than half are accused of being HT members, while most
of the others are branded as Wahhabis, who practise
the Saudi brand of Sunni Islamic extremism. Following
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a
great revival of religious activity in Central Asia.
Mosques mushroomed, partly supported by Pakistani and
Saudi money. A brand of radical, internationalist
Islam gave birth to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
(IMU) and HT. In 1999 and 2000 fighters of the IMU in
Tajikistan attempted incursions into Uzbekistan.
Terrorist attacks in Tashkent in 1999 were attributed
by the authorities to Islamic radicals, and were dealt
with ruthlessly. 

The threat of Islamic extremism appears to have
receded somewhat today, partly due to repression but
also to the 2001 American-led invasion of Afghanistan
and the defeat of the Taliban. HT, outlawed in
Tajikistan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, has been pushed
further underground by repression, in particular in
Uzbekistan. Most observers agree that the IMU is, for
now, a spent force. Having set up bases in northern
Afghanistan, it was largely wiped out during fighting
around Kunduz and lost its Taliban and al-Qaeda
sponsors. Its leader, Juma Namangani, is believed to
have been killed, although rumours circulate that he
survived. Fewer than 100 isolated remnants are thought
to be somewhere between southern Tajikistan and
northern Afghanistan, as a foreign diplomat puts it,
“sitting in a valley, licking their wounds and
thinking what to do next”.

Although there are legitimate concerns about Islamic
radicalism, authorities in the region have been
accused of using the fight against terrorism to crack
down on political opposition and justify their control
over religious activity. According to the New
York-based Human Rights Watch, religion in Uzbekistan
becomes criminal as soon as it strays out of official,
state-controlled Islam. 

In 2001, Muhammad Sadik, Uzbekistan's former chief
mufti, returned after living abroad since 1993, when
he had been threatened with arrest. Over tea, the
stern Mr Sadik explains that the root of extremism is
ignorance about the true teaching of Islam, and that
the lack of proper dialogue and teaching in mosques is
a serious problem. He has been allowed to publish some
of his work and speak about moderate Islam. He
receives visitors eager for his guidance on religious
issues. But he says his activities are closely
controlled. When asked about independent Islam in
Uzbekistan, he says, “There is no room for the
development of moderate, non-state-controlled Islam

A form of moderate, nationalist Islam has emerged in
Tajikistan, however. The Islamic Revival Party (IRP),
the only legal religious party in Central Asia, was
part of a coalition of anti-government forces during
the civil war that engulfed Tajikistan in the 1990s.
Following a peace agreement in 1997, members of the
Islamic movement received government positions, to the
dismay of neighbouring Uzbekistan.

The IRP appears to have maintained its commitment to
give up weapons and work within the constitution.
Muhiddin Kabiri, the IRP's deputy chairman, is the
modern face of the party and the symbol of a new
generation. In his jeans and a swanky black jacket,
this political scientist, who joined the IRP in 1998,
contrasts with the IRP's old guard, some members of
which have been resisting the party's evolution. The
IRP, he says, supports a secular democratic state but
would like to inject more religious and traditional
values into political life and the legal system. He
points at Turkey as an example. 

But the IRP has little political influence. President
Imomali Rahmonov has gradually consolidated power in
his hands. This has provided some guarantee against
the disintegration of the country, but is stifling the
development of a democratic political opposition.
There is some concern among opposition politicians
over proposed constitutional changes. Among other
matters, there are plans to ease Mr Rahmonov's
re-election, and to increase the president's power
over the judiciary. The government is also seeking to
formalise the influence of the state on religious
affairs, but this is not a constitutional matter. 

According to Mr Kabiri, the IRP now finds itself in
the position of being too Islamic for the government,
but is seen as a sell-out by more radical Muslims. He
deplores the centralisation of power, yet insists that
maintaining the country's stability and avoiding
confrontation are important. This could benefit a more
extreme form of Islam, however, as ordinary people do
not have many ways to channel their discontent. HT's
influence is thought to have branched out from the
country's Uzbek minority in the north to disgruntled
Tajiks trying to appease, as one foreign diplomat puts
it, “their unsatisfied hunger for criticism”.


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