An Outpost of Tyranny
by Stephen Schwartz
ON JULY 25, DEFENSE secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to visit Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The topic of discussion will be the continuation of U.S. military activities at Manas, the U.S. base on Kyrgyz territory established after 9/11 propelled Central Asia back to strategic importance.
The post-Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan--collectively known to Westerners as "the 'stans"--were remote, somnolent, and impoverished until the fall of the Soviet Union.
With the effective end of Russian domination at the beginning of the 1990s, the first outsiders to show a new interest in the 'stans were missionaries of the extremist Wahhabi sect of Islam, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Since Soviet communism had suppressed traditional religion and forced the influential Sufi orders into secrecy, the Saudis envisioned an enormous, virgin terrain for Wahhabization. Rich Arabs showed up to finance construction of mosques, hand out free Korans and tickets for the pilgrimage to Mecca, and seduce young minds interested in seriously studying, often for the first time, the faith into which they had been born.
Wahhabism in Central Asia was like communism in more ways than one. It aimed to replace the rigid and predictable former order, run by commissars from Moscow, with an equally inflexible system of regulation. In addition, "Islam experts" in the West did not understand the threat it represented, and ended up whitewashing Muslim radicalism as mere discontent with deprivation, just as their predecessors in Soviet studies had too often minimized the danger from Soviet Marxism. Like Communist subversives during the decades of worldwide Soviet influence, Wahhabi infiltrators in Central Asia portrayed themselves as simple protesters against social injustice. Their presence caused little alarm among those more concerned about the "root causes" of extremism than about the ideology and money that directly fueled it.
Post-Soviet Uzbekistan and its neighbors soon found themselves genuinely threatened by Islamist terror, of the kind that had overrun Afghanistan after the Soviet invaders were driven out. The encounter with faith, for post-Soviet Muslims, was extraordinarily heady, and few mainstream clerics were available to channel it. Young believers were drawn into armed jihad, mainly in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1996, but also as foot soldiers for the Afghan Taliban. Their recruiter was an al Qaeda component, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The failure of Western observers to recognize the Wahhabi worldview--rather than economic and political disaffection--as the basis for the extremists' appeal made the transition of the post-Soviet Muslim states even more difficult than it would have been otherwise. When the government of Uzbek president Islam Karimov acted to suppress the agitators, the Wahhabis claimed they were being victimized merely for their independence from the government. Because the former Soviet republics (like Saudi Arabia) had been generally closed to foreign reporters, Western journalists did not know the terrain or how to analyze events. Islam remains, especially since September 11, 2001, exotic and dangerous to most Westerners, and the learning curve for newcomers to the subject is a long one, especially regarding moderate Islam and the institutional heritage required to sustain its tradition of pluralism. Most Western academics have been of little help in explaining the situation.
Islamist radicals and local post-Soviet rulers like Karimov engaged in a competition, both seeking to convince the West of their virtue. Then September 11 happened. Unexpectedly, Uzbekistan became an important strategic asset in the war to eradicate the Taliban. The U.S. military installed forces there, and in Kyrgyzstan. Claims by the IMU and those like it to represent nothing more than "nongovernmental" Islam were revealed as hollow. That Uzbekistan had been extremely slow to initiate meaningful steps toward democracy seemed insignificant; after all, a Western-style parliamentary regime could hardly be installed in the highlands of Samarkand overnight.
But the United States destroyed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and with it the IMU. The IMU had never fought a sustained terrorist campaign inside Uzbekistan, where radical Islam had no real mass appeal. With the end of the IMU, the threat to Uzbekistan vanished, and the region's legacy as a center of peaceful, tolerant, Sufi-influenced Islam should have allowed it, with U.S. help, to become a paragon of the Bush-led initiative for global democratization.
Karimov, however, resisted demands for reform. Although Uzbek authorities conceded there was no constituency for Muslim extremism in their country, they still clung to the alleged threat from Islamist conspirators to justify their authoritarian ways. Like the tsarist and Soviet misrulers in Russia before them, they availed themselves of the tactic dear to autocracies down the ages: that of exaggerating an internal and external threat to maintain support at home and from foreign governments.
Still, the Tashkent government could not square the circle. Either Uzbek Muslims were overwhelmingly moderate, and a model for the healthy revival of Islam, or the country was at risk. It could not be both; Uzbekistan was not deeply divided, as is, say, Iraq, convulsed by Sunni terror against a Shia majority. Nor was it like Saudi Arabia, where ordinary Muslims are torn between the Wahhabi past and desire for a liberalized future.
Westerners kept getting Uzbekistan wrong; they knew too little about how Central Asian Muslims actually lived and worshipped. Where they had previously explained away Wahhabism as a consequence of Karimov's repressive policies, they soon echoed Karimov's claims that radicals were running wild across the landscape. Analysts in the International Crisis Group and similar NGOs called on Karimov to negotiate with the Islamists, despite the extremists' lack of perceptible support among the people. To have followed the advice of the NGOs would have provided the few post-Afghanistan terrorists on the scene with unwarranted credibility.
In three visits to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, beginning in 2003, I observed that Uzbek Muslims really were indifferent to Wahhabi propaganda. But nobody could tell the Karimov regime that Uzbekistan would enjoy more and better options as a redoubt of moderate Islam, and a cradle of local democracy, than as a country whose leaders screamed with rage at exaggerated threats. Karimov tried to co-opt Sufism and other expressions of Muslim temperance and self-discipline much as the Wahhabis exploited Islam: as a means to project state power. And nobody could persuade the foreign NGOs that treating the microscopic radical minority as a substantial force would be absurd and counterproductive.
Karimov walked a tightrope with the West, kept aloft by his military agreement with Washington, until the Ferghana Valley massacre in May this year. Local merchants and other citizens in the city of Andijan rose up against arbitrary controls imposed on their flourishing commerce with Kyrgyzstan, which had just undergone its Tulip Revolution. Radical Islam played no role in this civic movement, which reflected Georgian, Ukrainian, and Kyrgyz developments. Yet Karimov, pretending to put down elements of the defeated Taliban or the weakened Wahhabis, responded by sending armed security forces to Andijan, where they murdered hundreds.
The West reacted by demanding an inquiry into events in Andijan. U.S. troops in Uzbekistan indicated their unwillingness to get involved in a civil conflict. But Karimov immediately received approving signals from Vladimir Putin in Moscow--and the oldest antagonisms in the region reappeared. The Russian president, who had attempted to obstruct the democratization of Ukraine, was overjoyed to find an ally in a Muslim ex-Soviet state. Karimov quickly indicated that he would lean toward Moscow's reconsolidation of governmental authority rather than Bush's campaign for democracy. The outcome of these events became obvious in mid-July. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, met in Astana, the Kazakh capital, on July 5. The SCO, its strings pulled by Moscow and Beijing, called on the United States to withdraw its military from the region.
The Bush administration responded to the antidemocratic trend in Central Asia by unambiguously indicating that, unless the Karimov regime permits an outside investigation into the Andijan events, Washington will adopt measures to support the expansion of civil society and related political alternatives in Uzbekistan and the surrounding states. Ten days after the SCO meeting, on July 15, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that the presence of "nonregional" military forces in Central Asia "be rolled back." As Vladimir Socor pointed out in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, this vocabulary is loaded. Russia has borrowed the term "nonregional" power as a euphemism for the United States from the idiom of the Iranian clerical dictatorship, while "rollback" (svernuto in Russian) originated with Stalin, who used it to describe the aim of Russian foreign policy in the Balkans after 1945.
The Bush administration is correct to insist that Karimov democratize rather than return to the orbit of Moscow; if he refuses, Washington should deliver real and open support for the Ukrainian-style alternative in all the countries of Central Asia, as well as in another Muslim ex-Soviet republic, Azerbaijan, and in Belarus. The movement toward popular sovereignty is gaining steam throughout the Muslim world, no less than in the former Soviet zone. The intersection of Muslim democratization and post-Soviet democratization in Central Asia is infinitely more significant than the petty posturing of Putin, Karimov, and the Chinese. Without reform, Uzbekistan--along with Russia itself--will fall into a black hole of corruption and despair, and Karimov's past complaints will become self-fulfilling prophecies, with Central Asia, more than ever before, open to the Wahhabis, a fertile field for their perverse religious colonialism.
Related Topics: Central Asia, Uzbekistan receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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