Radicalisation and Repression: Lessons Learned from Central Asia

by Abdullah Zaman, a first year student reading History at Cambridge, volunteers for the Patchwork Foundation (a foundation that aims to involve the disengaged in politics).

On July 20th, David Cameron outlined his plan to tackle radicalisation of British Muslims. Muslims who ‘silently condone ISIS’ are now liable to criminal prosecution and religious institutions are becoming increasingly monitored. Under these circumstances, even a 3-year old has been placed under a terror alert. While a novelty to the British society, this form of thought policing has taken place before, albeit in a much more aggressive form. Post-USSR dictatorships within Central Asia utilised similar techniques to dispel the threat of Political Islam. But rather than removing its presence, they altered it into something more destructive.

During the time of the USSR, religion was shed from public view due to the secular nature of communism. The collapse of the USSR therefore brought with it fervour of religious expression. After half a decade of repression, political branches of religious groups sprung up with a desire to play a greater role in the state apparatus. Many of those who capitalised from the collapse arose from Communist old guard. Political Islam threatened the power of these new dictators as it demanded change to the status quo. Therefore it was in the interests of the new dictators to continue the hostility to religion and suppress Political Islam.

This is what occurred under the rule of Islam Karimov, the ironically named dictator of Uzbekistan. Karimov rose up the USSR’s bureaucracy and became President of the Uzbek SSR in 1990, one year before the fateful collapse. He has maintained that position to this day after winning a series of sham elections since 1991. In the uncertainty of the post-cold war period, Karimov was able to consolidate power by exaggerating the Islamist threat within Uzbekistan. Western countries were still apprehensive of Islamism due to the tense relationship with the Islamic republic of Iran and newly-formed Islamist insurgency groups of the Middle East. By branding opponents as Islamist, Karimov had license to use any means to remove threats to his power. Religious organisations, such as Hizb-ul-Tahrir and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), were outlawed. But the state’s brutality climaxed in 2005, when police fired upon unarmed protestors over the detention of local businessmen. Body counts vary from 178, the government’s estimate, to several hundred thousand. An accurate figure is difficult to ascertain as mass graves were dug up to eschew the numbers. The massacre also caused a huge refugee problem, with victims escaping into neighbouring countries like Kyrgyzstan. By being a key ally to the US in the ‘War on Terror’, the government was able to gloss over international coverage by labelling the protest as an Islamist uprising.

Uzbekistan was not alone in taking draconian measures to deal with Islamism. Tajikistan has banned entry into mosques for under-18s and the wearing of the religious head scares for women in education. All of this preceded a Civil War between liberal reformers and Islamists from 1992 to 1997, with total number of deaths ranging from 50,000 to 100,000. Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime never stooped to the lows of its neighbouring countries, but it too held a streak of regulating the prominence of Islam. It closely monitored the actions of religious officials within the country as well as banning any religious parties from the state. The region collectively holds a legacy of suppressing religious expression, though with varying degrees.

Attempts to suppress Political Islam only seem to have an adverse effect. Events like the Andijaan Massacre propel Islamists to further extremes and hinder the influence of moderates. It was only this year that the IMU pledged allegiance to the bloodthirsty ISIS, which has been defying traditional extremists organisations such as Al Qaeda. The instability of the region also has a habit of spilling in to nearby countries. Pakistan, a country faced with myriad terror threats, suffered an attack on its largest airport by Uzbek militants from the IMU in 2014. Additionally, Central Asians form a notable group of Muslims who defect towards ISIS. Much of this could have been avoided if the governments were more conciliatory towards Islamists. The example of Tunisia could have been replicated, were Secularists and Islamists have found working ground within government. Instead, their actions have only made the region a more fertile ground for radical groups like ISIS.

The UK is not Uzbekistan: it is still relatively much freer than the authoritarian state. But Cameron is beginning the same path of political censorship. By continuing down this line, he makes the case for radical groups by excluding moderates from the dialogue. Cameron needs the support of moderate Islamists to counter extremist narratives. Because, if not, he will find the problem of radicalisation mutate into something much worse.

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One thought on “Radicalisation and Repression: Lessons Learned from Central Asia

  1. Fred says:

    To ‘silently condone’ the Islamists extremists is not good enough, they are bringing on to themselves by not having a Muslims openly condoning the actions of terrorists. Then going around calling everyone racist for finding people dressed in Muslim attire creepy is not going to help either. Indeed, it is ‘the racists’ who are under attack by a religion they don’t want any part of.

    Besides, please point out how these new rules will make a 3 year old on a terror threat list, just saying it doesn’t make it true.


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