Sunday, December 27, 2015

Border Residents, Migrants, and Those with Guns Social Basis of Islamist Extremism in Central Asia, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 27 – Those who live in ethnically contested border regions, those who have gone to Russia as gastarbeiters and returned, and those who have experience with the use of weapons in official siloviki are the three main social groups from which Islamist extremists are most likely to be recruited in Central Asia, according to Saodat Olimova.

            And while the deputy director of the Sharq Research Center in Dushanbe says that the total number of extremists remains small overall, she suggests that they can be quite numerous in particular places and thus potentially constitute a potential threat to the authorities there (

            In a paper presented at a conference in Bishkek a month ago that has now been posted online, Olimova observes that many of the things some point to as signs of radicalization – the intensification of religious life, the appearance of new religious groups, and even the appearance of political Islam – in fact are “not directly connected with radicalization.”

            Instead, she says, “these are part of the natural rebirth of religion and religious life after decades of rule by Soviet atheism.”  Consequently, she uses the OSCE definition of radicalization as being a process in which individuals become prepared to support or even engage in terrorist actions.

            And she reports on her own surveys of public opinion and interviews with religious activists and experts conducted over the last three years. They show that six to seven percent of the population of Tajikisan, a little more in Kyrgyzstan, and a little less in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are in groups likely to be radicalized.

            The most important groups include first, those who live in border areas “which most strongly of all suffer from the division of Central Asia into national republics,” including irridentas, residents of enclaves and transnational economic regions, the most important of which is the Fergana Valley.

            The second group are gastarbeiters whose experience in Russia detached them from their traditional forms of Islam at whom and whose return home means that they and their families have dramatically reduced incomes.  And the third is made up of those who have experience in the force structures, criminals and sportsmen who have experience with guns.

            Olimova corrects what she says is another stereotype about Islamist radicals in Central Asia. Most of them are not the very young but rather people aged 30 to 35 with secondary or even higher educations. There are relatively few women --  “from six to seven percent in Tajikistan up to 25 percent in Kyrgyzstan.”

            In the countries of Central Asia, operate one and the same radical international organizations but the level of the influence of each of these differs from country to country.” The salafis are most influential in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan; Hizb ut-Tahrir is stronger in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; and in Kyrgyzstan, Tablig jamoat is also strong.

            “In Tajikistan, the most influential radical trend is the Salafia, although in 2013, their views are shared by only one percent of the republic.” The largest share of them is found in Dushanbe, a response to harsh attacks by the authorities and difficulties of making a career in the capital city. 

            Over the past five years, she observes, the role of international Islamic networks and financial support from the Middle East has increased, Olimova says.  Despite that, however, polls show that most people in Tajikistan know little about the specifics of the agendas or leadership of the most radical groups.
            As far as the influence of groups in Afghanistan is concerned, the Dushanbe scholar says that it exists but can be countered not so much by erecting a barrier along the border than by addressing the underlying social conditions which serve as the foundation for the rise of groups domestically.

            Olimova concludes that at present the radicals do not present a serious challenge in Central Asia because they are so few in number. But she concedes that if the conditions which give rise to radicalization are not addressed and if the regimes try to repress Muslim groups as a whole, then that could easily change in a negative direction.

            Many Tajiks say they are prepared to act in defense of Islam, Olimova says, with 66 percent saying they would do so peacefully but 20 percent indicating they would use force. Thus, “the trigger for such a development of events could become an extraordinary tightening of government control over Islam.”

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