Staunton, October 16 – Many have been struck by the fact that the amount of Islamist violence in Central Asia has remained relatively low over the last two decades even though officials there constantly talk about the threat, Nargiza Murataliyeva says, often ignoring the fact that the repressive means the authorities are using now set the stage for more serious problems in the future.
The Central Asian political scientist spoke with Kuat Rakhimberdin, a Kazakh lawyer and specialist on human rights and criminal policy. He says that there is increasing reason to worry about the convergence of the criminal and Islamist worlds precisely because they are coming together in the jails of the region (caa-network.org/archives/18256).
Among the factors promoting the growth of Islamist fundamentalism in Central Asia are the socio-economic problems of the population, the influence of foreign centers of radical Islam, and the heritage of state atheism and its collapse which has led to an upsurge in the number of mosques and far greater possibilities for the spread of radical ideas.
Just how serious the problem is, Rakhimberdin says, is difficult to specify because reasonably reliable data are available only from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the other three Central Asian countries – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – it is largely unavailable for public examination.
At the present time, he continues, there are some 19,000 cases open against Salafis in Kazakhstan alone and already 665 who have been convicted and sent to prison, up from 400 three years ago. In Kyrgyzstan, there were 170 prisoners who had been convicted of extremism, Rakhimberdin says. Now that figure is “higher.”
In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan such figures aren’t available, but the situations in these countries strongly suggest that the numbers are “much higher than in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.” For example, a Russian official reported last year that there were 29,000 “Islamic extremists” from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Russian prisons.
The ranks of such prisoners will certainly grow as officials in the five countries arrest those returning from fighting for ISIS in the Middle East. Estimates suggest there were 1500 such fighters from Uzbekistan, with lesser but significant numbers from all four other countries in the region.
And what is happening in Central Asian prisons, Rakhimberdin says, is worrisome. There, the ideology and practice of the Islamist extremists is combining with the ideology of the criminal world, “accelerating the processes of further criminalization and moral degradation of those who have been convicted.”
“Even while being a relatively small group, the [Islamist] prisoners are an extremely aggressive part of the criminal milieu, among the most negatively inclined toward the corrective labor system and refusing to accept the social values of contemporary society,” the Kazakhstan legal specialist says.
“At the same time, the concentration of such prisoners creates the risk for the commission of various kinds of violations of human rights and ‘justifies’ the excessive cruelty and repressiveness of the penal regime,” creating a vicious cycle certain to lead to more radicalization and criminalization.
Those who work with individuals convicted and sent to prison for extremist and terrorist crimes, he says, say that “the process of deradicalization of the convicts is very complicated and difficult.” Consequently, the more such people are put behind bars, the larger the problem is going to become.
According to Rakhimberdin, “the main goal now must be directed at the prevention of radicalization” in society, something that can be achieved only if there is more social justice and more openness in the discussion of the problems Islamists present and that give rise to their influence.