No Simple Case of Allegiance: Debunking the Radical Islam Stereotype in Central Asia

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The bomb attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in August once again appeared to raise the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Central Asia. But to see Islam as the only – or even the driving – force in Central Asia is a grave error to which countless Western academics and parachute journalists to the region have succumbed since the early 1990s. Books by journalists with racy titles like “Central Asia: Nationalism or Islam” and “The Rise of Jihad in Central Asia” by Ahmed Rashid, or “Central Asia between Marx and Mohammed” by Dilop Hiro, give the impression that Central Asia is in ferment, a rampant breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. With Islam as their idée fixe, these journalists from the Indian subcontinent see little more than the allegedly repressive regimes and the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose aims seem to be the overthrow of Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan and the establishment of a caliphate in Western Turkestan.

The only real “qualification” these journalists possess for writing on Central Asia, however, is the fact that they are Muslims. As such, they seem to believe that they understand Central Asia – where Islam allegedly plays a major role. Arriving for a “swing” through the region, their first ports of call are usually the mosques and mullahs. One could equally well go to America and talk to the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Yes, this is reality – but hardly objective, and certainly not the whole truth.

In fact, Islam is merely one tile in the complicated mosaic of Central Asia. Unfortunately, most Western observers wilfully ignore the other parts of the picture. For, as Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-German scholar and one of the leading experts on political Islam has observed, many of the academics studying Islam are Koranic scholars, instead of people trained to analyze political and economic developments. Few Western observers of the region have any command of Russian or the local Turkic and Persian languages, and they blithely transfer their understanding of Islam and the Middle East to Central Asia without any real knowledge of the region’s history. No wonder, then, that Central Asia has been poorly reported on and even more poorly analyzed since the early 1990s. These observers usually end up drawing totally false conclusions about the region and failing to see the other major trends and forces at work there.

It is their lack of Russian and first-hand knowledge of Russia, in particular, that leads outside observers, many of whom were anti-Soviet in the first place and remain anti-Russian, astray. They underestimate or even ignore the vital role Russia plays – and will continue to play – in the region, and fail to understand why Russia remains influential there.

Take popular culture. Rather than bearded mullahs, the heroes of Kyrgyz kids are local, Russian, European and American actors, pop stars and athletes. What’s more, they get most of their information about Russian and Western pop culture in Russian – not only are most of the local newspapers and magazines in Russian, but so are virtually all of the countless pirate videos on sale. Veils are conspicuous in their absence and the kiosks and supermarkets do a brisk trade in alcohol and contraceptives.

In a word, adherence to Islam is token. Much as is often the case with European Christianity, it is confined largely to births, marriages and funerals.

But Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan remains strong not just in terms of its own popular culture and as a mediator of Western ideas and fashion, but also in the security and economy of the country. During Javier Solana’s swing through Central Asia in the late 1990s as NATO General Secretary, for instance, Roza Otunbayeva, then the foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan said at a press conference that “Russia was, is and will always remain Kyrgyzstan’s main partner” – a view which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

In August 2004, the country’s foreign minister, Askar Aitmatov, said that Kyrgyzstan could become Russia’s military and political mainstay in Central Asia. “Russia remains a true friend and the principal strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan. Long-term relations with the Russian Federation are our foreign policy priority,” said Aitmatov, speaking at the Russian airbase in Kant, which was opened in October 2003 – two years after the Americans established an airfield in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to provide a base for strikes on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Aitmatov went on to say that “Bishkek and Moscow share the same foreign policy positions, which are aimed at more rapid integration within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community.”

Kyrgyzstan also sees Russia as a valuable economic partner. It is worried about the economic dominance of its much larger and richer neighbor, Kazakhstan, for instance, so it is looking to Russia as a counterweight to prevent Kazakh businessmen from buying up everything.

Close personal contacts continue to link Kyrgyzstan with Russia, cementing ties even further. Boris Silayev, the former mayor of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, was brought to Moscow by Yury Luzhkov to work in City Hall and has started to attract Kyrgyz businessmen to Moscow and to encourage investment.

Kyrgyzstan’s citizens also enjoy the most liberal registration regime in Russia of all of the former Soviet republics. According to one agreement, recently extended to 2007, Kyrgyz enjoy a simplified procedure for taking up permanent residence in Russia. Russia is also keen to develop these ties, although senior Russian officials have admitted that Kyrgyz frequently encounter major problems at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, such as problems with tax authorities and the police.

Even so, this Russian support is vital to Kyrgyzstan – there are some 500,000 to 600,000 Kyrgyz living in Russia, and with high unemployment at home, the Kyrgyz government is grateful that Russia needs its guest workers, who remit home some $100 million to $200 million every year.

In August, however, the most spectacular example of Russian-Kyrgyz cooperation to date came during the visit of Anatoly Chubais, head of Russian energy monopoly UES, to Kyrgyzstan. With Russia planning to import electricity from Kyrgyzstan and the old Soviet grid still in place, UES and Kyrgyzstan signed a memorandum for the former to complete the construction of two hydroelectric power stations on the Naryn River, at a cost of around $2 billion. Although the two stations, Kambar-Ata 1 and 2, were begun in 1990, Kyrgyzstan lacks the money to complete the construction itself.

It would be churlish to deny that Islam plays a role in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan itself had to fight back a radical Islamic insurgency in its southern Batken region in 1999 and 2000, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir distribute books and audio and video cassettes with a strong religious bent, and the Kyrgyz government is worried about what its students are learning when they study at universities in Islamic countries. But a focus on religion to the exclusion of all else necessarily ignores other important trends in the region – not least the enduring influence, and popularity, of Russia.

Special to Russia Profile, an online and monthly print magazine dedicated to Russia and published jointly by RIA-Novosti and Independent Media, Moscow.

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