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The ‘Muslim radicalisation of Central Asia’ is a dangerous myth

RIA:R Mangarasyan Tajikistan 96.jpg Security think-tanks and expert communities in the Western world are perpetuating the dangerous myth that Muslim radicalisation is rife in Central Asia.

In the security think-tanks and expert communities of the Western world, it is received wisdom that Central Asia has been, and remains, on the brink of an explosion of religiously-motivated violent extremism. Such an eruption, it is assumed, would place Central Asia alongside Afghanistan and some parts of the Middle East and South Asia that have suffered instability and violence commonly attributed to the inherent turbulence of Muslim politics since the middle of the 20th century.

The argument, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, is that there is something inherent in Islam that leads to radicalisation and violence. Seeing the danger in ‘Muslim politics’ rather than simply ‘politics’ exacerbates a fear that Central Asia could turn to the norm of the Islamic world, i.e. violent instability. Notwithstanding the underlying Islamophobia in some of these expert accounts of instability and danger, they should not be easily dismissed, for two reasons. 

Firstly, Central Asia is a region of authoritarian kleptocracies run largely by Soviet-era leaders, some of which have suffered political instability. Their vulnerability to a moral, religion-based critique rooted in Islam is considerable. And their often-clumsy attempts to control religion are only inconsistently effective and are sometimes counter-productive

Central Asia is a region of authoritarian kleptocracies run largely by Soviet-era leaders.

The bogeyman of radical Islam

Secondly, the bogeyman of radical Islam in Central Asia is not merely a creation of ‘Western analysts’ but is widely propagated by both governments and independent experts in the region itself. Understandably, when access to information is limited, official sources and the expert opinions of those ‘in the know’ in Central Asia’s capitals are given more weight. The fact that these experts may be adherents to the principles of Soviet-era secularism or its scientific atheism, and therefore are not entirely impartial analysts of the post-Soviet period, may be of secondary importance to the fact that they are ‘on the ground.’ Such analysts claim special knowledge and often provide persuasive circumstantial evidence. 

As far as these experts are concerned, the presence of hundreds of ‘radicals’ in Central Asia’s high-security prisons, for example, and also the hundreds more fighting with Islamic State (IS) is a clear demonstration that the process of radicalisation is occurring across Central Asia.

On 13-14 November 2014, we gathered with colleagues at the Royal Institute of International Affairs to discuss the relationships between Islam, secularism and security across the Muslim-majority world, from Egypt to Indonesia. In our discussions, Central Asia stood out for how secularised its Islam and security affairs are. Nowhere in the ‘Muslim world’ is national Islam quite so devoid of theological content. In few other places is a particular brand of Islam (in this case Sunni Hannafi Islam) so clearly secularised as a part of national culture and tradition.

Sign reads Few majority Muslim regions have a more 'secularised' Islam than Central Asia. CC Dr S Prozorov

In few other places is a particular brand of Islam (in this case Sunni Hannafi Islam) so clearly secularised.

In the Chatham House research paper published to accompany the workshop, we argued that there is a myth of post-Soviet Muslim radicalisation in the Central Asian republics. This myth contains six claims. 

Claims

First, purveyors of the myth argue that there is a post-Soviet Islamic revival. This anti-secular Islam survived the Soviet period and is said to have vehemently spread throughout the region after 1991. The second, frequent claim is that this Islamisation naturally begets radicalisation. Thirdly, it is claimed that the twin conditions of authoritarianism and poverty to be found throughout Central Asia exacerbate this radicalisation. The fourth claim is that underground Islamic groups that exist in this environment are, in general, theologically and politically radical. Fifth, it is assumed that these movements are globally networked and that this transnational agenda supersedes their particular local forms. Finally, the claim is made that political Islam is essentially opposed to the idea of the secular state.

These six claims are all found, to a greater or lesser degree, in mainstream security commentaries on Central Asia, written primarily for the policy audience. We find this in the reports from 2009-2013 by the International Crisis Group (ICG), among the most respected, influential, and competent organisations producing security analysis in the region. And we observe these claims in cruder form in less convincing accounts of what passes for security analysis. Many of these claims originate in the region itself from official sources and independent experts. Our research, however, suggests that there is little or no basis for any of these six claims.

And counter claims

First, the Islamic revival began much earlier than 1991, as is commonly claimed, and was dominated by the creation of a secularised Islam where religious identity was secondary to national identity; this remains the dominant form of Islam in Central Asia today. Second, while the relatively superficial signs of Islamisation are found in the massive post-1991 growth of mosques and frequency of prayers and hajj, signs of radicalisation are very few. Thirdly, there appears to be no correlation between either the degree of authoritarianism or the level of poverty and radicalisation. 

Fourth, the fact that underground groups are banned in the region, with the exception of Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan, is more a reflection of authoritarian politics and security fears than the nature of the groups themselves, which may be either pietist or political. Fifth, the level of awareness of global Islamism remains extremely low in Central Asia, and those who join these struggles do so outside of the region and often never return. Finally, Central Asia remains populated largely by secularised Muslims and Muslim secularist politicians who favour the secular state and its control of religion.      

The ‘experts’

How can the security experts of both the West and the East have possibly gotten it so wrong?

How can the security experts of both the West and the East have possibly gotten it so wrong? Well, not all have. The work of analysts such as Christian Bleuer, Joshua Kucera, and Noah Tucker shows that careful, evidence-based analysis in this field is possible. As for those who propagate the myth of Muslim radicalisation in Central Asia, some have vested, institutional interests in exaggerating the threat to justify their own significance and, in the case of some politicians, the policies they wish to adopt. 

But the bigger problems here are evidential and conceptual. The difficulty of gathering evidence on these questions is obvious. But the tendency to assume the ‘worst case’ figures for the numbers of fighters, the militant values of groups, or the political importance of a website suggests bias driven by the urgency and excesses of national security.

Conceptual errors are also a problem. Much radicalisation research and de-radicalisation practice places emphasis on individuals and their ideas and, in the process, ignores or underestimates the role of collective mobilisation and political organisation. Today, ‘radical ideas’ are putatively so great a threat that a tiny number of fighters motivated by them to join a militant movement itself become a headline-grabbing story, regardless of the political significance of that movement. Central Asia is no stranger to putative organisations, which have little reality beyond the minds of mythologists and perhaps a handful of founder members – the probably fictional Islamic movements of Turkestan (a term used loosely to denote the geographic area of present-day Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang) and Tajikistan are two such examples.

Central Asia is no stranger to putative organisations, which have little reality beyond the minds of mythologists.

The myth of radical organisation

Yet, it is a truism of politics that military strength cannot be accumulated, and authority cannot be claimed without the mobilisation of significant groups of people and an established political organisation. Radical ideas, however rare or growing in Central Asia, are no harbinger of radicalisation if they lack political organisation. But such organisation exists outside of the five republics in the long-standing ‘Central Asian’ militant groups of Afghanistan-Pakistan; the diffuse and difficult-to-assess online communities of the diaspora; and the recruiting grounds apparently emerging in Russia for IS.

Moreover, in Central Asia these kinds of organisations lack both the scale and significance of comparable violent extremist organisations, websites and transnational networks found in other regions. There is nothing close to Pakistan’s Taliban in Central Asia, or a political force like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and no sign even of the emergence of non-violent social movements such as Turkey’s Fethullah Gülen or Indonesia’s Muhammadiya.

The reason why Central Asia lacks the radicalisation problem of its near-neighbours –Afghanistan, Pakistan and sections of the Middle East – is quite simply that such extremist organisations emerge as a by-product of protracted armed conflicts whose primary causes are rarely religious. Flashes of violent extremism have become visible in Central Asia in the region’s one example where war tore apart the social fabric and destroyed political organisation – 1990s Tajikistan. But here too the role of Islam in precipitating violent extremism was secondary, at best, to the role of regional factionalism and economic factors. Central Asia’s lack of protracted armed conflict is the reason why it lacks the radicalisation of the North Caucasus, never mind that of the Middle East.

A bearded man stands in front of a group of soldiers and an artillery piece. Tajikistan, 1996. The main causes of the country's civil war were economic and societal, not religious.

Central Asia’s lack of protracted armed conflict is why it lacks the radicalisation of the North Caucasus, or the Middle East.

If the myth of Muslim radicalisation in Central Asia is so lacking in evidential basis, the obvious question arises as to whether it is really influencing policymakers at all.

In Central Asia, this question boils down to whether states, which maximise their own security over all else, suppress Muslim groups because they are oppositional or because they are Muslim. There is no doubt that an opposition party such as the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (which claims 40,000 members) would be the target of repression in increasingly authoritarian Tajikistan whether it was religious or secular. However, what about the many suspected members of pietist movements who have no record of political organisation in Tajikistan? Why are they and their missionaries rounded up and sometimes tortured in jail? Such questions apply throughout Central Asia and their answers cannot be understood without reference to militantly secularist policies, which are justified in terms of the myth of post-Soviet Muslim radicalisation.

The West

In the West, the question is different. In 2013, the United States spent over $16 billion on counter-terrorism through programmes such as Countering Violent Extremism. Since 2001, almost $300m has been spent on the security services of Tajikistan. Last year alone, 350 members of the State Committee of National Security (the barely reformed KGB which has a track-record of arbitrary detention and torture) were trained in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. It is highly likely that some of these US-trained personnel have participated in operations involving such detentions and uses of torture.  

If we accept that the problem of radicalisation has been largely misunderstood, such programmes may well be worthless and a colossal waste of tax-payer’s money in terms of their stated objectives.

Might it be that de-radicalisation programmes serve unstated purposes?

But might it be that de-radicalisation programmes serve unstated purposes? These programmes provide a means of cooperation with governments, which baulk at security sector reform, democratisation and even socio-economic aid. As one US official said privately, ‘it [counter radicalisation] is something they are actually willing to talk to us about.’

But Western governments have been here before in Muslim-majority states and it did not turn out well. The proclivity of bad leaders to appeal to policies that justify ‘securing’ the state on grounds that a particular brand of religion necessarily threatens the secular order is often a deliberate attempt to evade accountability in governance. In financing repressive secular governments such as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia during the Cold War, Western states associated themselves with these systems and became the objects of ire for the increasingly militant groups that challenged them. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani militant groups and Jemaah Islamiah became both stronger and more anti-Western even as they grew under the repressive policies of Western-backed secular governments.

The good news is that there are few signs of virulent anti-Western violent extremist organisations in Central Asia. It is by no means certain that such groups will grow in the region, unless armed conflict provides the space for their growth and mobilisation. 

Without such evidence, counter radicalisation programmes ought to include the civilian authorities working within the rule of law and exclude those bodies that use extraordinary and often illegal military and security measures. By continuing to fund the security services of some of the more repressive states in the region, Western attempts to achieve de-radicalisation, risk being counter-productive in Central Asia as they have been elsewhere

‘Radical’ policy recommendations

In the aftermath of the end of major ground operations in Afghanistan, we have two ‘radical’ policy recommendations for the governments of NATO states (particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany). One of these is general and one more specific:

  1. Develop a clearly defined general concept of ‘radicalisation,’ which both integrates a measure of organisational capacity with individual and ideological factors and is attentive to regional and local particularities.
  2. End all security cooperation with and arms transfers to the governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Standfirst image (c) RIA Novosti/R Mangarasyan

About the authors

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Exeter and director of the Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project. In 2015-16, he chaired the Central Eurasian Studies Society Taskforce on fieldwork safety.

David W. Montgomery is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh; Director of Program Development for CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion; and a member of the Executive Board of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.


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