Islamic militancy in Central Asia

The causes are many, the answers complex

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When Westerners talk about the rise of militant Islam, certain things seem clear: Armed men from another culture are prosecuting a war without boundaries; religious pluralism and global capitalism are under attack; the battle is global in scope, and cannot be won by the elimination of a single leader or group.

But when talk turns to root causes, the discussion becomes muddled. Is American foreign policy at fault? Or are repressive regimes to blame? Is Islam naturally hateful toward Western ideals, or has the religion been hijacked by a fanatic few?

By careful examination of the root causes behind militant Islam in Central Asia, journalist Ahmed Rashid tells the story of a specific region in flux. He provides readers with a critical model for thinking about Islamic militancy throughout the world, using numerous interviews and his own research.

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Central Asia was once known as the crossroads of the world. For centuries, caravans bearing silk, gold, and spices rolled between the great kingdoms of Europe and Asia, stoking cosmopolitan Central Asian cities like Bukhara and Samarkand into engines of wealth and knowledge. And more than trade goods traveled the great roads: Religious traditions, technology, and new ideas flowed freely through the region.

But in the 20th century, particularly, the cultural and religious vibrancy of Central Asia faded. As a sleepy backwater of the Soviet Union, the problems of Central Asia and its people were long invisible to the Western world. The savage suppression of local, moderate brands of Islam under the Soviet Union has had severe consequences, however, including the importation of starkly radical strains of the religion.

In "Jihad," Rashid looks closely at the recent rise of militant Islam in the Fergana Valley, the Central Asian heartland where the peoples of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan trade, mingle, and agitate - sometimes violently - against local regimes with an ambiguous or even hostile relationship toward their own people.

"Jihad" does not pull its punches; Central Asia is a complicated place, with complicated problems. The interaction of Central Asian people with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the legacy of the Soviet Union, and the history of Central Asian Islam are all topics that Rashid addresses in his effort to explain the region's challenges. Considering the level of detail and context Rashid presents, "Jihad" is a minor miracle of efficiency. The author has reached into the murky depths of history and regional politics and pulled out a vibrant and nuanced portrait of human beings in crisis.

Groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the highly secretive, cell-based (but nonviolent) Hizb ut-Tahrir weren't created in a vacuum, and Rashid is meticulous about cataloging the sometimes atrocious human rights records of Central Asia's regimes. He singles out the despotic rule of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov - now a critical ally in the US war on terror - for particular attention. And while Rashid does not excuse the violence that groups like the IMU have used to further their cause, he does make their origins and goals intelligible to a Western audience, building a bridge of understanding between two very different points of view.

By studying the chilling effects of Central Asian despotism that "Jihad" chronicles, readers get a clear sense of the feedback loop that so many of the world's regimes have produced: Cruel suppression of even moderate Islamic movements creates radicalism, which in turn produces still harsher government measures ... and so on.

This may seem self-evident, but the conclusions drawn from this piece of information are not. To win the fight against radical Islam, tactics need to move beyond police work, smart bombs, and night scopes.

And while Rashid doesn't present any single solution to Islamic militancy in the region, he shows readers the problem's deep origins, the provocations that have fueled the fire, and several critical ways that the West can help. In an age when people are groping for quick explanations and easy solutions, "Jihad" presents something more valuable: tools for understanding a problem of real complexity and incredible urgency.

• James Norton is an editor on the Monitor's international news desk.

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