Islamist gambit in Central Asia

Experts say drug traffickers and religious agitators threaten to undermine regional stability

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Abdulkerim, a student, is disillusioned with secular democracy. He says it's time to give Islamic rule a chance in Kyrgyzstan, a rapidly growing idea in ex-Soviet Central Asia that's setting off alarm bells as far away as Moscow and Washington.

"It's time for believers to come to power," says Abdulkerim, who openly sports an Islamic green skullcap, but doesn't want his last name used. "All we have got [from the post-Soviet secular order] is poverty, unemployment, strife, and immorality all around. People need to be brought up properly. If we had Islamic law here, we would have peace and order."

Abdulkerim's views are not extreme - he rejects violence as a political instrument - but authorities here view the emergence of politicized Islam as a matter of urgent concern.

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Where drugs and religion mix

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev warned last week that an unsavory alliance of drug traffickers and religious agitators, both infiltrating from Afghanistan, threatens to undermine governments across Central Asia.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who harshly suppressed what he described as a revolt by Muslim extremists in May, told a regional security meeting this month that a vast international "radical religious" conspiracy, fueled by drug money, "aims to destroy stability in order to dominate the region ... and introduce its own model of development." Russian and Chinese leaders at the meeting strongly endorsed Mr. Karimov's view.

Experts here say the danger of politicized Islam is real, foremost in the volatile Fergana Valley where three Central Asian states intersect, but they suggest the picture painted by local leaders may be overblown and, in Karimov's case, a gambit to deflect blame from his own repressive policies.

One thing all agree on is that the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, through Central Asia to Russia and the West, has greatly accelerated since the US-led military operation toppled the Taliban in 2001. Afghan drug barons bring big money, which fuels corruption and instability in a region where people typically subsist on less than $1 per day.

"The drug pipeline has always gone through here, but volumes are growing sharply and that creates a lot of worrisome possibilities," says Vladimir Bogatyrov, an adviser to President Bakiyev. "Drug traffickers have an interest in undermining government control, because they conduct their business best in conditions of instability."

Most experts also accept that the political appeal of Islamic groups is growing rapidly around a region that has seen little but poverty, authoritarianism, and corrupt governance during the past 15 post-Soviet years.

Many point to the banned pan-Islamic party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, a breakaway from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that aims to establish a Muslim caliphate, with sharia law, throughout Central Asia. The London-based group's website (www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org) claims its message is peaceful and that it does not support terrorism.

But Karimov alleges the party was behind a violent uprising in the Uzbek town of Andijon last May that led to hundreds of deaths. Kyrgyz authorities cracked down harshly during presidential elections this month, when fliers signed by Hizb ut-Tahrir were found urging voters to boycott a ballot populated with "godless" candidates.

"Hizb ut-Tahrir is active, especially in the south of Kyrgyzstan, but people have understood [from the Andijon events] that their activity leads to bad outcomes. People die," says Kimsambai Abdurakhmanov, a leading Muslim cleric and former chief mufti of Kyrgyzstan.

He often debates young people who are increasingly exposed to politicized Islam, and he describes the appeal. "People associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir say: 'Allah orders you to establish an Islamic state, to live by the laws of Islam. But you are living by different laws, and thus disobeying Allah,' " he explains.

Mr. Abdurakhmanov says he responds that Allah only commands Muslims to do what is possible, and that any state built by force would not be a true Islamic one. "To set up an Islamic state right now is too complicated, even impossible," he says.

Experts say there are many ethnic, cultural, and historical factors that preclude any Islamic sweep in former Soviet Central Asia.

"All these fears are a little exaggerated," says Orozbek Moldaliyev, director of the independent Politics, Religion and Security Research Center in Bishkek. "Throughout Central Asia people are rediscovering their religious roots after decades of official Soviet atheism, and radical Islam is appearing. But Islam itself has many built-in obstacles to extremism," he says.

Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Turkmen, who populate much of Central Asia, were mainly nomads until a century ago and, though nominally Islamic, don't take religion very seriously, Mr. Moldaliyev says. "For that you need settled way of life, with mosques and religious schools. The only zone that has preconditions for strong Islamic resurgence is the Fergana Valley," he says.

At the urging of the Communists, Central Asian women threw off their veils in the 1920s and were later inducted into the education system, the workforce, and even the Soviet Army. Though a few appear to be returning to traditional dress, most Kyrgyz women seem comfortable with Western fashions, including miniskirts, tank tops, and pant suits.

No tolerance for dissent

In Uzbekistan, where the Fergana Valley seethes with Islam-tinged rebellion, many experts blame Karimov's iron-heeled policies for stoking the danger. Human rights agencies assert that Karimov's jails hold thousands of dissenters and that Uzbek security forces massacred up to 750 mostly unarmed protesters in Andijon last May.

Some experts here caution Westerners that Islam, even in its moderate political forms, can often be a progressive force that strengthens communities, encourages enterprise, and imparts a sense of individual identity. "There are so many stereotypes floating around, which do not apply here," says Edil Baisalov, president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a Kyrgyz NGO. "There are lots of young people in this society who waste their lives drinking, idling, taking drugs. It sometimes makes me wish there was more Islamic influence upon them, not less."

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