Islamist gambit in Central Asia
Experts say drug traffickers and religious agitators threaten to undermine regional stability
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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."