Central Asia's Islamist crucible

r As Muslims began observing Ramadan this week, an insurgency simmered in an impoverished region.

A Muslim pilgrim site for centuries, the jagged, snow-dusted mountain known as Solomon's Throne rises like an inspiration from the fertile Fergana Valley.

This area of Kyrgyzstan - once an important, mountain-ringed crossroads of the ancient Silk Road - has been a past source of spiritual inspiration. But as Muslims begin to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, it is gripped by militant "pilgrims" of another kind, whose operations are changing assumptions about Central Asian security.

Guerrillas calling themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) - whose stated aim is to overthrow the fiercely secular and authoritarian regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and install an Islamic state - crossed into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from Tajikistan in August and fought for two months.

An initial incursion last year set off alarm bells, since the volatile Fergana is where the three ex-Soviet Central Asian states intersect. Russian President Vladimir Putin this spring warned of an "arc of instability" catching fire across the region, and promised military cooperation and political backing.

On a visit earlier this year, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised $10 million in aid to the three Central Asian states. US Army special forces units are bolstering the Kyrgyz military with nonlethal aid and training.

For many from Moscow to Washington, the insurgency may appear to confirm theories that militant Islam is on the march in Central Asia, fueled by victories of the radical Taliban in Afghanistan. But analysts are divided over the significance of any Islamic "threat" to the region - and even how "Islamic" the guerrillas may be. Also unclear is the scale of home-grown support for the rebels.

"The further you get from the problem, the bigger it becomes," says Alexei Sukhov, Osh correspondent for the opposition Res Publica newspaper. "For people [here], it is no big deal. But further away, they get more scared."

Long considered a religious hotbed, the Fergana Valley is a strategic crucible of different ethnicities, Islamic styles, and a patchwork of borders drawn up by Joseph Stalin in 1924. Just as confused are the motives of the 5,000 or so men who, operating from Tajikistan with the apparent support of Afghanistan's Taliban, carry out the insurgency. Causing instability is high on the list for the IMU, which is led by Juma Namangani, an ethnic Uzbek believed to be a former Soviet airborne soldier who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Putting the IMU's stamp on the lucrative drug trafficking that permeates these borders may be another priority.

"Nobody gave them the right to call themselves 'Islamic.' This is not religious resistance, it is political," says Sadiq Kamal al-Deen, the former mufti of Kyrgyzstan and head of the International Center of Islamic Cooperation in Osh. "Muslims accuse [the rebels] of spilling blood, and we object that they use the word 'Islam' for that," he adds. "The [IMU] just wants to show the world that they exist. These are the first signs, just knocking at the door. But we are praying for a solution so there is no real war here."

"The IMU unites people fighting for personal goals, from Islamists to criminals," adds Mr. Sukhov. "If you are religious, you are fighting for religion; others fight for money. Most cash support comes from Arab countries, and they give it only if you say you fight for an Islamic state. But within this goal you can achieve a lot."

Contrasting leadership styles complicate the equation. Mr. Karimov is a former Communist party boss, and in 1998 told Uzbekistan's parliament that extremists "must be shot in the head" and that "if necessary, I'll shoot them myself." While Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has taken a more open view, his security forces are getting tougher toward devout Muslims - especially in the Fergana Valley. "Uzbekistan has taken a pretty brutal line - they've thrown a lot of people in jail. One can see that theme beginning to emerge in Kyrgyzstan," says Terence Taylor, the assistant director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "A year ago, people were saying [of an Islamic state], 'No, impossible.' While I don't foresee it in the near term, one just can't rule it out now."

That concern has rattled Russia, which keeps 10,000 troops in Tajikistan and has warned Afghanistan about exporting unrest - and militant ideology. "They certainly want to push back the instability on their southern borders, which [Russia] grossly oversimplifies as Islamic extremism," Mr. Taylor says.

The Fergana Valley is where "the three main interests overlap: ideology, drug trafficking and political interests," says Bolot Djanuzakov, the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Council. "We don't accept the title IMU - there is no such organization," he adds. "The Islamic state is only a veil for terrorism."

Analysts say that Islamic militants across Central Asia may be encouraged both by recent success of the Taliban - which is believed to have close ties to the IMU, and helped train them - and setbacks to separatist Muslim forces by Russia in Chechnya. But others argue that there are reasons enough, such as grinding poverty, to fight closer to home. Kyrgyzstan ranks among the poorest nations in the world, with people earning $1 a day on average.

"There is undoubtedly rising support among the general public for radical measures to change the [Uzbek] regime," says John Schoeberlein, director of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and head of the Central Asia project for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The problem should not be described as a religious one, per se. It's not that there is an impulse toward radical Islam in the region that is the driving force," he says. "[But] people see so many problems unaddressed, and have no alternative.

"In the long run, the right policy for these governments is to take a more open approach," he adds. "By suppressing it, they are simply going to create a more determined opposition."

After 70 years of official atheism, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave way to resurgent faith in much of Central Asia. But "post-Soviet governments ... used [Islam] as a tool for building a national identity," says Alisher Khamidov, director of the Osh Media Resource Center. "They had to legitimize their governments, and were careless. They couldn't predict that political Islam would have consequences; that Islam wanted more."

In Tajikistan, that miscalculation sparked a civil war that killed 50,000, and finally ended in 1997 with a power-sharing deal that brought Islamic rebels into the government. There was another brief flare-up in August, but for Central Asian militants, that success in 1997 has been a source of hope ever since.

"Uzbekistan is trying to seal its borders and avoid the Tajik scenario," Mr. Khamidov says. "Their media is demonizing Muslims, calling them terrorists. But the government is playing with a huge fire. People are being radicalized, and pressure is building up. It will explode one day."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.