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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 193-206

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Central Asia:
More than Islamic Extremists

Svante E. Cornell and Regine A. Spector

The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have largely hidden in Russia's shadow since their independence a decade ago. 1 In the week after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they became integral participants in the U.S. campaign against terrorism. These republics now comprise the northern component of a sustained campaign against terrorists based in Afghanistan, to the region's south. Although the debate in recent years has questioned the extent to which the United States should engage Central Asia and commit resources there, few would dispute the importance of the region to U.S. foreign policy today. This increased U.S. involvement in the region necessitates a nuanced understanding of Central Asia.

U.S. authorities recognize the need for bases in countries neighboring Afghanistan to sustain a long-term antiterrorist campaign. For internal reasons, the Pakistani government, although pledging full support, may not be able to provide secure ground bases for U.S. forces--or, if it does, the United States may not want to rely exclusively on Pakistan for its operations in Afghanistan. Attention has thus turned to Uzbekistan, one of the most pro-Western countries in Central Asia, and the only neighbor of Afghanistan that is stable and friendly enough to serve as a possible base.

Since 1999, international observers, and specifically the Washington policy community, have often viewed Central Asia as beset by an Islamic tide. The spotlight turned to Uzbekistan in particular during the summers of 1999 and [End Page 193] 2000 when militant rebels of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) launched insurgencies in the Central Asian republics and kidnapped Japanese and U.S. citizens. Soon after, in September 2000 the State Department placed the IMU on its list of terrorist organizations. Most recently, in his speech to Congress in September 2001, President George W. Bush singled out the IMU for attention. Major U.S. and international press outfits have attributed instability in Central Asia to attempts by radical Islamic groups such as the IMU to seize power in the region and establish an Islamic caliphate.

The reality is more complex. These groups have a relatively small number of members. The IMU has only a few thousand followers, and the legal Islamic party of Tajikistan received less than 5 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election of 2000. Rather than viewing the incursions in Central Asia by Islamic extremists as the cause of the current instability, they should be understood as indicators of a complicated dynamic within the region. This dynamic involves interlinked variables, including the role of Islam in Central Asia, the challenges of regional poverty and drug trafficking, and the ideological spillover effects of the war in Afghanistan.

An Islamic Revival in Central Asia

As early as 1991, when the five Soviet Central Asian republics gained independence, some voiced fears that a radical Islamic wave would engulf these countries. 2 Since then, religion has undoubtedly been revived throughout the region. This revival was a natural and potentially stabilizing factor, as it filled an ethical void that the collapse of the Communist value system had left. Initially, governments facilitated the building of mosques to help restore religion, while trying to keep religious activity under state supervision. This course of action was followed in particular in the southern parts of Central Asia, namely Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Ferghana Valley region of Kyrgyzstan--where Islam has deeper roots than, for example, in neighboring Kazakhstan.

Concerns about the radical movements that formed part of this Islamic revival in the Central Asian republics exist, however, for a reason. The region borders two focal countries of the global radical Islamic movement: Iran and Afghanistan. Although of different and often antagonistic persuasions, these two countries became the center of Islamic radicalism in the 1990s. The unraveling of the Soviet Union also seemed to highlight the destructive potential of political Islam. Shortly after independence...


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