Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU

Silk Road Paper July 1, 2006, pp. 57

Islamic Radicalism has become a serious problem in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Though these areas are bastions of moderate and traditional Islam and among the most secularized areas of the Muslim world, radicalism has made a forceful comeback in the past two decades. Beginning in the late 1980s, alien Islamic proselytizing has gathered speed across the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, and has resulted in the spread of radical ideologies, militancy, and even terrorism. Worst hit have been the Russian North Caucasus and some parts of Central Asia, especially the Ferghana valley shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Patterns of radicalism differ among the regions. In the North Caucasus, a Salafi revival in Dagestan coincided with the brutal war in Chechnya, and contributed to the radicalization of the Chechen resistance and its spread to adjoining republics. Coupled with backfiring Russian centralization efforts, the entire North Caucasus is now on the brink of long-term destabilization. Central Asia, on the other hand, has seen stronger external link, as foreign radical groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al Qaeda have established a presence directly, as in the former, or through local allies, as in the latter. Adding to the problem, these groups in Central Asia have splintered into smaller entities difficult to identify let alone counteract. In Azerbaijan, long spared a significant radical presence, an increase in both Shi’a and Salafi Sunni radicalism can be observed.

The causes of this radicalization are hotly debated. In the west, radicalization is often blamed on the socio-economic crisis, or political repression radicalizing oppositional forces. These explanations are only of limited validity, at best interacting with complex post-Soviet identity crises, personal vendettas, regional rivalries, relative deprivation, and most importantly foreign proselytizing, a factor widely underestimated in the West. To this should be added the criminalization of many of the most notorious militant armed groups, whose involvement in drug trafficking and other organized crime has been well-documented.

In the past few years, radical and militant Islamic groups have adapted to the pressure states and the international community have put on them. In the North Caucasus, this has led to the conscious decision to spread the insurgency and activate indigenous sleeper cells across the North Caucasus, and not only as previously limited to Chechnya. The West, without a presence in the North Caucasus, has remained a bystander to these events. The western reaction has been one the one hand understanding for the challenges faced by the Russian government in the region and support for its policies; and on the other mild criticism for its counter-productive centralization policies and repressive rule in the region. Criticism of the brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya and of the poor management of Russia’s counter-terrorism efforts that have put hundreds of civilians in harm’s way has been relatively muted.

In Central Asia, where the West has had a considerable presence, the reaction has been different. In fact, the West has shown little understanding, let alone support, for the seriousness of the radical and militant challenge faced by Central Asian states. Instead, the west has focused on the governments’ mismanagement of the situation, while refraining from responding to calls for assistance. This culminated in 2005 following the insurgency and crackdown in Andijan in Uzbekistan, which left several hundred people, mainly civilians, dead. The result of the episode and the mismanagement of the crisis by both the Uzbek and western governments was the loss of western influence and presence in Uzbekistan. It is apparent that radical groups now seek to emulate the ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine, aware of the fact that popular rebellion against authoritarian governments attracts support and not condemnation from the West. Hence, several groups appear to have adapted to this environment and benefited from the breakdown in Uzbekistan’s relations with the West.

In this environment, there are several important implications for the West and the European Union in particular, explored in further detail in this paper:

1. Develop skills, especially in the intelligence community, in understanding the ideological framework of the radical and terrorist groups.

2. The radical and externally sponsored Islamic movements and organizations existing in the region offer little hope for a meaningful dialogue. Instead, it is the moderate majority and the secular parts of the population, that should be engaged in dialogue.

3. The West needs to support reform-minded officials within governments, not just anti-government forces. The West needs to find points for collaboration within the governments, to support progressive groups and work toward evolutionary change.

4. The link between drug trafficking and religious extremism is proven beyond doubt, and the majority of demand for drugs arises from EU countries. Lending major financial support to counter-narcotics would hence be a major effort in fighting militancy and terrorism.

5. The EU should promote continental trade across Central Asia and the Caucasus, which would bring new economic opportunities to these populations and reduce the appeal of radicalism.

6. EU educational exchanges should increase, and extended to the provinces, including those experiencing Islamic radical movements.

7. The EU should focus assistance on the delivery of governmental services to deprived areas, and in general, on greater degrees of decentralization and self-government.

8. Further, the EU should treat the issue of support for extremism in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, and the Caucasus as a subject for bilateral discussion with relevant Arab states and Iran.

9. The EU may find it useful to look at the Turkish example, which is relevant to understanding the tension between trying to create a modern and open democratic system and dealing with the threat of fundamentalist and militant Islamic political ideology. To this end, the EU should engage Turkey as it addresses issues of Islamic radicalism in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

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