Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Islamist Gambit in Central Asia ; Experts Say Drug Traffickers and Religious Agitators Threaten to Undermine Regional Stability

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Islamist Gambit in Central Asia ; Experts Say Drug Traffickers and Religious Agitators Threaten to Undermine Regional Stability

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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