Islam, Islamism and Political Order in Central Asia. (Pressing Issues)

By Walker, Edward W. | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Islam, Islamism and Political Order in Central Asia. (Pressing Issues)


Walker, Edward W., Journal of International Affairs


Above all, the West should make every effort to not present Muslims with a perceived choice between repressive secular governments supported by the West and repressive anti-Western governments run by Islamists--in other words, between Iran and Uzbekistan, or between the Taliban and Turkmenbashi.

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Islamism is the most potent ideology of resistance in the world today. (1) It is and will remain a central security concern for Western and non-Islamist governments in majority Muslim regions, including the five Soviet successor states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In Central Asia today, as in much of the Muslim world, nationalism, socialism and liberalism have exhausted their capacity to mobilize militant opposition to existing regimes. Only Islamism offers a credible program of social transformation and resistance to Western cultural penetration, the dislocations of modernization and repressive governments. Combined with Islamists' promise of millenarian salvation, this ensures that transnational jihadist organizations will survive, forming and reforming themselves as needed, and that they will continue to target the secular governments of Central Asia.

Thus the weakly legitimated and increasingly repressive regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia have good reason to fear acts of political violence and destabilization by Islamist militants. Nevertheless, there is little risk that Islamists will come to power in the region soon, especially now that the collapse of the Taliban means Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven. The greater risk is that Central Asia's ruling elites will use the specter of Islamism as an excuse to avoid economic and political reforms that would mitigate the conditions under which militant Islamism takes root and survives. Regional elites are apparently convinced that pressure from Western governments, particularly the United States, to respect human rights and to democratize is essentially rhetorical. They remain unimpressed by Western academics, humanitarian organizations and government officials who argue that greater political repression in the long run forces oppositionists into the Islamist camp and encourages Islamic radicalization. As a result, there has been a general convergence in the direction of authoritarianism, corruption and patrimonialism in the region, trends which, if anything, have accelerated since the war on terror was launched.

If these trends continue, an important opportunity will be lost in the effort to contain the transnational militant Islamist movement. Despite its many problems, Central Asia is a Muslim-majority region where measured pluralism is possible in the short term, and where in the longer term it is even possible that formal democracy could take root. Unlike the Middle East at the time of decolonization, Central Asia inherited from the Soviet period a generally literate population, comparatively well developed state institutions and personnel, clear and for the most part legitimate state borders and a modernized economic infrastructure. (2) Nevertheless, Central Asia's post-Soviet states may follow the path of Middle Eastern post-colonial states and adopt authoritarian practices that protect the power and privileges of corrupt elites while disenfranchising and alienating their populations. The United States and its allies must therefore balance the immediate need to secure political and military support in the region with equal attention to the promotion of measured religious tolerance, political pluralism and respect for human rights in the short run, and liberalization, democratization and an improved standard of living in the long run.

ISLAMIC BELIEFS AND PRACTICES BEFORE INDEPENDENCE

Islam arrived in Central Asia--the vast region of Turko-Persian civilization that lies to the north of today's Iran and extends from the Caspian sea in the west to China's Xianjiang province in the east--at the hands of Arab invaders at the beginning of the seventh century. …

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