To avoid future instability, Central Asian states need to re-examine their policies towards Islam. This report from the International Crisis Group looks at Islam in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It argues that these governments need to undermine support for extremist groups through policies of political liberalisation, economic reform and effective governance.
Some Western literature on Central Asia suggests that it is threatened by extremist groups. The reality is more nuanced. Soviet rule had a profound effect in terms of secularising society and political elites. However, since independence, political Islamist groups have emerged seeking to challenge the secular nature of these new states.
Central Asian governments have resorted to Soviet methods of control. Repression has led to confrontation, violence and the emergence of extremist and terrorist groups. For some, Islamism has become an acceptable form of political opposition because of widespread social decline and falling living standards.
- In Uzbekistan, repression has provoked widespread discontent. Dissatisfaction with the regime continues to feed into Islamist sentiment.
- In Tajikistan, tensions over Islam were a contributory factor in the outbreak of civil war in 1992. President Rakhmonov has gradually undermined the position of the Islamic Renaissance Party, which has led to more radical groups gaining influence.
- In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan there is the least interference in religious affairs. There has been much less interest in ideologies that challenge secularism. There is an exaggerated but committed following of radical groups in the south of both countries.
- In Turkmenistan, Islam has very weak roots. President Niyazov has combined widespread repression with an attempt to create a pseudo-Islamic creed based on his own personality.
For many in Central Asia, Islam is not the central factor in their lives. However, Islamist groups may gain credibility without open political systems and as the state fails to deliver economic and political development. Recommendations for the governments and international community include:
- The government of Uzbekistan should undertake a wide-ranging review of legislation on religion and reform existing laws. It should end the abuse and torture of religious prisoners and accelerate amnesties for them. It should increase the independence of the Muftiate and increase more religious specialists into government structures dealing with religious issues.
- The government of Kyrgyzstan should adopt a new law on religion balancing the range of controls the government considers necessary with demands for religious freedom. It should also undertake a review of Islamic education.
- The government of Tajikistan should revoke restrictions on the practice of Islam and avoid arbitrary decisions on the closure of religious institutions. It should also and low level harassment of the Islamic Renaissance Party and permit it to operate openly.
- The international community should continue to support freedom of belief and press for the observance of international conventions. It should widen exchange programmes to include more religious figures and consider funding resource centres to provide access to objective and mainstream resources. It should engage with Islamic institutions where possible, maintaining a sharp distinction between groups that use violence and those that accept democratic norms.
- The United States should declare Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan ‘countries of particular concern’ in the annual review of religious freedom.