Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Journal of the 16th Year
Eleanor J. Bader
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
The Rise of Militant Islam
An interview with Ahmed Rashid
A hmed Rashid is the author of the international bestseller Taliban . He is the Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph . I talked with him about his new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia .
BARSAMIAN: Talk about jihad. In your book you talk about the two different kinds of jihad.
RASHID: Jihad, from the Prophet’s time, has always meant a struggle to improve yourself, to make yourself a better Muslim, to be more charitable, to be more open-minded, to do more for the community around you, to help civil society, and also, of course, to observe the tenets of Islam. In Islamic theology that has always been called the greater jihad.
The lesser jihad has been the militant side, if you like, which is also very clearly defined. That is, if Muslims are suppressed or repressed by non-Muslims, they have the right to resist and they have the right to fight it. So, for example, in the 20th century we had the jihad against the British by the Pashtun tribes in northern India. There was the jihad against the Soviet revolution in 1917 by the Muslims of Central Asia.
The jihad that has now become prevalent, interpreted by Osama bin Laden and the militant groups allied to al-Qaeda, is a subversion of jihad. We saw in Afghanistan how the Taliban version of jihad was directed against fellow Afghans, fellow Muslims. Similarly, in Pakistan the jihadi groups are fighting their own citizens who they believe are not pure enough.
There are five independent states now that have evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union—Uzbekistan, Kazak hstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan and Turk menistan.
These five states were former Soviet republics and they were all Muslim in prerevolutionary Russia. Then they were reconquered, if you like, by the Bolsheviks after 1917, meeting great resistance from the local population in a civil war that went on until the early 1930s. Stalin finally crushed them and made five republics out of this region, which was at that time called Turkestan, the land of the Turks. The population of this region was basically nomadic tribes from Mongolia and Siberia. They were categorized as the five major nationalities and became the Soviet Republics and then, in 1991, became independent.
Out of these, Uzbekistan is probably the most important with a population of something like 20 million. It’s very much the heartland of Islam and Sufism in Central Asia. All the great Islamic monuments in Central Asia are in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks are powerful and, since the 15th century, have basically ruled Central Asia.
Alongside them you have the Kazakhs who are essentially nomads, originally one of the tribes of Genghis Khan’s Mongol “horde.” Alongside them is Kyrgyzstan, a much smaller state, also initially a nomadic state, which has enormous problems right now because it doesn’t produce anything. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has enormous reserves of oil and gas and minerals and it has a very thriving agriculture. It’s one of the largest wheat exporters in the world.
Turkmenistan borders Iran and the Caspian Sea. The Turkmens are perhaps closest to the modern Turks of today. They speak a dialect that is very close to modern Turkish. They are today ruled by a very autocratic ruler and it’s a very closed and isolated society. Perhaps the most interesting is Tajikistan, which is the only Persian-speaking Central Asian republic. The Tajiks originated from the Persian empire. They don’t come from Turkic or Mongol stock; they were the residue of the Persian empire in the 4th and 5th century BC. They went through a catastrophic civil war immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, between 1992 and 1997. It’s a small country, only five million people. They lost something like half a million dead, about two million refugees. Then a ceasefire was brokered between the sort of neocommunist regime and the Islamic opposition and that ceasefire has lasted through many ups and downs, but it essentially has lasted. It is the only country in Central Asia where the Islamic opposition actually plays a role in government.
You write that in four of these five states the current rulers are former apparatchiks of the Communist Party.
All of them are, except in Kyrgyzstan where the president was a former academic rather than a member of the Communist Party. But the other four are the same rulers that existed before the breakup of the Soviet Union and they haven’t changed their ways. What you see in the Central Asian republics is the same Soviet-style bureaucracy, the role of the intelligence agencies, a very repressive society, trying to control the media. Most of them don’t allow political parties or human rights groups. They don’t allow a civil society to co-exist with them.
A term that comes up a lot is “between Marx and Muhammad. Does it have any relevancy to you?
What has been so remarkable since 1991 is to see how quickly these societies reverted back to what they were originally. That means clan chiefs reemerged, people with influence reemerged as they had existed in the 18th and 19th century. So marxism really did not take root there. There was a superficial veneer: there was a ruling elite, a ruling class, industrialization, education. There were many benefits of sovietization brought to this region but they didn’t really change the mentality.
The other thing that emerged after 1991 was a huge Islamic revival. People went back to their faith, understanding that their faith represented their culture, their tradition, their history; that by once again going back to Islam, enabled them to reassert their nationalism. It was a conglomeration of all the tradition and culture and history and social framework and family relations.
In your book you focus on three jihadi groups that have developed in the last decade. The IMU in Uzbekistan, what are they about?
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan emerged as a small group immediately after independence in 1991. They wanted a dialogue with President Karimov of Uzbekistan, who refused and cracked down on them and jailed them. They fled to Tajikistan where some of them took part in the civil war. Some of them fled to Afghanistan and eventually linked up with the Taliban and then with al-Qaeda. They fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance and they got enormous funding from bin Laden. Then, from having a political ideology of wanting to overthrow President Karimov of Uzbekistan, they developed a pan-Central Asian ideology. They talked about the creation of an Islamic state for all of Central Asia. They wanted to overthrow all the regimes in Central Asia.
IMU’s origins were Central Asian, but the ideology was a result of imported ideology, from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, of Pakistani groups, who were basically alien to the Central Asian milieu and the Central Asian traditions of Islam.
Another group in Tajikistan is the Islamic Renaissance Party, the IRP. Who are they?
The IRP was the principal Islamic opposition, who fought the civil war with the communist regime between 1992 and 1997. But, then again, to describe this as a civil war between two ideologies would, I think, be very superficial, because essentially this was a war between clans and tribes. Tajikistan is a very complex society and the Soviet era favored one group of clans against another group of clans.
What you see after the breakup of the Soviet Union is the deprived clans wanting to assert themselves. They adopt an Islamic ideology, an Islamic framework, again, a lot through the influence of what was going on in Afghanistan at that time. A lot of these Tajik militants had come to Afghanistan and studied in religious schools. They had also been influenced by Pakistani scholars. So in Tajikistan this civil war goes on for five years and it’s at many levels: at the Islamic level, the clan and tribal level, and at the great-power level. Russia is backing the regime. Iran backs the militants. There is a kind of Great Game going on there as well. But eventually there is a settlement, and now both sides are working quite closely together.
The other group that you focus on is interesting because it straddles more than one country.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir is actually a pan-Islamic movement. Its headquarters are probably in London. We don’t know, but they’re probably in Europe. This was a group that emerged in the 1950s from a group of Palestinians and Saudis being very close to Wahhabism, the main Islamic tradition of Saudi Arabia, a very extreme, puritanical tradition. They break with Wahhabism in the late 1950s and they set up a separate group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which actually calls for revival of the caliphate, that is, what existed with the Ottoman Empire. There was one caliph, one ostensible ruler of the whole Muslim world. They envisage an uprising right across the Muslim world where eventually all Muslims would be ruled by just one man.
And it’s a very messianic kind of vision, which has taken root very strongly in Central Asia, perhaps more than in any other Muslim region. They have branches in Pakistan, in South Asia and in the Far East. They have a lot of branches in Europe amongst Muslims, especially amongst Muslim students. But it’s really taken root in Central Asia, because they’re well-funded. And nobody quite knows where their money comes from. They’re well organized, they use a lot of modern techniques. They use fax and e-mail and modern techniques of organizing, underground literature, etc. They have become very popular on campuses in Central Asia among young people across all five republics.
But their ideology does not believe in insurrection, which is why, unlike the IMU, which was branded a terrorist group by the United States, HT is not branded as a terrorist group. They do not believe in violence, and they say that on one given day the Muslims of a given region will rise up and overthrow the corrupt system and their rulers and then install this caliphate system. What many people now fear is that—post-9/11, and even just before that, many of the young Hizb ut-Tahrir followers were gravitating towards a more militant kind of Islam, because they saw this ideology of kind of waiting for the given day or waiting for everyone to become convinced of the goodness of Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology—they were too impatient for that. And the danger is that some elements of Hizb ut-Tahrir may take a militant part towards achieving their aims.
Of these groups, I think each one has gone down a different path. The Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan is now considered part of the establishment and it’s dropped its radical Islamic ideas and is prepared to live it out with the regime. The IMU was heavily bombed and attacked by the American forces in Afghanistan, many hundreds were killed, and they’ve been scattered. But they do still have a militant underground in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which I think can be revived at some point in time. Clearly, they’re keeping their heads down at the moment because of the overwhelming American presence in the region and the fact that the Russians, the Americans, the regimes, everyone is gunning for them. But I don’t think that they’re a real major element. Hizb ut-Tahrir possibly does have enormous potential. They have not been damaged in the war against terrorism. The underground networks are very much intact. But I must emphasize that this book does not paint a scary picture of militant Islam overthrowing the Central Asian regimes. I think the real crisis in Central Asia is a regime crisis. These regimes have not allowed political freedom. There is no secular democratic opposition. So it’s natural that young people—dissatisfied, jobless, failing to acquire the education they want—will go underground, will set up underground groups. As you go underground, you become more radicalized. And in that milieu the tendency would be for young people to gravitate towards a militant kind of Islam.
Afghanistan borders three of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. How has the elimination of Taliban rule in Afghanistan impacted on those neighboring countries?
These three countries all joined the war against terrorism. They offered the Americans various facilities. The Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, in fact, have allowed the Americans to set up huge military bases in these countries. The Turkmen has allowed overflights and relief goods to come into Afghanistan.
The U.S. had, I think, a mixture of carrot and stick. It had acquired these military bases; investment could come in; and Western donors were prepared to give aid money to these countries. There was hope amongst many Central Asian people that our regimes will finally wake up and understand that they have to modernize, that this is a huge opportunity for them.
But the regimes haven't carried out any kind of reform and neither have the Americans. So it appears that the Americans are quite happy working with extreme dictatorial regimes.
That kind of contradiction is not lost on people in Central and Southwest Asia.
It’s not lost on them at all. Increasingly many peoples of Central Asia are seeing Americans as basically propping up their dictatorial regimes. They’re not seeing the Americans as liberators or as influencing these regimes to modernize and to democratize.
With this enormous projection of U.S. military power into Central Asia, what are the implications for Russia and China ?
There are enormous implications because I don’t see the Russians giving up their sphere of influence, which they’ve maintained for the last 150 years. China has developed enormous trade links. It is supporting the militaries of these Central Asian states. It is backing them in their conflict with Islamic radicals. It’s very worried about Islamic radicalism in Xinjiang province of China itself. It would not like to see an American presence in Central Asia, which is so close to their own borders. What we’re seeing is a kind of united front of several countries—China, Russia, India, Iran—who are not going to support a prolonged American presence in Central Asia.
Vice President Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, has been outspoken about this, that particularly Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have large, relatively untapped reserves of natural gas and oil, and they should be made available to U.S. corporations.
Absolutely. Central Asia is the last untapped, unmarked, unknown area for enormous reserves of oil and gas. In fact, very little of the oil and gas in Central Asia so far we know about. The Soviets did not exploit this region because they were more intent on exploiting Siberia. I think the Americans have an enormous interest in securing this. The largest investments in Central Asia over the last ten years have been made by American oil companies.
One thing I’ve been arguing for years has been that this is a landlocked region. This oil and gas is expensive because you need thousands of miles of pipeline to get this oil and gas to the markets. Be it Western Europe or the Mediterranean or the Gulf ports or Japan, to get this oil out to where it can be shipped to the big markets you need pipelines and you need security and stability. Many of these pipelines would be crossing seven or eight different countries of the former Soviet Union, many of which are in turmoil.
There was a lot of discussion in some sectors of the U.S. media about Unocal ’s desire to bring a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan and out through Pakistani ports. What credence do you give to those kinds of reports?
That was true in the mid-1990s. Unocal was trying to actually build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan crossing southern Afghanistan to feed the Pakistani and Indian markets. They were willing to cut a deal with the Taliban at that time, even though Osama bin Laden was resident there, in southern Afghanistan. But, of course, that fell apart after al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and then bombed the American destroyer, the Cole, two years later. Now, the three countries, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are trying to revive this project. But I still think it’s very premature.
The ruler of Kazakhstan is said to have siphoned off a billion dollars from oil revenues to a Swiss bank.
The level of corruption in Central Asia is horrendous. The ruling families are dominating the oil industry, agriculture, the sale of cotton and wheat, and other such things. President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family virtually run the country. The oil companies have seen that by getting in with the family they can secure their contracts. So it’s been a system where the American corporations and the ruling families of Central Asia have cooperated in this way for the last ten years.
Another ruler calls himself the head of the Turks, Turkmenbashi. Who is he?
President Saparmurad Niyazov is the ruler of Turkmenistan. He calls himself Turkmenbashi, the chief of the Turkmen. He has set up a kind of personality cult, which I think now outrivals Hitler or Stalin. He’s renamed the days of the year after him and his family. He’s renamed the months of the year. He’s renamed cities and buildings and streets and everything else after him. And this is a country where he personally controls the oil and gas revenue from the few companies that are investing in Turkmenistan. There is enormous instability. There was an assassination attempt against him in November 2002 and then a coup attempt. He’s launched a huge crackdown on dissidents and the opposition. He’s arrested hundreds of people. Turkmenistan is very unstable.
One result of this war against terrorism is that there has been a flowering of democratic opposition in these countries. In Kyrgyzstan right now you have a democratic mass movement trying to overthrow the president and have a free election. In Turkmenistan you have had this kind of coup attempt because there is no civil society and open politics are not allowed. Even in Uzbekistan there are enormous rumblings and grumblings—most of the opposition in these states, we should remember, were exiled. Many of these exiles want to come back and create opposition democratic parties and the rulers are not letting them do so. To some extent you can say that if a regime topples tomorrow, in some of these states maybe Islamic fundamentalists can take advantage of that. But in other areas there will be total chaos because none of these autocratic rulers have any line of succession. There is no institutional framework where an orderly succession can take place. Many of these presidents, in fact, would like to install one of their sons or daughters as the next head of state and set up a dynasty, as you had in Syria recently.
Given that instability, then is it likely or possible that some of these militant groups that you describe, the jihadi groups, may in fact seize power?
They’re not strong enough to seize power. They don’t have support there and they don’t have the numbers, frankly, to seize power.
But in Iran the same thing was said, that the Islamic groups did not penetrate the armed forces of the Shah, but in fact they had been conducting a successful co-optation campaign.
I don’t think this is the case in Central Asia simply because the security forces of these states are heavily built on the Soviet model, if you like, and they have been maintained as personal defense forces for the rulers. What you may well see happening in Central Asia with this instability, the lack of democracy, the lack of a succession, is the security forces taking over. You may see military coups taking place, which would destabilize the situation further.
You live in Pakistan and you know that country perhaps best of all. What ’s happening there?
Pakistan is very unstable at the moment. You had a rigged election, bringing in a government that is totally beholden to the military and has no credibility or prestige. Two provinces out of four are ruled by a fundamentalist alliance, which is very threatening, both to the military and to the rest of the country. There is a continuation of terrorism, the presence of al-Qaeda. Finally, of course, there is the army’s obsession with India and wanting to liberate Kashmir, coupled with constant rhetoric about using nuclear weapons against India. So it’s a very shaky situation.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.