SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid, Penguin Books, 2003, £8-99

Reviewed by Per Åke Westerlund

THE BRUTAL dictatorships in Central Asia have become key allies of US imperialism in its ‘war against terrorism’. This alliance, and the fact that Central Asia is one of the world’s poorest regions, have created fertile ground for the growth of right-wing political Islam. Ahmed Rashid clearly states where he believes the responsibility lies: "Both the governments and the international community have betrayed the people of Central Asia and offered them nothing but oppression, unemployment, poverty, disease and war".

He is very critical of the Islamist groups: "The new Muslim fundamentalists are not interested in making an unjust society just. They don’t care about jobs, education, social benefits or about creating harmony between the different ethnic groups which live in many Muslim countries. The new jihad groups have no economic manifesto, no plan for improved rule or the construction of political institutions, and no vision on how decision making can be democratised in their future Islamic states".

By 1929 Stalin had divided Turkestan into five republics, playing on ethnic and regional power struggles to make his control easier. The natural centre of the region, the Fergana Valley, was divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The two most important Tajik cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, were awarded to Uzbekistan, the biggest republic with 22 million inhabitants, as was the predominantly-Tajik Sukh region. Uzbeks make up the biggest ethnic group, with 72% of the population in Uzbekistan and big minorities in other republics. In Kyrgyzstan, only 52% are Kyrgyz. The privileges of the ruling Stalinists – and their military power – were totally dependent on the link with Moscow.

Islam’s comeback was given impetus after 1980 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, where there are 4.5 million Tajiks and two million Uzbeks. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in economic devastation, combined with increased repression. And much of the backlash against this repression was channelled into political Islam. A thousand new mosques were established in each of the republics.

Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan applied IMF-style programmes and large-scale privatisation. Kazakhstan has sold its oil fields mostly to US companies, but also to China, which set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This includes Russia and the Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan, handling economic projects as well as limited military cooperation. In March 2001, Chevron’s Tenghiz field pipeline was completed. All major companies have been sold since 1994, many to friends of Nazarbayev. The president’s daughter, Dariga Haz, controls 80% of the media and her husband is head of state security.

Kyrgyzstan is deeply split ethnically, with separate schools, mosques and bazaars for Kyrgyz and Uzbek people. Hundreds were killed in ethnic fighting in the city of Osh in the summer of 1990. By 2001, 68% of the population were living on less than $7 a month, according to the World Bank. In response to armed raids by the Independent Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), president Akayev banned all opposition parties in the elections in February 2000 and imprisoned Islamists. A wave of protests and strikes followed. In March 2000, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited the country and promised money for military rearmament.

Saparmurad Niyazov in Turkmenistan and Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan) refused to implement IMF ‘reforms’. The cult around Turkmenistan’s president is, according to Rashid, more extensive than even the cult around Stalin. In 1991 Niyazov appointed himself the ‘Father of all Turkmen’. There are statues everywhere. He has renamed every street in the capital, and his book on ‘ethics’ is the equivalent of Mao Ze Dong’s red book. Political parties are banned, the media is controlled by the government and all telephone calls are tapped.

Uzbekistan is the dominant power in Central Asia. President Karimov rules with an iron hand. He got 92% in the last election, when even the ‘opposition’ candidate voted for him. Turkey has invested in 400 joint ventures and some US companies are involved in mining and energy, through direct deals with Karimov.

Tajikistan is the poorest republic. In 2000 grain production fell by 47% due to drought. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 1.2 million people were affected by hunger and malnutrition, reporting that people sold the doors and windows of their houses to get food. Sixty per cent of all under-30s are unemployed.

The civil war, between troops of the former Stalinist regime and the armed wing of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), saw 50,000 killed and 250,000 refugees from 1992-97. The IRP was founded in Russia as a party for Muslims throughout the former Soviet Union. Politically and militarily it was close to Ahmad Shah Masood and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, prominent US-supported commanders in Afghanistan. The IRP built support through distributing food, and alliances with other opposition parties. It was supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia and Uzbekistan – then later, Iran – backed the Tajik regime, led by Emomali Rahmonov.

When the Taliban came to power in Kabul in 1996 the situation changed. Rahmonov’s regime and the IRP wanted to stop the Taliban. A peace agreement in 1997 legalised the IRP, and its soldiers were integrated into the army. Sayed Abdullah Nuri and other IRP leaders were given seats in the government. The economic crisis deepened, however, and its support soon collapsed.

Some IRP supporters joined two, more extreme, Islamic alternatives: the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HT – Party of Islamic Liberation). Hizb ut-Tahrir has won strong support among urban people and academics. Its stated aim is to take power in one or two countries, form a caliphate and then take over the rest of the Muslim world. Its model state is an autocracy with sharia laws, Arabic as its language, the oppression of women’s rights, anti-Semitism, anti-Shiism, a ban on most cultural activity, etc.

The IMU differs from both the IRP and HT in openly advocating the violent overthrow of the current regimes. (HT supported the Taliban, but claims to be non-violent.) The IMU developed under the leadership of Tohir Yuldeshev and Juma Namangani with money from Saudi Arabia and, in the beginning, Turkey and Iran. When it was based in Peshawar, Pakistan (1995-98), it built links with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Uzbeks in Saudi Arabia also support the IMU financially.

In February 1999, six car bombs were detonated in Tashkent in an attack on Karimov. This led to increased repression against Muslims. The IMU declared war on the regime the following August. Yuldeshev was given asylum by the Taliban, and the IMU received a big share of the income from the opium trade. The IMU conducted guerrilla raids in the Fergana Valley, and the rulers closed the borders, which worsened the economic crisis. After demonstrations in 2000, the US, Russia, China, Turkey, France and Israel flew in ‘riot-control equipment’. Clearly, they were not just worried about the guerrillas.

After 11 September 2001, Russian and Central Asian regimes offered the US access to military bases. Russia wanted a free hand in Chechnya and the rulers in Central Asia wanted help to crush the IMU. US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Uzbekistan in October 2001, and the World Bank granted new loans.

It is clear that the collapse of Stalinism into a kind of shadow-Stalinism, combined with the imperialist robbers and their armies, have created the crisis in Central Asia. Social discontent and anger is rising against the corrupt elites – and the West. They could be channelled into mass workers’ struggle, but also into guerrilla action and the emergence of new Islamic organisations. Unfortunately, Rashid’s focus on Islamic opposition means that mass protests, in most cases, are not featured in his book, the most important omission being that of the workers’ struggle in Kazakhstan.

A fuller version of this review is available at


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