Friday, January 12, 2007
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Igor Rotar, Forum 18 News Service
On January 12, The Jamestown Foundation hosted one of Central Asia’s best known journalists and war correspondents, Igor Rotar, who gave a stimulating lecture on the realities of Islamic radicalism and religious freedom in Central Asia. Rotar, having covered such topics from the Tajik Civil War to the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan while on the ground in Central Asia, was one of the only journalists to interview the leaders of the Uzbek group Akramiya in Andijan before the 2005 uprising. His dedication and bold reporting of the realities of the region finally caught up to him in August 2005 when he was arrested and released by the Uzbek Immigration Service because of his work.
Rotar’s talk analyzed the critical issues affecting Central Asia, which includes China’s Xinjiang province:
– There are three primary movements that are expanding religious radicalism in the region: Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Akramiya and Wahhabism.
– Muslim converts to Christianity are not accepted by the population in the region.
– Southern Kyrgyzstan is becoming increasingly radicalized.
– Governments in the region consider Wahhabism to be such a threat that they support Sufism as a balancing force. China, however, continues to prohibit Sufism and Sufi literature and is one of the most stringent governments in the region in suppressing it.
– Despite radicalization trends, most of the population in Central Asia is secular and does not wish to live under an Islamic state.
– Government repression may increase the popularity of these radical Muslim groups and push them underground.
Religious freedom in Central Asia is weak, as those who convert to Christianity from Islam are dealt with harshly by the local populations. In Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and ethnically Uighur areas, converts are apostates; in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, they are considered traitors to the national identity. There are many cases of aggressive harassment toward Muslims who have converted to Christianity. One example Rotar offered was in the summer of 2006, when a mob stormed a protestant church and set fire to its grounds. Rotar examined the historical roots of religious intolerance in the region and pointed out that this intolerance defines nationalism in some of the Central Asian countries.
More concerning to Rotar is the fact that Central Asia is becoming increasingly radicalized. To demonstrate the trends in the region, Rotar noted that 10 years ago in southern Kyrgyzstan, there were very few women who wore the hijab; today, approximately 30 percent of women wear the hijab. The three main forces that are behind this radicalization process are Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Akramiya and Wahhabism.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which has been banned in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, is one of the most popular Islamic groups in Central Asia. The main goal of the movement is to unify all Muslims under a Caliphate. They aim to achieve this end, however, through peaceful means. They consider Western democracy as an unacceptable form of law.
Akramiya, on the other hand, pursues a form of "Islamic socialism," based upon Akram Yuldashev’s 1992 work, "Iymonga yu’l" ("A Path to Faith"). According to Yuldashev’s teachings, Muslims today should place priority over organizing their communities to provide social protection for each other and to help fund schools and implement social services. Rotar explained how Akramiya established an investment fund, and this idea spread into southern Kyrgyzstan and into the greater region. Akramiya was not considered a terrorist organization until 2005, when it became involved in the Andijan uprising. Presently, the group’s intentions are unclear.
The third radicalizing force in the region is Wahhabism. Rotar explained that Wahhabism found its way into the region after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Muslim students were able to travel to Saudi Arabia where they were schooled in the Saudi Hanbali Madhab school of Islam. This school believes in the strict interpretation of the Quran and of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Central Asian governments and the Chinese authorities consider Wahhabism a significant threat, and they frequently take action against it. The fear of Wahhabism is one reason why Central Asian governments encourage Sufism: Sufism is a counter to Wahhabism since the two branches of Islam are hostile to each other. China, on the other hand, continues to prohibit Sufism and has done an excellent job of controlling all aspects of Muslim life in Xinjiang.
In conclusion, Rotar emphasized the danger of Central Asia and Xinjiang becoming increasingly radicalized. Religious intolerance is on the rise. The attempts by the governments in the region to repress Islamist radicals may backfire and actually increase local support for these movements. Nevertheless, since the overall region is considerably more secular than Muslim communities in South Asia or the Middle East, Rotar does not see an Islamic revolution occurring in the near future. Instead, the region can expect to see more religious violence and some destabilization.
The Jamestown Foundation 1111 16th St. NW 7th Floor Conference Room Washington, DC 20036