Islam and Uzbekistan: An Interview with Dr. Rafik Saifulin

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 12

Dr. Saifulin is an adviser to Uzbek President Islam Karimov and former director of the Uzbek Institute of Strategic and Regional Studies. This interview was conducted in Tashkent, and translated from the Russian, by Dr. Evgueni Novikov.

Evgueni Novikov: The infrastructure and man-power of most Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is said to have been significantly weakened by “Operation Enduring Freedom.” However, some have argued that because Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is primarily a propaganda organization with no military facilities to be destroyed, its strength has increased by comparison to that of other Islamists organizations. Some analysts believe that the fall of the Taliban might even have brought new recruits to HT. Do you agree with these views?

Rafik Saifulin: In a certain sense, one can claim that the weakening of the Taliban and IMU had already resulted in a boost for HT and continues to boost this party. At the same time, the following question is important: To what extend is the comparison of HT and the Taliban as organized movements appropriate? We have to take into consideration that they have different geographical belts of “responsibility” and activity; they have different enough sources of financing, and they have different social and national-ethnic bases.

In general, to what extend is it appropriate to compare the Taliban of Afghanistan and HT in Central Asia? I think that [the comparison] is not quite correct – though there are some similarities. Certainly, for parts of the population of Uzbekistan and Central Asia (perhaps 5%), the Taliban acted as a symbol, though an extremely remote one. Despite an apparent geographic affinity, Afghanistan and the Taliban are alien for the majority Uzbeks and people in the region.

Also, to what extend is it appropriate to compare HT and the IMU? We have to take into consideration that these organizations use different tactical methods. The IMU has already spoiled its image (both among supporters and at the international level) by its involvement in drug-dealing, by its terrorist and violent methods, and by its contact with the Taliban. But it is necessary to ask whether HT supports direct contact with international terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda. It is impossible to exclude such a possibility. At the same time, it is necessary to note the similarities in the slogans and strategic goals [of HT and the IMU], which are based on a priority of Islam, and also to point out their similar social niches and geographical foci.

On the whole, then, assuming a link between [the decline] of the IMU and a [rise in the] influence of HT, including a strengthening of its social base, is appropriate. However, supporters and sympathizers of HT are a recruiting base from which small groups of fanatics/terrorists are selected.

Also, one must ask how true is it that HT has no military structure or capabilities? This is basically correct, but there are also some serious concerns. I believe that the presence or absence of a military structure or military capabilities is not a parameter – [it is not] an indicator of the real long-term plans and goals of HT. Today, HT focuses mainly on its social base, that is the key precondition for a cardinal expansion of its financial, political and, certainly, military opportunities in future – at a time convenient for HT.

In case of Uzbekistan – the formation of a military structure would certainly be difficult, but nevertheless possible, if we consider the wide potential of HT’s social base. If socio-economic conditions deteriorate, we can not exclude such a development. By comparison with other Central Asian countries, HT’s military structure could be generated most successfully and quickly in Tajikistan; this structure could be based on steady contacts between the HT and IMU offices in Tajikistan – given the inhibitions on the IMU’s structure – and also an HT military formation could be based on the large number of dispersed supporters of violent actions.

In a case of the Kyrgyzstan, HT already has the most important condition for the fast expansion of a military structure – significant rates of growth in its social base of (so-far peaceful) supporters of Islam as a whole and HT in particular. We have to remember that for the population of Kyrgyzstan, the norms and principles of Islam were not dominant for a long period of time. The principles of Islam were borrowed basically from the Uzbek part of the republic’s population. [This segment of the population is significant in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the south of the country.] HT has become stronger in Kyrgyzstan because of the migration of HT’s supporters from Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan keeps a neutral stance regarding the growth of religious sentiment among the local population. But socio-political instability in Kyrgyzstan creates a wide field of action for HT, at least in short-term.

In the case of Kazakhstan, as in Uzbekistan, opportunity to create a military structure for HT is minimal – though there are very real opportunities in the southern regions of Kazakhstan. Also, we can see certain attempts by HT to strengthen its hold in the western parts of the country, which are rich in oil. They are doing this because a growth in religious sentiment has been observed [in the west] as illegal laborers/migrants are pouring into these parts of Kazakhstan from the most religious areas of Uzbekistan. We notice a move in HT’s activities from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. As a whole, HT is attractive to those who cannot find a place for themselves in the modern, complex social and economic conditions of Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan. Even fatwahs from the High Muslim spiritual leadership of these republics, forbidding youths to have any contact with representatives of HT, are not obeyed. Any such instruction, even from authoritative clerics, is viable only if the youth have an opportunity to express themselves in legal, public practices. But because of mass unemployment among the young, these individuals are being easily recruited to become members of radical Islamic or pseudo-Islamic organizations. Also, it is possible to assert with confidence that the tendency toward radicalization will gradually increase, since the objective preconditions for improvements in the standard of living in these countries are not yet visible.

At the same time, it is not necessary to exaggerate the potential of HT. Grave economic conditions and daily concerns about their own survival make most of the population socially passive and apolitical. Moreover, about one million people (the most socially active part of the population living outside of Tashkent) are annually involved in labor migration to the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, which sharply decreases social pressures. Only human rights professionals or the radical youths from Islamic organizations are engaged in political activity. HT’s activities will most probable increase only if the internal political situation is aggravated because of a struggle for authority and power.

Novikov: The Uzbek government has created a network of religious educational institutions, including non-governmental organizations (such as the Association of Muslims of Uzbekistan) and government-sponsored learning institutions (such as the Islamic University in Tashkent), which took a leading role in coordinating special working groups of both religious and secular scholars. Their purpose is to create new text books that emphasize traditional Islam and reject radical Islam. What resources does this network have? What kind of impact is the project expected to have in the near term and in the longer term? Are the network and its products considered legitimate by the general population?

Saifulin: Resources, certainly, are limited. Significant additional financing from foreign and, especially, internal sources is improbable. In the near future, the project of de-legitimating radical Islamists will have a positive, but, at the same time, limited influence on internal processes. Since we have no systematic or complex measures that combine economic, political and only then informational steps, large scale changes in public sentiment are impossible. Also, the basic audience of the project is a population of more than 25 million, where about 70% are younger than 30 years-old. To what extent will the project be capable of meeting their needs and requirements?

In the long-term, the plan’s realization will be directly connected to the economic development of Uzbekistan, including some kind of liberal environment for small and mid-sized business activity, as well as processes of integration in the Central Asian region. Problems and various obstacles to these goals will seriously harm the strategic goals of the project, despite their correctness, and will undermine its legitimacy within the population. So it seems that the project will have legitimacy for an insignificant part of the population, by virtue of its comparative financial limitations and, moreover, because of the presence of fundamental social and economic difficulties in the country.

In general, there is a need for larger, broader, better organized and better-financed programs where the interpretation of the present political ideology in accordance with the Qur’an for Muslims is only one of the components. The stress should be on the formation of state ideology, where current achievements are very modest. More support of state actions, with the help of mass media and the educational system, is needed. It is necessary to depart from this primitive informational policy, which does not reach the majority of the population, i.e., the youth and children.

Novikov: HT’s rise has been compared to that of the Bolsheviks in late 19th and early 20th century Russia. Especially, allegations have been made that HT successfully uses the prison system to gain and indoctrinate recruits. Do you agree with such an analogy?

Saifulin: The analogy between HT and the Bolshevik movement is very apt, as well as the comparative analysis of what happened then and processes that are occurring today [with regard to the] appearance of new revolutionary ideologies on the political stage. Concurrences of methods between HT and the Bolsheviks “work” in prison conditions are evident, especially with regard to people who have insignificant prison terms for small offences, perhaps in connection with actions directed at the overthrow of the existing regime. Such people become, as a rule, ideologically stronger when they leave jails. At the same time, it is impossible to say that recruiting in prisons has a mass character.

Novikov: We don’t know who or what areas provide HT with the most support. Is HT more popular in urban or rural areas? Among farmers or businessmen?

Saifulin: The popularity of HT is certainly higher in countryside and, hence, HT has more sympathizers among the rural portions of the population. The layer of representatives among small and average businessmen in villages is just being formed. Thus, HT possessed, and probably possesses, a certain number of supporters among representatives in small and average business in cities – in particular, among those who are engaged in small wholesale trading operations. Thus, their majority are from the countryside.

Novikov: Some have claimed that the economic situation in the region has led to HT’s success in recruiting government officials. Do you agree with such views?

Saifulin: It is impossible to call it a “tendency,” but this phenomenon most likely takes place, especially in the most economically underdeveloped countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the level of corruption and the representation of clerical elements in governmental structures is also rather high. As a whole, it is more the exception rather than the rule for Central Asian countries. At the same time, the aggravation of the political struggles within Central Asian countries, as in Kyrgyzstan for example, may lead to the further penetration of HT supporters into governmental structures and, as a consequence, to large-scale kick backs or the recruitment of other government representatives.

Novikov: We have almost no information on HT’s funding. Where and from whom is HT getting the money to support its operations? How much money is required to fund HT’s operations?

Saifulin: I think that one of the main sources of financing is external: the “charities” of some radical international organizations and, certainly, HT centers in Arabian and some European countries such as Great Britain. Another important source of financing is internal: contributions by HT representatives, those who are involved in legal commerce, and also contributions by HT sympathizers. A third important source is the black market, which is especially large in the frontier areas of all Central Asian countries where semi-criminal businesses have developed. Representatives from all the countries of the region are involved in this business, which possesses a monopoly on trading operations in frontier areas. The semi-criminal business profits from tensions in the mutual relations between the countries of Central Asia, and works against the liberalization of intra-regional trade.

Novikov: Some have claimed that the local population has been put off by HT’s anti-Semitic message and focus on Middle Eastern issues. Do you agree with such views?

Saifulin: Initially, yes. However, now such questions of ideology do not push people away any more – on the contrary they even attract supporters. Criticism of the USA’s role in Israel the Near East recently grew from some parts of the religious population in Central Asia. This tendency is not of a steady character yet. However, an absence of progress in the social and economic sphere, and an absence of systematic informational measures, may amplify this tendency. Acts of terrorism against the embassies of the United States and Israel serve as proof of this tendency. At the same time, such terrorist actions draw the attention of many believers away from Central Asian countries, to the policies of the U.S. and Israel on a regional and global level, creating a certain sense of similarity of processes in the Near East and Central Asia. Here there is a danger that such analogies [between the Near East and Central Asia, for example] can lead to the search for an external source of all troubles.

Meanwhile, the search for answers to the political questions arising from Central Asian populations inevitably pushes people to the most important local sources of information – the Russian media – where reports have an obviously anti-American character. The lack of financial resources for the development of local mass-media is especially true for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This leads to a situation in which the Russian media provides basic news and information to regional sources which in turn transmit these ideas to the population of their countries.

Novikov: We only have a very limited idea of what political and socio-economic direction the region is moving in. Which of the following four types of people is most respected among the local population: religious leaders, businessmen, politicians or soldiers? What do the youth aspire to be when they grow up?

Saifulin: In order to answer to this question we have to consider external and internal aspects of the problem. Looking at the external aspects, we must point out that regional integration should be considered a unique solution for the survival and development of Central Asian states – but regional integration is being carried out extremely slowly. The growth of Russian interests in Central Asia may solve this key problem, since only Russia could become the locomotive of economic integration here. However, the absence of a clear-cut Russian strategy, some friction between Russian-American relations, and the rise of artificial competition between Russia and the U.S. in the Central Asia which has distracted Western attention to the region – these are the main negative external factors that lead to a deterioration of the situation in the Central Asia. In these conditions, China has sought to become an engine of social, economic and political progress in Central Asia. As a result, Chinese policies can seriously influence the dynamics of domestic trends and development within Central Asian states.

If we look at the internal aspects of the problem, we have to take into consideration the complicated social and economic situation, and as a consequence, the growth of discontent among the population and the increase of religion’s role in social life. These factors could create a worst-case scenario in the region in the intermediate future.

The most important professional activities of the local population can be described as follows. For Uzbekistan: business and military service, then religious or political activity; for Kazakhstan: business, politics, and then military service and religious activity; Kyrgyzstan: business and simultaneously religious activity, then political activity and military service; Tajikistan: business, military, then religious activity and political career; and for Turkmenistan: business, political activity (though, it is possible vise versa), and then military service and religious activity.