Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 10


By Igor Rotar

The incursion by Uzbek Islamists into Surkhan-Darya Oblast in Uzbekistan and the mountainous southern regions of Kyrgyzstan was entirely predictable. Few people in Tashkent and Bishkek doubted that the Islamic radicals’ sortie into Kyrgyzstan in August last year was just a way of testing their strength, and that at the first opportunity the guerrillas would make another attempt to break through into Uzbekistan. These fears were not unfounded. In August 1999 the Kyrgyz and Uzbek armies did not manage to crush the Islamists, and they retreated to their bases in the mountains of Tajikistan without suffering any significant losses. There were persistent rumors that about thirty heated stone houses had been built in the Kyrgyz mountains, serving as transit bases for the Islamists. Food and weapons were stockpiled, and the “warriors of the jihad” converged there prior to penetrating deeper into Uzbekistan. Furthermore, not only Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz politicians (who can be accused of bias), but also some foreign leaders asserted that Central Asia’s Islamists were supported by the Taliban. For example, according to the Afghan general Ahmad Shah Massoud, the head of the Taliban movement Mohammad Omar and the leader of the Uzbek Islamists Tokhir Yuldashev are working on a plan to create an Islamic Emirate in Fergana.

So who are these opponents of the Uzbek authorities, and to what extent does the threat that they might seize power affect the political situation in Central Asia? The phenomenon of Islamic conservatism (by which I mean the determination to create a society which lives according to the laws of the shari’a) in the CIS was engendered by a very serious problem which may be aptly defined with the phrase coined by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington–“the clash of civilizations.” Before perestroika Moscow managed to adapt the widely contrasting cultures of the various peoples of the Soviet Union to communist ideology. Yet this was only possible under a totalitarian system.

“Our democracy is incompatible with western democracy!”, the leader of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party (IRP), Muhammad Sharif Khimatzoda, said to me in 1991. “In the West the rights of the individual are so unrestricted that communal rights are practically unrecognized; the West faces ruin because of the permissiveness of the Western way of life. But in the Soviet Union the rights of the individual were, until recently, extremely restricted. We will try to keep between the two extremes.” I became acquainted with the leaders of the IRP in 1990, when it was still an underground organization. Perhaps what struck me most was the extent to which these people were able to avoid Russian and Soviet influence. Many of the party leaders (including its chairman Khimatzoda) speak practically no Russian, but they do speak Arabic. Most of them wear national dress, and their way of life differs little from that of the Tajik people before Russian colonization. The patriarchal nature of the IRP’s leadership may be neatly illustrated by a story I was told by the deputy chairman of the party, Davlat Usmon. “We were once visited by an American woman journalist dressed in shorts. We truly wanted to help her understand the situation, but her wild outfit embarrassed us to such a degree that our conversation never took place.”

A great deal has already been written on the course of events in Tajikistan, so there is undoubtedly no need to dwell here on the history of the conflict in the republic. We note only that the authorities failed to keep control of the situation. A long and bloody civil war erupted. Eventually the Islamic conservatives managed partially to achieve their aims, and today their representatives enjoy a fairly commanding presence in the power structures. But on the whole the country is divided into effectively independent semi-feudal dwarf states, whose only rulers are the field commanders.

The situation in Uzbekistan developed along very different lines. The 1992 civil war in Tajikistan caused genuine alarm among the Uzbek authorities. Tashkent was justly concerned that the strife in the neighboring state might spill over onto its own territory. It was during this period that the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, made two now classic comments: “We are not ready for democracy; every meeting here turns into a pogrom.” And: “Better a hundred arrests than thousands of deaths.”

Having thus prepared the public, Islam Karimov unleashed a massive campaign of repression against the national-democratic opposition. Practically all of his opponents were forced to flee abroad: The opposition simply ceased to exist as an organized force. However, having outmaneuvered the secular national-democratic opposition and sent them all packing, the president found himself, to his own surprise, face-to-face with a new, incomparably more powerful source of political influence. There was no free press and no democratic public institutions in the country, but the mosques became hotbeds of dissidence; they became the focal point of public discontent. Believers would record Radio Liberty broadcasts and exchange the tapes in the mosques.

The Fergana Valley became the main base for the Islamic conservatives in Uzbekistan. Even in the Soviet period there was an entire network here of semi-underground medrese [Muslim schools] and mosques which were free of the control of the communist leadership. In 1991 the Adolat (“Justice”) movement suddenly emerged in Namangan, one of the regional capitals of the Fergana Valley. This movement formed something like the Iranian “guardians of the Islamic revolution.” Young men wearing green armbands appeared in the most unexpected places in the town and handed out punishments, at their own discretion, to those they thought had broken the law. From the perspective of western forms of jurisprudence, the punishments meted out to thieves and prostitutes were quite exotic: They were sat facing backwards on a donkey and led around town, or tied to pillars in public squares, where passers-by would spit at them. Offenders were also subjected to the lash in the mosques. The undisputed leader of this “Islamic militia” was Takhir Yuldashev, who is currently the ringleader of the guerrillas. Initially, Islam Karimov was well disposed towards the activities of Adolat, but he very quickly came to realize that he was no longer the boss in Namangan. The denouement came during a visit by Karimov to the town, where he was met by an extremely hostile crowd led by Yuldashev. The Uzbek president could not forgive such a humiliation, and a few weeks after his departure the Adolat activists were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. However, Yuldashev and some of his supporters managed to escape from the republic. Yuldashev went first to Afghanistan, and then made his way illegally into Tajikistan. More Islamists gradually began making their way from Uzbekistan to the mountains of Tajikistan in order to escape prosecution. The situation was in many ways reminiscent of that in the North Caucasus prior to the start of the new Chechen campaign. At that time fundamentalists from other north Caucasian republics who did not want to submit to the laws of the “godless authorities” began to “emigrate” to the “Islamic State” of Chechnya.

The gradual exodus from Uzbekistan became a flood particularly after the terrorist attacks in Tashkent in February 1999, when the frightened Uzbek authorities began arresting religious dissidents en masse, many of whom did not in fact have any connection with the armed underground movement. As a result, there are now about a thousand refugees from Uzbekistan in Tajikistan. Furthermore, there are not just political but also economic reasons for the emigration from Uzbekistan to the mountains of Tajikistan.

The main center of “informal” Islam in Uzbekistan is the Fergana Valley. This is a distinctive region of Uzbekistan–the density of the population here is one of the highest in the world, and certainly the highest in Central Asia. Today the vast majority of the rural population is hungry. Wages at collective farms have not been paid for years, and people’s private plots are so small that it is impossible for them to grow enough produce to feed their family. The situation became very much worse after the mass arrests of the spring and summer of 1999. Many families had their breadwinners taken from them. Given this, in order to feed their families many people had only one option: To join the opposition camp in Tajikistan. The Uzbek Islamists do not appear to lack financial resources; furthermore, aid does not only come from Afghanistan. For example, one Muhammad Amin Turkistoni, a citizen of Saudi Arabia and an Uighur by nationality, handed Takhir Yuldashev US$260,000 to buy weapons. Half the weapons were given to the Uighur separatists in China–a condition laid down by Turkistoni.

This enclave of Uzbek oppositionists in Tajikistan certainly does nothing to facilitate friendly relations between the two countries. Yet to all appearances Dushanbe has no intention of expelling Islam Karimov’s opponents from its territory. This stance adopted by the Tajik authorities is easily explained. The rebel Tajik Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev is still in hiding, with his guerrillas, somewhere in Uzbekistan. In November 1998, Khudoiberdiev led an uprising in Leninabad Oblast in northern Tajikistan. At the time Dushanbe claimed that the Uzbek authorities had had a hand in planning the uprising. These accusations are apparently not without foundation. Khudoiberdiev is half Uzbek, and never concealed the fact that his sympathies lie with the leaders of Uzbekistan. If Khudoiberdiev had managed to entrench himself in Leninabad Oblast, Uzbekistan would have had a sort of buffer zone, controlled by people friendly towards Tashkent, separating it from its turbulent neighbor. It should not be forgotten that Tashkent had already tried to implement the same set-up in Afghanistan: Those regions of Afghanistan bordering on Uzbekistan were controlled by General Dustum, an ethnic Uzbek supported by Tashkent.

However, Dushanbe is naturally unhappy with this tactic of Tashkent’s, and it therefore comes as no surprise that the Tajik authorities are not keen to quarrel with the Uzbek president’s opponents lurking in the republic’s mountain regions. Recently leaflets have begun appearing at markets in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan which read as follows: “There is no let-up in the vicious attack by the Jewish infidel Islam Karimov and the institutions of his state on Khizb ut-Takhrir, which calls us to Islam! Muslims, do not lose heart!” The radical Islamic party Khizb ut-Takhrir (which has its illegal headquarters in Jordan) is banned in almost every Muslim country in the world. The party’s aim is to unite the whole of the Muslim world into one Caliphate. According to its leaders, there is not one true Islamic state in existence in the world today. The party considers Western democracy to be unacceptable to Muslims. Its theorists believe that the lives of Muslims should be governed by the shari’a. Long years of underground existence have inured its supporters to harsh discipline: The members of the organization are divided into groups of five, and people from these different groups often do not know each other. There is a rigid centralized system in the party. For example, the Uzbek division of Khizb ut-Takhrir clears all its actions (including the texts of its proclamations) over the Internet with headquarters in Jordan.

“Repression against Islamists is having the opposite effect, at least for the moment,” lamented a Russian diplomat accredited in Tashkent, in conversation with Prism. “It would theoretically be possible to find a common language with people like Takhir Yuldashev. But it is virtually impossible to come to an agreement with members of Khizb ut-Takhrir.”

Tashkent – Osh

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.