Ahmed Rashid, a highly acclaimed journalist and expert on Afghanistan and Central Asia has, with this new book Jihad:The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, brought into focus the threat of militancy in the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. After the huge success of his brilliant book on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, it is not surprising to see his superb investigative and analytical skills at work again, telling of yet another impending political crisis. So widely respected is Rashid’s understanding of the complex political situation of the Middle East and Central Asia that such a distinguished audience as the General Assembly of the United Nations listened raptly as he offered his perspective on Afghanistan. Will the world listen to what he has to say now?
The book begins with a brief background on Islam in Central Asia, a moderate tradition with great tolerance. Sufism, the most tolerant form of Islam that preaches direct communion with God, originated here and went on to the others parts of Asia. In the early years of the twentieth century, this region also saw intellectual movements such as Jadidism that opposed the conservative interpretation of the Islam law. All this was lost with the annexation of Central Asia by the Bolsheviks. As this region integrated with the USSR, albeit by force, Islam was suppressed and forced to go underground.
When Islam rose up again with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was a time of grave economic disaster. The republics of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which were not well developed and had looked to Soviet subsidies earlier, were on the verge of total collapse. Central Asia had no reformers advocating an open market economy; even if they did, the leadership had no idea of how to get buyers outside the Soviet Union. The communist leadership in these republics refused to step down from power and hand it over to the people. At this moment of crisis, these countries experienced a radical Islamic revival from outside sources, with the Arab Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran pouring in Islamic literature and money to win adherents into their form of the religion. The repressive regimes sought to stop these movements by force, creating some of the worst human rights abuses in recent times. This coupled with extreme economic hardship was responsible for the rise of militant Islam in this part of the world. With rampant corruption among the ruling elite and high rates of unemployment, people turned to any movement that promised solace.
The author discusses at length the three Islamic movements in Central Asia since 1991. The nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which seeks to unite the entire Muslim world in a Caliphate; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which aims to overthrow the ruling regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and assume power; and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which is on the decline. Of these, the IMU poses the maximum threat to peace. The IMU is allied with the Al-Qaeda and was earlier trained and supported by Pakistan’s ISI and funded by Saudi organizations. It is constantly engaged in guerilla warfare with the Uzbek and other security forces. And after Osama bin laden, IMU’s Jumi Namangani may be the man to keep an eye on.
Economic growth and democracy is the mantra to drive out the ills in the world today, and Central Asia is no exception to that rule. Except Tajikistan, none of these republics have a democratically elected government in power. Ironically, it is in Tajikistan, with a coalition government of democratic and Islamic parties (including IRP) in power, where militant Islam has failed. In fact, IRP’s decline is attributed to its joining the Tajik government and failing to solve any of the nation’s problems.
Development of this region should not be a difficult proposition. These republics are rich with oil, gas and minerals; however, infrastructure facilities need to be developed. Rashid feels the best hope is that a stable government will come to rule in Afghanistan so that the Central Asian republics can build oil pipelines -- “pipelines for peace,” as he calls them -- through Afghanistan to the Gulf. This, followed by a comprehensive strategy for the region with initiation of democratization under the auspices of the UN and the use of the oil revenue for education, employment and development, is the only way to eliminate terrorism.
With Jihad, Ahmed Rashid does a superb job of showing the complex political problems of Central Asia. The text is accompanied by maps that make it easier to follow the geopolitical details. Highly recommended, a must-read for those who wish to understand the goings-on of this part of the world.