Uzbekistan has both a long and uncomfortable relationship with political Islam, recognizing to some degree the importance and political value of Islam in the creation of an Uzbek state separate from Russia, yet avowedly resisting Islamist strains of thought in contemporary politics. Most resistance to Russian conquest, beginning in the 1850s, was at least partially Islamist in nature: almost all groups fighting Russian influence justified their use of violence at least partially through Islamic jihad, incorporated Islamic symbolism and motif into their rhetoric and propaganda, and depended on religious orders — most famously the Naqshbandi brotherhood — for logistics, support, and new recruits. These forms of semi-nationalist, semi-religious conflict — continuing throughout the period of Russian colonialism until the power of Sufi brotherhoods and rural landed elites was finally broken by the Toshkent Soviet and the radical reorganization of rural life — bear little resemblance to the modern internationalist forms of Islamic radicalism. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and others follow variations of an ideology broadly understood as takfiri Islam, which focuses on the responsibility of the faithful to convert or kill heretics and the sinful, referred to broadly as kuffar; this approach justifies the extreme violence of these groups towards those they view as kuffar. This form of Islamic radicalism, compared to that common during the 19th Century, is avowedly anti-nationalist and actively encourages the displacement of the borders and traditional government institutions which more traditionalist extremist groups might try to preserve or restore.
I write about Uzbek jihadists now, not out of idle interest, but because increasing numbers of Uzbeks are traveling to Iraq and Syria to join other misguided youths in jihad. Some international observers and media pundits have claimed that this demonstrates a failure on the part of the Uzbekistani government to prevent its youth from being radicalized, and in particular blamed the tight control of Islamic practice by the State Committee on Religious Issues for the surprising numbers of Uzbeks joining ISIS and Al-Qaeda. These statements are utterly misplaced and constitute a fundamental misunderstanding of the demographics of Uzbek radicalization. Almost all Uzbeks are radicalized while living abroad, and those who travel to engage in jihad almost always move through third countries to do so. If anything, Russia and the West should be looking towards Uzbekistan for inspiration about how to deter their own jihadis.