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.
Religious extremism among the Uzbeks emerged out of a religious and ideological vacuum in the 1990s following the collapse of Communism and its official suppression of religious practice. As part of the rediscovery of national identity during this period, young Uzbeks sought to restore Islamic practice alongside other traditional ways of life marginalized during the Soviet period. The degree of ignorance within the Republic about Islam during this period, however, was extreme due to its repression during previous decades, leading interested youth to look towards foreign scholars and practices believed to be more in tune with ‘proper’ Islamic practice; Saudi and Afghan imams became particularly popular sources due to Saudi prestige in the Muslim world, common linguistic ties to Uzbeks in Afghanistan, and the general extremism of their views. Extremist salafi and takfiri views became prominent among certain groups of disaffected youth during the early 1990s, who blamed the general societal collapse and widespread poverty of that period on the fundamental immorality of Soviet society and its republican successor. Their proposed solution was the radical reimagining of Central Asian government and society along fundamentalist Islamic lines, including the complete replacement of secular law with sharia courts based on fundamentalist salafi interpretations of the Quran and hadiths, and the creation of an expansionist Khalifate.
From the height of their power in 1992, when Islamists from the group ‘Adolat’ kidnapped President Karimov during a visit to Andijon and forced him to read out humiliating statements, the influence of Islamic extremists in Uzbekistan has almost entirely disappeared. This has not been the result of an organic deradicalization of society, but an active effort on behalf of the Uzbekistani state and many elements of civil society to eradicate extremism within the Republic. The small group of committed radicals who sought to use violence to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan, best represented by the O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakati (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU), has been steadily pushed farther and farther from Uzbekistani borders: first to Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, then to Afghanistan, and finally to isolated pockets in Pakistan and Syria. With each movement, the threat of the IMU and similar groups to Uzbekistani life has diminished, as has its influence on the country. Whereas the IMU was able to project power into Uzbekistan throughout the 1990s — running an active insurgency and establishing ‘no-go zones’ in the Farg’ona Valley until the middle of the decade and orchestrating targetted bombings, including the 1999 Toshkent attacks, which nearly killed Islom Karimov, into the early 2000s — the combination of effective counter-insurgency policy based around the mahalla and the fortification of borders with the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan allowed the Karimov government to drive the insurgency out of Uzbekistan. The last notable instance of extremist violence in Uzbekistan, the 2005 Andijon incident, although including some IMU members, was orchestrated independently of the organization’s Pakistan-based leadership. Islamic extremism, and indeed all forms of political Islamism, are now isolated to Uzbek populations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and elements of the diaspora in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Despite the vast majority of Uzbeks living inside Uzbekistan, the common feature of Uzbek jihadis post-2005 is that they reside without.
Even as extremism has been steadily driven back from Uzbekistan’s borders, to be played out in foreign locales such as Syria or Iraq, the Republic has been increasingly marginal to the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups. Almost no Uzbeks fighting abroad were radicalized in Uzbekistan, and the vast majority of the approximately 2,500 Uzbeks who traveled to Syria to wage jihad against the Assad government were radicalized while living or working in Russia, as were all 300 of the Uzbek members of ISIS. The remainder of Uzbek jihadists come from emigre communities in Turkey or the West, where radical Islamist circles prey on listless second-generation immigrants. Despite its leading support role in the Assad government’s war against mainly Islamist rebel groups — and its own decades-long struggle against extremism in the North Caucasus — the crumbling inner cities of Russia are a major locus for radical Islamist activity and recruitment by international jihadist groups. Whereas Uzbekistan largely preserved and expanded Soviet-era institutions for regulating and monitoring religious institutions, the rebirth of faith in 1990s Russia occurred without these constraints. As elsewhere, religious traditions which had not collaborated with the Soviet government, like the Salafi, were much more popular than more moderate juridical schools stained by collaboration with the Soviet regime, like the Hanafi. Young Muslims in Russia, wanting to practice the faith of their ancestors, increasingly reached out to radical salafi preachers, whose rapid expansion was often financed by powerful backers in the Persian Gulf. The refusal of the Russian government to sanction the construction of additional mosques — leaving some of the largest Muslim cities in Eurasia with under a dozen registered mosques — has only exacerbated the problem, with basic shortages of physical space driving the Muslim faithful into the private residences and backrooms in which radical imams preach. While the threat to established Muslim communities like the Tatars and Bashkirs should be recognized, the main population radicalized by these ‘kitchen’ imams are the poor and exploited underclass of Central Asian immigrants in Russian cities. The erstwhile inhabitants of the outer rings of Russian metropolises are socially dislocated within a hostile cityscape, are often desperately poor, and are often wary of the state due to their inadvertent and exploitative involvement in human trafficking: these traits combine to make an ideal population for recruitment into extremist organizations. Recruiters for ISIS or other jihadist groups offer material assistance to Central Asian migrants as well as an important sense of community and identity, radicalizing members once they have been thoroughly integrated. The scale of the radical Islamist network across urban Russia and the failure of the Russian government to take any effective steps towards shutting down extremist mosques or better integrating Central Asian migrants mean that the country is the epicenter of radicalization and recruitment for the former Soviet Union.
Over the past two decades of independence, Uzbekistan has engineered an effective and expansive strategy to deter extremism at all stage of its development. Uzbekistan does not have an issue with Islamic extremism because supervision of religious authorities prevents the dissemination of radical ideas, which do not influence youth because the community-building provisions built into the mahalla system prevent social alienation, who do not join terrorist groups abroad because they cannot acquire the exit visa required to leave the country, who could not return if they did become foreign fighters because of the long reach and international connections of Uzbekistan’s intelligence services. Each of these barriers, compounded, results in a country which has nothing to fear from jihad in West Asia and which should be copied by all states eager to combat terror at home. State supervision of religious institutions and the education of new priests, rabbis, and imams allows the Uzbekistani government to keep its ear close to the ground for signs of extremism, avoiding the deplorable situation in Russia or Britain where unregistered extremists are allowed to preach hate unbeknownst to the government. By constructing civic obligations and social welfare to resemble idealized community and family relations, the mahalla system in Uzbekistan has contained the pernicious disease of alienation driving youth radicalization in the atomized and individualistic societies of Russia and the West. The central role of the mahalla in social services and poor relief means that all members of a neighborhood are forced to participate in the community it creates and accept social responsibilities, such as caring for the elderly, when assigned by mahalla authorities. This set-up recreates or reinforces the community of extended family, even in urban areas, providing an important sense of community and identity to combat social alienation. Other parts of the world would be wise to follow the Uzbekistani example and attempt to recreate ‘traditional’ communities where they have failed to appear organically; making the distribution of entitlements conditional upon participation in community activities is particularly successful at ‘encouraging’ otherwise dismissive twenty-somethings to participate in these programs.
Even in those rare cases, which have dwindled to nothing since heights in the early 1990s, of Uzbeks being radicalized in their national homeland, the government has prepared programs to prevent would-be terrorists from leaving and experienced jihadis from entering. Uzbekistan has a long and dysfunctional history with its diaspora in Turkey and the Gulf, recognizing some element of moral duty towards these populations while simultaneously eyeing them with more distrust than any other foreigners save the Afghans. Beginning with the leader of the Erk opposition party, Muhammad Salih’s, 1993 flight to Istanbul fleeing charges of high treason, the diaspora has been a refuge for those unwelcome in the Republic. Accordingly, the Milliy Xavfsizlik Xizmati — the successor agency to the KGB, best known by its acronym MXX — keeps an ear to the ground in Turkey, running multiple operations of dubious ethics to identify and eliminate those perceived as threats to Uzbekistan. This long reach of Uzbekistani law has mostly played in out the salacious, including an operation involving the assassination of a radical imam by Chechen gangsters, but demonstrates a real capacity of the MXX to interdict the activities of jihadis beyond Uzbekistan’s borders. These active intelligence operations in Turkey and elsewhere allow the government to identify dangerous individuals abroad and prevent the return of trained jihadis which troubles the dreams of Europe.
Those leaving Uzbekistan to engage in foreign jihad or training also face severe impediments from the Uzbekistani government, primarily the exit visa regime. While the issuing of exit visas is a formality for travel to most countries, a thorough interview, examination, and background check by the police is actually required for citizens to travel to those countries known for terrorist activity: Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya. An examination of those Uzbek terrorists detained in Guantanamo Bay reveals that none were able to travel directly to the countries where they received training, all having to make difficult and costly journeys through Tajikistan or the Caucasus without valid papers. This system has proved itself effective at making it more difficult for radicals to participate in jihad, it should be maintained. There are many complains in Uzbekistani society about the difficulty of traveling abroad because of the exit visa system, but they pale in comparison to the protection which this regime has afforded the population. The calls to remove the exit visa system are borne from a perception that the threat of terrorism has retreated alongside the expulsion of terrorists from Uzbekistan. This is a mistaken belief: the world is dark and violent, many would like to harm the Republic and its citizens, and the tranquility which Uzbekistan now enjoys is preserved only through continued vigilance. Uzbekistan has built an intricate and effective system for preventing radicalization, a system which can and should be used as an example to the rest of the world, it should not abandon this system at a time when threats are ever less predictable and ever more virulent.
Critchlow, James. “Nationalism in Uzbekistan: A Soviet Republic’s Road to Sovereignty”. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991.
Lubin, Nancy, Sam Nunn & Barnett R. Rubin. “Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia”. Vol. 4 of Preventive Action Reports. New York: Center for Preventive Actions, 1999.