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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > Central Asia > Is Radical Islam Inevitable in Central Asia? Priorities for Engagement

Is Radical Islam Inevitable in Central Asia? Priorities for Engagement

Asia Report N°72 22 Dec 2003


The terrorist acts in the United States on 11 September 2001 have prompted an ongoing discussion of how international engagement, in all its aspects, can undermine Islamist radicalism and promote religious tolerance. New attention to Central Asia after 9/11, including a Western military presence, has also focused minds on whether the region is at serious threat from Islamist radicalism and what can be done about it. This report examines the attitudes of Central Asian Muslims to the West, based on public opinion surveys and interviews in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and offers a range of policy options for closer engagement with Islam and approaches that might reduce support for radical alternatives to present regimes.

The rapid religious resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was mostly focused on restoring the rights of Muslims to worship freely but was also accompanied by an increase in interest in political Islam. Over a decade later, about a fifth of Uzbeks say they want a legal Islamic party in order to represent the interests of Muslims, as do 16 per cent in Tajikistan, and 17.5 per cent in Kyrgyzstan. Large majorities in each country prefer the present secular system of government but small minorities have emerged that are radically opposed to secular polities and seek an Islamic state.

Radical groups that appeared in Central Asia in the early 1990s, many inspired or funded by Saudi Wahhabi organisations, found only limited popular support. But further support for radicalism has partly resulted from bad policies and a lack of democratic reforms and justice that push people to extremes. Ordinary people are experiencing a long, traumatic and difficult transition, which is leading to a great deal of frustration. Their governments are closed systems dominated by elites who use the rhetoric of democracy to secure their international standing, while pursuing authoritarian policies.

Domestically, there is more concern about the international campaign against terrorism than is apparent from official statements; however, public opinion is diverse, and negative sentiments against U.S.-led policies are still more muted than in many other parts of the world. In Tajikistan, 34.8 per cent and 30.1 per cent, respectively, believed that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had no positive results. In Kyrgyzstan, 36.7 per cent held negative opinions about the war in Afghanistan, while 52 per cent did not support the war in Iraq. But concern about international terrorism stemming from radical Islamist groups, in part genuine, in part the creation of government propaganda, was substantial.

Recent increases in assistance to Central Asia in conjunction with the campaign against terrorism have been perceived by many leaders in the region as evidence that there is only limited international concern about their commitment to democracy, while signalling to the people that the West is befriending authoritarian regimes for short-term political expediency. If ordinary citizens come to feel that there is diminishing commitment to or chances for democracy, they may look elsewhere to address their grievances.

General anti-Westernism is low, although many people do not agree with specific policies. The majority of those surveyed in all three Central Asian states looked favourably on major Western states. In Uzbekistan, the figures were U.S., 60 per cent favourably to 10 per cent unfavourably; Germany, 50.9 per cent to 3.4 per cent; and Japan, 55.4 per cent to 1.8 per cent.

At the same time, significant numbers believe that development assistance has had little positive impact or is getting lost or stolen (30.1 percent, Uzbekistan; 54 per cent, Tajikistan; and 27 per cent, Kyrgyzstan). Disappointment with donor aid is one reason for anti-Western feelings, and it fuels the ideas of those who believe that Western policies are aimed at supporting the corrupt elites who hold power in these countries.

The West has responded with attempts to identify moderate Muslim voices friendly towards their policies and objectives. The U.S. and other Western states are increasingly trying to use the instrument of public diplomacy to “win the hearts and minds” of Muslims in Central Asia. Public diplomacy is only one tool to bring about change, however. If it is to have any lasting impact, it should complement an even greater program in assistance cooperation to support democratic reforms in order to create more open and just societies in which people – both secular and devout – can exercise their individual rights. Supporting moderate voices should be a part of that process, but a far more expansive program of support to those identified with democratic reform needs to be attempted.

Indeed, public diplomacy cannot be a surrogate for a carefully designed program of support for democratic reform that includes all instruments available to the international community. If the West is to make a positive contribution to long-term stability in Central Asia, it must engage on behalf of democratic policies which create a space for civil society that includes religion. Such policies must address a multitude of obstacles to democracy in the region, notably political and social disenfranchisement, economic dysfunction and disillusionment.

There are many concrete things that the West can do to address Islam in Central Asia, but these need to be in the context of wider reforms and progress towards democratic standards that create an environment in which moderate Islam can flourish naturally. The U.S. government in particular has stressed its support for democratisation in the Middle East as a major part of wider policy aimed at undermining radicalism and terrorism. Similar thinking needs to be applied to Central Asia, where poor governance, injustice and repression only fuel radicalism and undermine support for democratic solutions. International credibility is very much at stake in Central Asia: ideas, perceptions and policies need to be adapted to make sure that minority support for radical Islamist ideas does not grow into greater popular discontent with concepts of secular governance and democratic ideals.


To the International Community, in Particular the U.S., the European Union and its Member States, and Donors:

Improving public diplomacy

1.  Recognise that the most effective public diplomacy will be through influencing governments, or being seen to try vigorously to influence governments, to open up political and economic systems in ways that improve people’s lives and allow freedom of religion.

2.  Combine private pressure for reform with unambiguous public statements that distance Western governments and institutions from the repressive policies of Central Asian regimes.

3.  Design initiatives that are integrative and foster pluralism between secular and devout individuals, or Muslim and non-Muslim groups, including by integrating religious figures and other informal leaders into existing aid and assistance programs where appropriate.

4.  Circulate press statements that demonstrate understanding and sensitivity to local Muslims in full in local languages and take greater care in interviews with state media, which are usually distorted to suit the host government.

5.  The U.S. should use public diplomacy as a tool not only to achieve greater understanding of its policies but as part of a broader program to advance democratic reform, including by:

a) developing a coordinated strategy for promoting democratic change with others in the international community so that a common policy can be put into place;

b) providing more support for independent media;

c) supporting human rights organisations where they exist and identifying explicitly and publicly with the victims of repression and their families; and

d) issuing regular briefings by cross-departmental teams, including Defence, State and Treasury, on the commitment to reforms across the board;

6.  The European Union and its member states should make greater efforts to raise human rights concerns in public interviews and statements and during Cooperation Council meetings.

Exchange programs

7.  Continue and expand visit programs for religious leaders to Western countries, and vice versa.

8.  Continue and expand educational exchanges between students in Central Asia and Western countries, in particular by opening the fields of study to include comparative religions and the history of religion, and by including appropriately qualified students from madrasas.

9.  The U.S. should continue and expand official exchange programs such as the International Visitors Program, Community Connections and the new cultural and religious programs and in doing so:

a) promote greater transparency and openness in the selection process of participants, especially those related to religious issues;

b) provide opportunities for greater follow-up activities, such as public speaking events, roundtables, and the publishing of newspaper articles and other materials on their experiences; and

c) develop networks of participants to promote further debate and discussion within the region.


10. Provide technical assistance on educational reform, including for religious establishments, and in developing courses on the history of religion and comparative religion.

11. Encourage Central Asian governments to pursue a fair program of madrasa accreditation, preferably under ministries of education, with an appropriate balance of religious and secular subjects.

12. Provide support for a network of religious leaders and teachers in Central Asia to teach about world religions and the history of religion, and develop materials in local languages.

13. Develop relations with religious education establishments by providing or funding teachers of English or other major Western languages, donating computers to schools and madrasas and including madrasas in internet connectivity programs.

14. Encourage the development of websites and other internet material that would provide teaching and allow questions and answers for young Muslims.

15. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should integrate issues of religious tolerance and freedom of belief and expression into the focus on education being promoted by the forthcoming chairmanship of Bulgaria.

Promoting discussion

16. Provide funds and support for publishing ventures for religious scholars, and scholars of religion.

17. Support media programs and reporting on religious affairs and help religious leaders develop more skills in presenting their arguments and discussing difficult issues.

18. Encourage the development of monitored internet sites that promote discussion of Islamic issues and the role of religion.

19. Promote roundtables, conferences and seminars on freedom of belief, the role of religion in society, state and religious relations, and pluralism and diversity and encourage participation by religious leaders, NGO and civic activists, academics and government officials at all levels.

20. Develop Western expertise in Central Asian religion, politics and culture and send appropriately trained personnel to embassies in the region.

Osh/Brussels, 22 December 2003

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