A Russian View Of The Islamist Threat To Central Asia

On January 19, 2016, the website of the pro-Kremlin think tank Valdai Club published a report by Andrei Kazantsev, director of the Analytical Center of the Institute for International Studies in Russia, titled “Central-Asia: Secular Statehood Challenged by Radical Islam.”[1] Kazantsev wrote that post-Soviet Central Asian countries face a threat from radical Islam that impacts prospects for secular statehood and represents a serious obstacle to modernization of the region.

The following are excerpts from Kazantsev’s article:[2]


“Post-Soviet Central Asian countries are facing problems caused by old security challenges and the emergence of completely new threats. These threats may influence the prospects for secular statehood in the region and represent a serious obstacle to modernization. One of the old security challenges is the situation in neighboring Afghanistan, where crisis phenomena are continuously aggravated. The most dangerous threat is posed by the concentration of militants in northern Afghanistan (on the border with Tajikistan,[3] Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)…[4]

The Islamic State

“In 2014, and particularly in 2015, a ‘second front’ emerged in the Middle East which has rapidly gained a Central Asian dimension: the Islamic State (ISIS). First, ISIS is fraught with the threat of faith-motivated terrorism in view of militants’ migration potential… 500 militants arrived in Syria and Iraq from Uzbekistan; 360 from Turkmenistan, 350 from Kyrgyzstan, 250 from Kazakhstan, and 190 from Tajikistan. Obviously, their recruitment would have been impossible without the existence of ISIS ‘sleeper cells’ in Central Asian countries and Russia. Militants often travel to Syria and Iraq through Russia. Guest workers in Russia are also recruited. Second, ISIS is a serious ideological challenge to all Islamic states, Central Asian states included, because as a caliphate it claims supremacy in the entire Muslim world. Specifically, ISIS has listed Central Asia and Afghanistan as Wilayat Khorasan [i.e. a province of the Islamic State]…

Drug Trafficking, Corruption, Poverty, And “Sultanistic Regimes”

“Factors contributing to these states’ ‘fragility’ are as follows: first, the large-scale drug traffic along the northern transportation route from Afghanistan to Russia. The latter is the world’s main consumer of Afghan heroin. Security experts know well that the proceeds from drug trafficking are often used to fund terrorism and religious extremism. The existence of this link is clear from the Batken war: One of IMU’s goals in invading Kyrgyzstan was to create routes for heroin trafficking.[10]

“[Another] critical factor threatening the statehood of regional countries is the existence of personalized ‘sultanistic’ regimes ingrained in the clan systems that determine the intra-elite network configurations. The two key countries in the region – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – did not experience a single power change in the post-Soviet period and the existing political institutions in both countries are closely linked with the strong personalities of their presidents. At the same time, by virtue of the age factor, a change of supreme power will be on the agenda in the near future and this may lead to the exacerbation of inter-clan conflicts within the elites and further destabilization.”

Clashes Over Water Resources And Conflicts Of Interest

“[Another issue is] serious interstate clashes over water resources between countries in the upper reaches of rivers (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and those in the lower reaches (Uzbekistan, and less so Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). These conflicts are serious obstacles to cooperation, including the joint struggle against security threats.

Countering Islamism: The Hanafi School And The Jadid Ideology

“Threats to secular statehood in Central Asia are fairly high. However, the region’s countries have the potential to counter them. Historically, Central Asia, as part of the Muslim world was characterized by developed Islamic science… and the high Sufi tradition of Islam including mystical poetry… It is these local cultural traditions of Islam that are some of the main targets of Islamic radicals, who deny national forms of Muslim religion and culture. Central Asian Sufis (primarily the great Uzbek teacher of the Soviet era Muhammad-jan Hindustani)[19] actively countered the spread of radical Islam (Salafism and Wahhabism). Therefore, it is no surprise that religious extremism is much less widespread in ancient Central Asian centers of civilization, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, by virtue of the high traditional culture of the population.

Countering Islamism: “Soviet Modernization Heritage,” An Efficient Market Economy, And Russia’s Role

“Soviet modernization heritage also facilitates the preservation of secular statehood. It led to many changes in Central Asia. Many Soviet-established non-Muslim stereotypes of everyday life (for instance, high literacy and the secular education of the population owing to the system of universal school education, the consumption of alcohol and infrequent visits to mosques) still make many residents of this region substantially different from their brethren-in-faith in the rest of the Muslim world.

Full article: A Russian View Of The Islamist Threat To Central Asia (MEMRI)

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