The Rise of Militant Islam


Rashid is the author of the international bestseller


He is the Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia correspondent
for the

Far Eastern Economic Review

and the

Daily Telegraph

I talked with him about  his new book,

Jihad: The Rise of
Militant Islam in Central Asia


Talk about jihad. In your book you talk about the
two different kinds of jihad. 

Jihad, from the Prophet’s time, has always meant a struggle
to improve yourself, to make yourself a better Muslim, to be more
charitable, to be more open-minded, to do more for the community
around you, to help civil society, and also, of course, to observe
the tenets of Islam. In Islamic theology that has always been called
the greater jihad. 

lesser jihad has been the militant side, if you like, which is also
very clearly defined. That is, if Muslims are suppressed or repressed
by non-Muslims, they have the right to resist and they have the
right to fight it. So, for example, in the 20th century we had the
jihad against the British by the Pashtun tribes in northern India.
There was the jihad against the Soviet revolution in 1917 by the
Muslims of Central Asia. 

jihad that has now become prevalent, interpreted by Osama bin Laden
and the militant groups allied to al-Qaeda, is a subversion of jihad.
We saw in Afghanistan how the Taliban version of jihad was directed
against fellow Afghans, fellow Muslims. Similarly, in Pakistan the
jihadi groups are fighting their own citizens who they believe are
not pure enough. 

are five independent states now that have evolved since the collapse
of the Soviet Union—Uzbekistan, Kazak hstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan
and Turk menistan.


five states were former Soviet republics and they were all Muslim
in prerevolutionary Russia. Then they were reconquered, if you like,
by the Bolsheviks after 1917, meeting great resistance from the
local population in a civil war that went on until the early 1930s.
Stalin finally crushed them and made five republics out of this
region, which was at that time called Turkestan, the land of the
Turks. The population of this region was basically nomadic tribes
from Mongolia and Siberia. They were categorized as the five major
nationalities and became the Soviet Republics and then,  in
1991, became independent. 

of these, Uzbekistan is probably the most important with a population
of something like 20 million. It’s very much the heartland
of Islam and Sufism in Central Asia. All the great Islamic monuments
in Central Asia are in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks are powerful and,
since the 15th century, have basically ruled Central Asia. 

them you have the Kazakhs who are essentially nomads, originally
one of the tribes of Genghis Khan’s Mongol “horde.”
Alongside them is Kyrgyzstan, a much smaller state, also initially
a nomadic state, which has enormous problems right now because it
doesn’t produce anything. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has
enormous reserves of oil and gas and minerals and it has a very
thriving agriculture. It’s one of the largest wheat exporters
in the world. 

borders Iran and the Caspian Sea. The Turkmens are perhaps closest
to the modern Turks of today. They speak a dialect that is very
close to modern Turkish. They are today ruled by a very autocratic
ruler and it’s a very closed and isolated society.

the most interesting is Tajikistan, which is the only Persian-speaking
Central Asian republic. The Tajiks originated from the Persian empire.
They don’t come from Turkic or Mongol stock; they were the
residue of the Persian empire in the 4th and 5th century BC. They
went through a catastrophic civil war immediately after the breakup
of the Soviet Union, between 1992 and 1997. It’s a small country,
only five million people. They lost something like half a million
dead, about two million refugees. Then a ceasefire was brokered
between the sort of neocommunist regime and the Islamic opposition
and that ceasefire has lasted through many ups and downs, but it
essentially has lasted. It is the only country in Central Asia where
the Islamic opposition actually plays a role in government. 

write that in four of these five states the current rulers are former
apparatchiks of the Communist Party.


of them are, except in Kyrgyzstan where the president was a former
academic rather than a member of the Communist Party. But the other
four are the same rulers that existed before the breakup of the
Soviet Union and they haven’t changed their ways. What you
see in the Central Asian republics is the same Soviet-style bureaucracy,
the role of the intelligence agencies, a very repressive society,
trying to control the media. Most of them don’t allow political
parties or human rights groups. They don’t allow a civil society
to co-exist with them. 

term that comes up a lot is

“between Marx and
Muhammad. Does it have any relevancy to you? 

has been so remarkable since 1991 is to see how quickly these societies
reverted back to what they were originally. That means clan chiefs
reemerged, people with influence reemerged as they had existed in
the 18th and 19th century. So marxism really did not take root there.
There was a superficial veneer: there was a ruling elite, a ruling
class, industrialization, education. There were many benefits of
sovietization brought to this region but they didn’t really
change the mentality. 

other thing that emerged after 1991 was a huge Islamic revival.
People went back to their faith, understanding that their faith
represented their culture, their tradition, their history; that
by once again going back to Islam, enabled them to reassert their
nationalism. It was a conglomeration of all the tradition and culture
and history and social framework and family relations. 

your book you focus on three jihadi groups that have developed in
the last decade. The IMU in Uzbekistan, what are they about?


Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan emerged as a small group immediately
after independence in 1991. They wanted a dialogue with President
Karimov of Uzbekistan, who refused and cracked down on them and
jailed them. They fled to Tajikistan where some of them took part
in the civil war. Some of them fled to Afghanistan and eventually
linked up with the Taliban and then with al-Qaeda. They fought for
the Taliban in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance and they
got enormous funding from bin Laden. Then, from having a political
ideology of wanting to overthrow President Karimov of Uzbekistan,
they developed a pan-Central Asian ideology. They talked about the
creation of an Islamic state for all of Central Asia. They wanted
to overthrow all the regimes in Central Asia. 

origins were Central Asian, but the ideology was a result of imported
ideology, from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, of Pakistani groups, who were
basically alien to the Central Asian milieu and the Central Asian
traditions of Islam. 

group in Tajikistan is the Islamic Renaissance Party, the IRP. Who
are they?


IRP was the principal Islamic opposition, who fought the civil war
with the communist regime between 1992 and 1997. But, then again,
to describe this as a civil war between two ideologies would, I
think, be very superficial, because essentially this was a war between
clans and tribes. Tajikistan is a very complex society and the Soviet
era favored one group of clans against another group of clans. 

you see after the breakup of the Soviet Union is the deprived clans
wanting to assert themselves. They adopt an Islamic ideology, an
Islamic framework, again, a lot through the influence of what was
going on in Afghanistan at that time. A lot of these Tajik militants
had come to Afghanistan and studied in religious schools. They had
also been influenced by Pakistani scholars. So in Tajikistan this
civil war goes on for five years and it’s at many levels: at
the Islamic level, the clan and tribal level, and at the great-power
level. Russia is backing the regime. Iran backs the militants. There
is a kind of Great Game going on there as well. But eventually there
is a settlement, and now both sides are working quite closely together. 

other group that you focus on is interesting because it straddles
more than one country.


Hizb ut-Tahrir is actually a pan-Islamic movement. Its headquarters
are probably in London. We don’t know, but they’re probably
in Europe. This was a group that emerged in the 1950s from a group
of Palestinians and Saudis being very close to Wahhabism, the main
Islamic tradition of Saudi Arabia, a very extreme, puritanical tradition.
They break with Wahhabism in the late 1950s and they set up a separate
group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which actually calls for revival of
the caliphate, that is, what existed with the Ottoman Empire. There
was one caliph, one ostensible ruler of the whole Muslim world.
They envisage an uprising right across the Muslim world where eventually
all Muslims would be ruled by just one man. 

it’s a very messianic kind of vision, which has taken root
very strongly in Central Asia, perhaps more than in any other Muslim
region. They have branches in Pakistan, in South Asia and in the
Far East. They have a lot of branches in Europe amongst Muslims,
especially amongst Muslim students. But it’s really taken root
in Central Asia, because they’re well-funded. And nobody quite
knows where their money comes from. They’re well organized,
they use a lot of modern techniques. They use fax and e-mail and
modern techniques of organizing, underground literature, etc. They
have become very popular on campuses in Central Asia among young
people across all five republics. 

their ideology does not believe in insurrection, which is why, unlike
the IMU, which was branded a terrorist group by the United States,
HT is not branded as a terrorist group. They do not believe in violence,
and they say that on one given day the Muslims of a given region
will rise up and overthrow the corrupt system and their rulers and
then install this caliphate system. What many people now fear is
that—post-9/11, and even just before that, many of the young
Hizb ut-Tahrir followers were gravitating towards a more militant
kind of Islam, because they saw this ideology of kind of waiting
for the given day or waiting for everyone to become convinced of
the goodness of Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology—they were too
impatient for that. And the danger is that some elements of Hizb
ut-Tahrir may take a militant part towards achieving their aims. 

these groups, I think each one has gone down a different path. The
Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan is now considered part of
the establishment and it’s dropped its radical Islamic ideas
and is prepared to live it out with the regime. The IMU was heavily
bombed and attacked by the American forces in Afghanistan, many
hundreds were killed, and they’ve been scattered. But they
do still have a militant underground in Central Asia, particularly
in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which I think can be revived at some
point in time. Clearly, they’re keeping their heads down at
the moment because of the overwhelming American presence in the
region and the fact that the Russians, the Americans, the regimes,
everyone is gunning for them. But I don’t think that they’re
a real major element. Hizb ut-Tahrir possibly does have enormous
potential. They have not been damaged in the war against terrorism.
The underground networks are very much intact. 

I must emphasize that this book does not paint a scary picture of
militant Islam overthrowing the Central Asian regimes. I think the
real crisis in Central Asia is a regime crisis. These regimes have
not allowed political freedom. There is no secular democratic opposition.
So it’s natural that young people—dissatisfied, jobless,
failing to acquire the education they want—will go underground,
will set up underground groups. As you go underground, you become
more radicalized. And in that milieu the tendency would be for young
people to gravitate towards a militant kind of Islam. 

borders three of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,
and Tajikistan. How has the elimination of Taliban rule in Afghanistan
impacted on those neighboring countries?


three countries all joined the war against terrorism. They offered
the Americans various facilities. The Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz, in
fact, have allowed the Americans to set up huge military bases in
these countries. The Turkmen has allowed overflights and relief
goods to come into Afghanistan.  

U.S. had, I think, a mixture of carrot and stick. It had acquired
these military bases; investment could come in; and Western donors
were prepared to give aid money to these countries. There was hope
amongst many Central Asian people that our regimes will finally
wake up and understand that they have to modernize, that this is
 a huge opportunity for them. 

the regimes haven’t carried out any kind of reform and neither have
the Americans. So it appears that the Americans are quite happy
working with extreme dictatorial regimes. 

kind of contradiction is not lost on people in Central and Southwest


not lost on them at all. Increasingly many peoples of Central Asia
are seeing Americans as basically propping up their dictatorial
regimes. They’re not seeing the Americans as liberators or
as influencing these regimes to modernize and to democratize. 

this enormous projection of U.S. military power into Central Asia,
what are the implications for Russia and China ?


are enormous implications because I don’t see the Russians
giving up their sphere of influence, which they’ve maintained
for the last 150 years. China has developed enormous trade links.
It is supporting the militaries of these Central Asian states. It
is backing them in their conflict with Islamic radicals. It’s
very worried about Islamic radicalism in Xinjiang province of China
itself. It would not like to see an American presence in Central
Asia, which is so close to their own borders. What we’re seeing
is a kind of united front of several countries—China, Russia,
India, Iran—who are not going to support a prolonged American
presence in Central Asia. 

President Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, has been outspoken
about this, that particularly Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have large,
relatively untapped reserves of natural gas and oil, and they should
be made available to U.S. corporations.


Central Asia is the last untapped, unmarked, unknown area for enormous
reserves of oil and gas. In fact, very little of the oil and gas
in Central Asia so far we know about. The Soviets did not exploit
this region because they were more intent on exploiting Siberia.
I think the Americans have an enormous interest in securing this.
The largest investments in Central Asia over the last ten years
have been made by American oil companies. 

thing I’ve been arguing for years has been that this is a landlocked
region. This oil and gas is expensive because you need thousands
of miles of pipeline to get this oil and gas to the markets. Be
it Western Europe or the Mediterranean or the Gulf ports or Japan,
to get this oil out to where it can be shipped to the big markets
you need pipelines and you need security and stability. Many of
these pipelines would be crossing seven or eight different countries
of the former Soviet Union, many of which are in turmoil. 

was a lot of discussion in some sectors of the U.S. media about

’s desire to bring a pipeline from Central
Asia through Afghanistan and out through Pakistani ports. What credence
do you give to those kinds of reports? 

was true in the mid-1990s. Unocal was trying to actually build a
gas pipeline from Turkmenistan crossing southern Afghanistan to
feed the Pakistani and Indian markets. They were willing to cut
a deal with the Taliban at that time, even though Osama bin Laden
was resident there, in southern Afghanistan. But, of course, that
fell apart after al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in East
Africa in 1998 and then bombed the American destroyer, the Cole,
two years later. Now, the three countries, Turkmenistan, Pakistan,
and Afghanistan are trying to revive this project. But I still think
it’s very premature. 

ruler of Kazakhstan is said to have siphoned off a billion dollars
from oil revenues to a Swiss bank. 

level of corruption in Central Asia is horrendous. The ruling families
are dominating the oil industry, agriculture, the sale of cotton
and wheat, and other such things. President Nursultan Nazarbayev
and his family virtually run the country. The oil companies have
seen that by getting in with the family they can secure their contracts.
So it’s been a system where the American corporations and the
ruling families of Central Asia have cooperated in this way for
the last ten years. 

ruler calls himself the head of the Turks, Turkmenbashi. Who is


Saparmurad Niyazov is the ruler of Turkmenistan. He calls himself
Turkmenbashi, the chief of the Turkmen. He has set up a kind of
personality cult, which I think now outrivals Hitler or Stalin.
He’s renamed the days of the year after him and his family.
He’s renamed the months of the year. He’s renamed cities
and buildings and streets and everything else after him. And this
is a country where he personally controls the oil and gas revenue
from the few companies that are investing in Turkmenistan. There
is enormous instability. There was an assassination attempt against
him in November 2002 and then a coup attempt. He’s launched
a huge crackdown on dissidents and the opposition. He’s arrested
hundreds of people. Turkmenistan is very unstable. 

result of this war against terrorism is that there has been a flowering
of democratic opposition in these countries. In Kyrgyzstan right
now you have a democratic mass movement trying to overthrow the
president and have a free election. In Turkmenistan you have had
this kind of coup attempt because there is no civil society and
open politics are not allowed. Even in Uzbekistan there are enormous
rumblings and grumblings—most of the opposition in these states,
we should remember, were exiled. Many of these exiles want to come
back and create opposition democratic parties and the rulers are
not letting them do so. To some extent you can say that if a regime
topples tomorrow, in some of these states maybe Islamic fundamentalists
can take advantage of that. But in other areas there will be total
chaos because none of these autocratic rulers have any line of succession.
There is no institutional framework where an orderly succession
can take place. Many of these presidents, in fact, would like to
install one of their sons or daughters as the next head of state
and set up a dynasty, as you had in Syria recently. 

that instability, then is it likely or possible that some of these
militant groups that you describe, the jihadi groups, may in fact
seize power?


not strong enough to seize power. They don’t have support there
and they don’t have the numbers, frankly, to seize power. 

in Iran the same thing was said, that the Islamic groups did not
penetrate the armed forces of the Shah, but in fact they had been
conducting a successful co-optation campaign.


don’t think this is the case in Central Asia simply because
the security forces of these states are heavily built on the Soviet
model, if you like, and they have been maintained as personal defense
forces for the rulers. What you may well see happening in Central
Asia with this instability, the lack of democracy, the lack of a
succession, is the security forces taking over. You may see military
coups taking place, which would destabilize the situation further. 

live in Pakistan and you know that country perhaps best of all.

’s happening there? 

is very unstable at the moment. You had a rigged election, bringing
in a government that is totally beholden to the military and has
no credibility or prestige. Two provinces out of four are ruled
by a fundamentalist alliance, which is very threatening, both to
the military and to the rest of the country. There is a continuation
of terrorism, the presence of al-Qaeda. Finally, of course, there
is the army’s obsession with India and wanting to liberate
Kashmir, coupled with constant rhetoric about using nuclear weapons
against India. So it’s a very shaky situation.

David Barsamian
is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado.