Originally Published 2004-09-30 09:39:06 Published on Sep 30, 2004
Central Asia is the next favoured destination of radical Islamists and terrorist groups. Several terrorist networks are said to be already active in the region and recent suicide bombings in Uzbekistan in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara, in March and July, 2004 suggest that al-Qaeda and its allies are looking for safer havens in the wake of the increasing pressure on their networks in the Middle-East and South East Asia from the security forces of the countries of these regions.
Turkmenistan: A Central Asian State without Religious Extremism
Central Asia is the next favoured destination of radical Islamists and terrorist groups. Several terrorist networks are said to be already active in the region and recent suicide bombings in Uzbekistan in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara, in March and July, 2004 suggest that al-Qaeda and its allies are looking for safer havens in the wake of the increasing pressure on their networks in the Middle-East and South East Asia from the security forces of the countries of these regions.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Central Asia is the target of not only terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), but also of radical religious groups like the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which are also intensifying their clandestine activities in the region. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir advocates the revival of the 7th Century Islamic state system under the Caliphate, thereby working towards a homogeneous religious identity in a region that has had strong ethnic and cultural linkages.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> While radical Islamist and terrorist groups are thus said to be active in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, one of the five Central Asian Republics which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in October 1991, has so far intriguingly remained unaffected by the virus of Islamic extremism spreading across the region.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The international media has been periodically focussing attention on what is projected as the eccentricities of its authoritarian head of state, President Saparmurat Niyazov. His megalomania has pushed the energy rich Turkmenistan into a xenophobic existence. This forced isolation of Turkmenistan under the guise of its 'permanent neutrality' status approved by the United Nations in 1995 has only aided self proclaimed 'Turkmenbashi' (the father of all Turkmen), Niyazov, in consolidating his political, economic and religious control without any effective opposition. This neutrality is also guided by its pipeline diplomacy as Turkmenistan struggles to find viable pipelines and export markets for its vast energy reserves.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> However, in an age where terrorism and counter-terrorism cooperation define foreign policy and international relations, the media and counter-terrorism analysts have failed to provide a convincing answer to the question as to why this Central Asian, Muslim dominated and energy rich state has not fallen prey to the radical Islamic ideology of terrorist groups and fundamentalist religious organisations which have made seeping inroads into the other Central Asian Republics. How does one explain this?&nbsp; <br /> <br /> There have, of course, been several reports on the suppression of religious ideas and human rights by the autocratic government of President Niyazov. Arbitrary arrests, detentions and tortures in the prisons along with restrictions on freedom of movement through the draconian exit visa system have been reported extensively. These human rights violations have increased dramatically since the Nov. 25, 2002 assassination attempt on President Niyazov. A large number of arrests especially of political opponents were reported after the alleged assassination attempt.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Such autocratic regimes are the rule rather than an exception in Central Asia. Turkmenistan's autocratic regime probably differs only in degrees from the repressive and centralised state systems under Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Emomali Rakhmonov in Tajikistan, Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan and Nursultan Abish-uly Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. All of them are former members of the Soviet Communist Party and took over the leadership of their respective countries after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Their regimes are intolerant of political dissent, have resorted to harsh and repressive measures to control ethnic and religious voices for more public space and exercise complete control over the media. However, such repressive policies have failed to prevent the inroads made by religious extremism in the other Central Asian States. The inability of the religious extremists to spread their activities to Turkmenistan so far cannot be attributed to its repressive policies alone.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Niyazov has a natural aversion to religious fanaticism which would threaten his own political survival, but it is important to understand that he is not the sole arbiter of the secular ethos in Turkmenistan. In a region where the democratic state system remains elusive and radical religious ideas are gaining ground, Turkmenistan's religious and social systems have preserved the age old tribal and ethnic loyalties in a largely Muslim dominated country which has in turn effectively diluted the impact of radical Islam.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The Turkmen identify more with their culture than with religion or nationality. The land between the Caspian sea and the Amu Darya, traditionally inhabited by the horse-breeding nomadic Turkmen tribes, has had a long history of being conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Seljuks and Turks and finally by the Tsarist regime of Russia. The proud Turkmen people struggled against their aggressors and managed to retain their pride through their strong cultural ethos and ethnic identities. The different Turkmen tribes are known to have lived in harmony through the ages.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> While the state strictly adheres to secularisation of public spaces and enforces it by limiting activities of non-registered religious congregations, by prohibiting them from gathering publicly and proselytizing and disseminating religious material, the centuries old tribal loyalties have also softened the impact of religion in Turkmenistan. Even the most urbane Turkmen has a tribal allegiance and tribalism is visible in their dialects, styles of clothing, eating habits etc. Clan based loyalties in Turkmenistan do not gel with the Westphalian notion of a nation state. Whether the Turkmen culture has kept the nation state together or whether the nation state has effectively integrated the Turkmen tribes into a homogenous national identity is a question, which calls for further debate.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The plurality of the Turkmen way of life is also visible in its dominant religion. Islam in Turkmenistan did not arrive as a monolithic entity imported from the Arabian Peninsula through militarised and forced conversions. The Sufi saints from the 10th century onwards travelled far and wide into the heartland of Eurasia and incorporated the Islamic teachings into the tribal belief systems of the nomadic Turkmen tribes. These saints were later adopted as the patron saints of particular clans or tribal groups thereby becoming their founders. The teachings of Sufi 'Shaykhs' or saints are accorded more importance in religious beliefs in Turkmenistan than the mosques and the high, written 'Qoranic' tradition. Thus Islam has a much localised identity. This is also visible in its national symbol which depicts the synthesis between Islamic and tribal identities. The national symbol is a horse with five carpet patterns representing the five main tribes of Turkmenistan. This pattern is headed by an Islamic crescent and 5 stars representing the five 'velayats' or provinces of the country.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The policies of the political leadership under Niyazov have also been instrumental in keeping the Islamists away. Niyazov has remained neutral both 'de jure' and 'de facto' in the US led 'war on terror' unlike the other Central Asian regimes that looked upon cooperation with the United States as an effective way of countering the influence of the radical Islamists in their respective countries. Niyazov's political supremacy depends on preventing the Islamists from making inroads. While the other Central Asian states provided bases for the US troops during the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Niyazov refused to allow the coalition forces to be stationed in Turkmenistan. He only allowed air and overland transit rights to humanitarian cargoes. He also issued repeated warnings to the United States against any civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The proclaimed neutrality of Turkmenistan also helped it in brokering peace between the warring sides in Tajikistan in 1997 during the civil war. Turkmenistan had also tried to mediate peace between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in the late 90's.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The inhospitable terrain of Turkmenistan has also helped it to avoid the troubles that have afflicted the other Central Asian states. Even though the border region is not heavily guarded and approximately 800 km of the Turkmen-Afghan border was under the Taliban control pre-9/11, the desert terrain on both sides is a natural deterrent to any attempts at infiltration by terrorist groups and radical Islamists. Afghan refugees have moved in large numbers towards Iran and Pakistan after the US launched its war in Afghanistan, but there have been no similar movements towards Turkmenistan. Niyazov has made it quite clear through his statements and his policies that refugees and foreigners are not welcome in his country.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> There is another factor that has prevented the radical Islamists and terrorists from getting recruits in Turkmenistan. While the unemployed youth of the Farghana valley are the natural targets of organisations like the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and terrorist groups like the ETIM and the IMU, the forced conscription in Turkmenistan keeps the youth engaged every year in a range of activities like road construction and maintenance, cotton harvesting and providing emergency services. This is not to say that the rate of productive employment is very high in Turkmenistan or that forced conscription of Muslim youth could be an answer to the growing influence of radical Islamists. But with a large number of youth engaged in non-religious activities of benefit to their community prescribed by the authoritarian state and with strong cultural and ethnic socialisation and orientation, there has so far been little fertile ground for the terrorists and Islamists to expand their network in 'Turkmenbashi's' domain.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Finally, in a country where 'religion is not the state but the state is religion', there is more to its politics, society and religion, than the 35 feet high golden statue of Turkmenbashi, positioned on the arch of neutrality, rotating around the sun, and his eccentric laws against growing beards and hair. Niyazov cannot be simply dismissed as a megalomaniac dictator who controls the political, religious and economic structures in Turkmenistan. He is also a shrewd politician who has managed to avoid the problems of terrorism and fundamentalism that have hit the other states in the region by keeping away from Western alliances and by pre-empting any attempts by Islamic elements to strike roots in his country.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The Turkmen society itself is a model of cultural and religious assimilation and has survived centuries of foreign subjugation and control. Most importantly, Turkmenistan is an answer to all those who believe that modern terrorism has its roots in a monolithic Islam. Pan Islamism is as much a myth today as a pan western political view. Islam has several streams of localised tradition which have survived over the years. These pluralistic traditions and cultural and ethnic ties have to be revived and encouraged to strengthen the fight against terrorism. <br /> <br /> The writer is a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Watch Project, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. e-mail: [email protected] <br /> <br /> Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 1130, New Delhi, September 30, 2004. <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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