A Hotbed of Holy War?

By Paul Starobin


The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid

Yale University -- 281pp -- $24

From Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, the road to the Fergana Valley winds through steep mountains blanketed by blood-red poppies. Beyond this heavenly passage, the valley offers a harsh tableau of families picking cotton by hand in flat fields that stretch for miles. To supplement meager wages, these peasants tend their own chickens and small-scale gardens--and even prepare their own vodka. This nearly self-sufficient way of life seems so deeply entrenched that it is difficult to imagine anything disrupting it.

But as Ahmed Rashid persuasively demonstrates in his lucid Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, the placid appearance is deceptive. The most densely populated part of former Soviet Central Asia--whose 52 million people are scattered across 1.5 million square miles of steppe, desert, and mountains--the Fergana Valley is a troubled place. Poverty, political repression, and indifference from the West have created a milieu in which Taliban-like Islamic guerrilla groups are gaining strength. Without a determined Western initiative to bring decent jobs and democracy to the region, Rashid warns, "a social and political explosion seems inescapable."

These are grim tidings, and Rashid has the knowledge to back them up. Author of the best-selling Taliban, the Pakistan-based journalist first visited Central Asia in 1988, shortly before the Soviets made their humiliating exit from Afghanistan. Jihad features much original reporting, including an exclusive interview with a senior leader of one of the Fergana Valley's preeminent Islamic underground groups, the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Rashid may underestimate the locals' capacity to endure suffering without rebelling, but he is surely right in pointing to the region as a tinderbox.

If only to understand this prognosis, Americans, and especially U.S. policymakers, should read Jihad. After September 11, the U.S. went from being a marginal player in Central Asia to a front-line actor. The Pentagon has rapidly expanded military ties with the governments of the three former Soviet republics whose people share the Fergana Valley: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to Uzbekistan. Indeed, thousands of American soldiers are stationed at one new base in Uzbekistan, and the U.S. is building another in Kyrgyzstan. With the Afghan war still unfinished, the U.S. appears to be settling in for the long term.

But except for Tajikistan, where opposition political factions share power in a fragile coalition government, these regimes are run by corrupt autocrats, unwilling to countenance even peaceful Islamic parties. The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party boss who seized power in 1991, recently conducted a sham election to extend his term in office. His jails are filled with dissidents, some of whom have been tortured, according to reliable reports of human-rights groups. The State Dept. is nevertheless planning to triple the current level of U.S. economic assistance to Uzbekistan, to $160 million. By aligning itself with autocrats, the U.S. risks being seen as part of the region's problem.

Rashid carefully traces Islam's development there, showing how political manipulators have exploited the faith. In ancient times, this valley was a cosmopolitan way station on the fabled Silk Road trade route. As such, it had a tradition of tolerance. Islamic fundamentalism is a relatively recent foreign import, imbibed from such sources as the puritanical Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia. It became popular during the period of Soviet domination, notably the 1980s, when underground fundamentalist sects shrewdly styled themselves as a challenge to political tyranny.

Tolerance isn't the only victim of fundamentalism. Today's Islamic militant groups are twisting the concept of jihad, which in its more important sense involves an inner struggle to achieve moral purity. Instead, the militants present jihad as a call to arms to create a strict Islamic society. But they offer little in the way of a positive agenda: "The new jihadi groups," Rashid writes, "have no economic manifesto, no plan for better governance and the building of political institutions, and no blueprint for creating democratic participation."

Here lies a vacuum that the U.S. and Western allies could fill. As Rashid sees it, the area's corrupt and short-sighted regimes will not reform themselves. Western nations must explicitly link fresh aid to progress on human rights, freedom of the press, pro-market reforms, and open operations for political parties, including peaceful Islamic ones. This advice is sensible. In this battle of ideas with jihad militants, likely to last for decades, America's best weapon is insistence on liberal values.

Rashid's economic-policy advice is less convincing than his political analysis. He emphasizes development of the region's economy around energy resources. This is unlikely to work. For one thing, the volatile Fergana Valley is some 1,000 miles east of the principal oil and gas deposits, which are in the Caspian Sea basin. For another, oil is often a crippling addiction rather than a palliative for emerging-market economies, as a booming commodity sector drives up currency rates and crowds out other industry. Better would be small-scale aid programs that could stimulate diversified agriculture and light industry.

But that's a secondary matter. In Jihad, Rashid has delivered a powerful warning that the West, only now turning its attention to Central Asia after years of neglect, must not ignore.

Moscow Bureau Chief Starobin covers former Soviet Central Asia.

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