How Jihad Came to Brooklyn

In the West, citizens of Central Asia find more freedom to explore radical Islam then they would have at home.

Freedom to radicalize.

Photographer: Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The two Uzbeks and one Kazakh who were arrested this week in Brooklyn for allegedly making plans to join Islamic State found their way to the extremist group only after they immigrated to the United States. You have to wonder whether there's something about their experience in the U.S. -- rather than the Central Asian countries they left -- that inspired them to radicalize. Were these two mobile phone repairmen and gyro seller inspired by a sense of betrayal or disgust at the American way of life?

Probably not. In the U.S., Abdurasul Juraboev and Abror Habibov of Uzbekistan, and Akhror Saidakhmetov of Kazakhstan, simply had more freedom to imbibe and express radical Islamist beliefs than they ever had at home. The autocratic secular regimes that rule Central Asia have done their best to eradicate extremist threads of their dominant religion, recognizing Islamism as the biggest threat to their rule. By contrast, the West, because of its relative openness, inevitably allows Islamists some space to flourish.

In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan shed their Communist ideology, but not their Soviet-era leaders. "It was anticipated for the Central Asian societies to revive their Islamic heritage that has been suppressed under the Soviet regime, and combine religion with nationalist sentiments as a catalyst in the nation-building process," Eren Tatari and Renat Shaykhutdinov wrote in a 2010 paper on state responses to religious revivalism in the region. "While this process did take place to some degree, the suppressive state response to this religious revivalism and the rigorous push for secularization was both more general and unpredicted, thus leading to prolonged conflict between state and society."

President Islam Karimov, who was Uzbekistan's Communist leader during Soviet times, did his best after independence to justify his first name by following Islamic ritual and even making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Still, he set up a secular Committee for Religious Affairs to oversee the country's practice of Islam, and has cracked down every time he's seen signs of dissent or even unsanctioned initiative from religious leaders. After a terrorist attack in the capital, Tashkent, in 1999, the government jailed 7,000 members of Islamist organizations. Most members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, responsible for the car bombings, have since fled Uzbekistan, first for the mountains of Pakistan and now for Syria, where they have joined Islamic State.

Uzbekistan is now one of the worst places in the world where a radical Muslim could live. "Everyone whom law enforcement organs have ever suspected of ties to a religious of political organization that is considered extremist here is being tracked," Latip Khojayev of the Uzbek Interior Ministry told Central Asia Online last November. "In Tashkent alone, more than 1,000 of them are registered, and local government committee activists are attached to every one of them." That means more or less permanent surveillance and often harassment.

Kazakhstan was never a land of particularly devout Muslims, but it, too, has sought to control Islamic groups. President Nursultan Nazarbayev's response to the news that some Kazakhs have found their way to Islamic State's front lines has been particularly harsh. Last November, he signed a law that bans Kazakhs and foreigners suspected of "extremism and terrorism" from entering the country. Extremist literature is banned and treated as terrorist paraphernalia.

One might think that secularist crackdowns of this sort would produce extremist backlashes. But the Central Asian example suggests that unrestrained police states can effectively prevent those backlashes from even taking place.

In the West, migrant workers from Central Asian nations find more than work and a better income: They also enjoy more freedom to practice the forms of religion that are suppressed where they come from. That may explain why, according to data compiled by Radio Liberty, Uzbekistan has sent a smaller proportion of its population to the Islamic State than Belgium -- 33 per million compared with 40 -- although some of these fighters are Islamic Movement members who have been banished from Uzbekistan for years. Kazakhstan has as few Islamic State militants per million as Germany -- only eight.

Even the U.S., which has only one Islamic State fighter per million residents, and has harsher terrorism laws than European nations, provides better opportunities to preach and practice militant Islam than Uzbekistan does. But this isn't something to lament. U.S. citizens shouldn't be looking to Central Asian dictatorships for guidance on social policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Cameron Abadi at

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