Olivier Roy, research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research, examined Islamic radical-related developments during a May 10 seminar titled “Islamic Terrorism, the Middle East and Central Asia: the Elusive Connection.” Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, neo-conservatives who dominate policy making within the Bush administration have tended to view violence in the Middle East and Central Asia through the prism of what Roy termed the international jihadist struggle. This tendency encourages authoritarian practices in the two regions by effectively giving a green light to governments to engage in repression, while shunning needed economic and political reforms.
The reliance on repression to contain Islamic radical activity is, in turn, fueling a vicious cycle that will “lead to further tension and violence,” Roy said at the seminar, held in Washington, DC, and sponsored by the Open Society Institute.
Roy asserted that much of the recent violence in the Middle East and Central Asia – in particular in Iraq and Uzbekistan — has a tenuous connection at best to the international jihadist movement, which comprises groups like al Qaeda. The Iraq insurgency, according to Roy, is largely a national-based conflict, even though foreign volunteers are helping to resist US military occupation. “The use of terror tactics should not obscure the fact that these are local struggles,” Roy said.
International jihadist groups, Roy explained, have supranational goals as well as composition; adherents work largely outside their countries of origin, and are mostly westernized in their educations and often in their family background. Al Qaeda emerged as a group linked together by shared experiences fighting in Afghanistan, first in the late 1980s and later under the Taliban.
Converts also play a significant role in international jihadist movements. Targets of international jihadist terrorism are almost exclusively Western, and though jihadist groups may profess support for various causes, such as Iraqi and Palestinian liberation, they largely avoid becoming deeply involved in such struggles due to a lack of enthusiasm for nationalist goals, Roy said.
Uzbek authorities maintain that the late March attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara were the product of an international terrorist conspiracy.
US officials have staunchly supported the Uzbek interpretation of the late March events, which left at least 45 people dead.
Roy, however, said the Uzbek events bore all the hallmarks of an indigenous revolt, suggesting that the attacks were largely a reaction to the arbitrary and corrupt practices of President Islam Karimov’s administration.
In the Uzbek instance, supporters of the international jihadist-connection theory often cite the fact that the attackers employed suicide bombers. But Roy disputed the notion that suicide bombing is a tactic used exclusively by the international jihadist movement, indicating that dire economic, social and political conditions in Uzbekistan could drive people to embrace extremism. Roy additionally pointed out that suicide has long been used as a form of protest in Central Asia, especially by women.
To further support this view, Roy cited evidence that the suicide bombers in Tashkent were related to individuals caught up in the Uzbek government’s expansive crackdown on independent Muslims, or those who do not worship in a state-sanctioned manner.
Human Rights Watch has estimated that up to 7,000 people have been unfairly imprisoned in Uzbekistan for their religious views, adding that many are subject to torture and other forms of abuse while in custody.
Roy also contended that the Uzbek attacks were orchestrated by an extended family network, not an underground jihadi group, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he classified as a “UFO, or unidentified fundamentalist object.” According to some accounts, the anti-government attackers were poorly armed, and their bombs were crudely fashioned – lending credence to the contention that they did not have good connections to an international jihadist group.
Another indicator that the Uzbek events had local roots was the fact that the chief targets of the attacks were representatives of the Karimov administration, namely police officers. Police in recent months played a key role in enforcing economic policies that effectively drove many small-scale traders out of business, thus exposing many economically vulnerable Uzbeks to an increased level of police extortion.
Addressing the root causes of Islamo-nationalist violence requires regional governments, including Karimov’s administration, to liberalize the country’s economic and political framework, providing opportunities for individuals to seek redress of their grievances through regular and open channels. The reluctance of the United States to recognize the indigenous factors that fueled the Uzbek violence heightens the possibility of future acts that destabilize the country.
Rights groups and other non-governmental groups have urged the Bush administration to follow the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s example, and take action designed to punish the Karimov administration for its failure to reform. The EBRD announced in early April that it would drastically curtail its lending activity, citing the government’s continuing reliance on repression. The United States has shown no sign of altering its present policy of unswerving support for Uzbekistan. During a late February visit to Tashkent, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Washington looked “forward to strengthening [its] political and economic relationships” with Karimov’s administration.
While connections may not be strong at present, there is a significant risk that the international jihadist and Islamo-nationalist agendas will merge, Roy said. If this occurs, Roy said, it will be driven in large part by outrage in the Islamic world over US abuses, especially the Iraq prison torture scandal, as well as by Western indifference continuing repression and misrule in the Middle East and Central Asia.
© 2004 EurasiaNet. Posted on Religioscope with permission.
EurasiaNet provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. EurasiaNet is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.