Fragile Central Asia
No. 1 2016 January/March
Andrey Kazantsev

PhD, is Director of the Analytical Center of the Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, Russia.

Secular Statehood Challenged by Radical Islam

This article is a shortened version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club. The original text is available at: http://valdaiclub.com/publications/valdai-papers/central-asia-secular-statehood-challenged-by-radical-islam/

Today post-Soviet Central Asian countries are facing problems caused by old security challenges and the emergence of completely new threats. These threats may hamper the future of secular statehoods in the region and present a serious obstacle to modernization.

Security Threats

One of the old security challenges is the aggravation of the situation in neighboring Afghanistan where crisis phenomena continue growing. The most dangerous threat is posed by the concentration of militants in northern Afghanistan on the border with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

As a UN Security Council paper stated, “Afghan security forces estimated in March 2015 that some 6,500 foreign terrorist fighters were active in this country.” There were 200 fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (later renamed the Islamic Movement of Turkistan, or IMT) alone. According to the Russian General Staff estimations, if the Afghans are also counted, the total number of terrorist fighters in that country may amount to 50,000.

The threat posed by radical Islam is not only ideological and political in that it challenges secular statehood, it has a military dimension, too. For example, it may lead to a recurrence of events similar to the “Batken war” (the invasion of Kyrgyzstan by IMT militants in 1999). There were only 200-259 militants there but the Kyrgyz government agencies were too weak to cope with them and the mechanism of the CIS Collective Security Treaty had to be used.

In 2014 and particularly in 2015, a “second front” emerged in the Middle East that rapidly gained a Central Asian dimension. This front is a new threat posed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). First, ISIS is fraught with a threat of faith-motivated terrorism in view of militants’ migration potential. According to a number of authoritative estimates, 500 militants have arrived in Syria and Iraq from Uzbekistan, 360 from Turkmenistan, 350 from Kyrgyzstan, 250 from Kazakhstan, and 190 from Tajikistan. Obviously, their recruitment would have been impossible without the existence of ISIS “sleeping cells” in Central Asian countries and Russia. Militants often travel to Syria and Iraq through Russia. Guest workers in Russia are also recruited. Second, ISIS is a serious ideological challenge to all Islamic states, Central Asian states included, because as a caliphate it claims supremacy in the entire Muslim world.

Specifically, ISIS has listed Central Asia and Afghanistan as Wilayat Khorasan. It is actively penetrating Afghanistan, exploiting the split in the Taliban after the death of its leader Mullah Omar and actively using the flow of funds from the Middle East. According to Al Jazeera, Taliban militants are paid ten times as much as ISIS mercenaries—$700 vs. $70 per month.

According to Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, about 2,000-3,000 militants directly linked to ISIS were in Afghanistan in the fall of 2015. A special threat to Central Asia is posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), historically the most dangerous terrorist movement in the region and formerly part of Al-Qaeda which has joined ISIS. At the same time ISIS banners were raised by Turkmen tribes that inhabit areas bordering on Turkmenistan (many of whom are descendants of the basmachi who fought against Soviet Russia in 1918-1924). Also, ISIS is engaged in subversion in Central Asian hinterland. Kyrgyz and Tajik experts report that ISIS has allocated $70 million for subversion in the region.

Factors of fragility

Security threats to Central Asia from radical Islamism in Afghanistan and some other Middle East countries are aggravated by numerous negative domestic factors that put the majority of countries in the region on the list of “fragile states.” These “fragile states” may easily turn into “failed states” that do not control their own territory. These states are the ideal ground for the entrenchment of radical terrorist groups like ISIS. Table 1 below shows how experts rate the Central Asian countries in The Fragile States Index, 2015.

Table 1. Central Asian countries in The Fragile States Index, 2015







Place in the world out of 178 countries (the lower the place, the bigger the threat)


57 /178




Points (the higher the point, the larger the threat)







High Warning

High Warning

High Warning


Low Warning

Source: http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2015

The data indicate that there is a serious threat to statehood in most Central Asian countries (High Warning), although it has not yet materialized as in many African and Asian countries. Also, they testify to a considerable differentiation between the region’s countries and Kazakhstan’s special position.

Factors contributing to these states’ “fragility” are as follows.

First is the large-scale drug trafficking along the northern transportation route from Afghanistan to Russia. The latter is the main consumer of Afghan heroin in the world. Security experts know well that the proceeds from the drug trafficking are often used to fund terrorism and religious extremism. That this link exists became obvious during the Batken war: one of the IMU’s goals in invading Kyrgyzstan was to lay routes for heroin trafficking.

The second important factor contributing to the “fragility” of Central Asian countries is the extremely high rate of corruption there. Transparency International puts all these states at the bottom of its Corruption Perception Index, often below countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. International experts are particularly negative on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, perceived as some of the most corrupt states in the world (they share 170th place out of 174).

Table 2. Central Asian states in The Corruption Perception Index


Corruption Perceptions Index





















Source: https://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview

Corruption is closely linked with organized crime, especially drug trafficking, the proceeds from which may be used to finance terrorist groups. In addition, it sharply decreases the efficiency of government agencies in the fight against the threat of radical Islam. Also, the high level of corruption and ensuing social inequality are widely used by radical Islamists, including ISIS, as propaganda arguments against existing secular regimes.

The third significant factor which makes these states’ “fragile” is poverty. Regional countries (especially some parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley) have a very high degree of rural overpopulation, which, together with the shortage of water and fertile soil, causes unemployment and accumulation of large numbers of marginalized young people easily susceptible to radical Islam. The degradation of the Soviet-built systems of social support, education and healthcare has made the problem still worse. Labor migration to Russia (which until recently provided for 50 percent of GDP in Tajikistan; 33 percent, in Kyrgyzstan; and 15 percent, in Uzbekistan) was an important factor averting social explosions. However, the devaluation of the ruble in 2014-2015 and a decline in the demand for labor in Russia have sharply reduced this source of income, which in turn has led to a serious deterioration of the social situation, especially in Tajikistan.

The growth of poverty is taking place against the backdrop of the emerging trend towards socio­economic “de-modernization.” For example, due to civil war and economic hardships, the share of urban residents in Tajikistan dropped to 26 percent of the entire population in 2010, which makes it comparable with the world’s most backward countries. Other manifestations of “de-modernization” include the flight of highly-skilled specialists and intellectuals (both Russian-speaking and ethnic) and the disintegration of Soviet-built technological and social infrastructure even in such resource-rich countries as Turkmenistan.

The fourth critical factor threatening the statehood of countries in the region is the existence of personalized sultanistic regimes ingrained in the clan systems that determine the intra-elite network configurations. The two key countries in the region—Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—have not seen a single power change cycle over the post-Soviet period. The existing political institutions in both countries are closely linked with the outstanding personality of their presidents. However, due to their aging, change of supreme power will be soon on the agenda, which may cause exacerbation of inter-clan conflicts of the elites and further political destabilization.

Fifth, there are serious interstate conflicts over water resources between countries located in the upper reaches of rivers (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and those lying in the lower reaches (Uzbekistan and less so Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). These conflicts hinder cooperation, including joint struggle against security threats.

Sixth, clashing interests of powers involved in the New Great Game for influence in Central Asia (Russia, the United States, China, the EU, and some Islamic countries) may aggravate security threats or, at best, reduce to naught their support for regional countries in countering various challenges.

Secular State vs Radical Islam

The aforementioned external threats from radical Islam emanating from Afghanistan and some other Middle East countries, exacerbated by numerous domestic problems, clearly indicate there is a certain crisis in the secular statehood model that took shape in Central Asia in the post-Soviet period. Prospects for overcoming this crisis differ in different countries and largely depend on the  specific relations between government agencies and religious organizations in each of them.

Islam began to spread in Central Asia in the 7th century AD as a result of the Arab conquest. The process of Islamization lasted for centuries and was not completed before the establishment of the Soviet regime. Remarkably, there was a clear-cut distinction between the settled peoples (Uzbeks and Tajiks) that were strongly influenced by Islam and the nomadic groups (Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz and the Turkmen) who were less impacted. This distinction is still valid as the problem of religious extremism is particularly urgent in countries with settled populations and areas of compact settlement in nomadic states (southern Kazakhstan and southern Kyrgyzstan).

After Central Asian countries got independence their elites started actively supporting what they considered politically acceptable versions of Islam, thereby trying to create national forms of this religion that would legitimatize existing political systems of secular states.

Today the situation in Tajikistan is the worst in terms of instability and the influence of radical Islam. Among the specific negative factors is its proximity to Afghanistan, a very complex domestic socio-economic situation, and the persisting destructive consequences of the civil war that took place in the first half of the 1990s.

In addition, the recent years have seen radicalization of Tajikistan’s society, also involving its law-enforcement agencies. The most blatant incident occurred in 2015 when a riot police colonel, Gulmurod Khalimov, deserted his unit and joined ISIS. A military mutiny headed by Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Abdukhalim Nazarzoda occurred in the fall of 2015. The official authorities also attributed this to the influence of radical Islam. The central government of Tajikistan fails to ensure control over some of its territories such as Gorny Badakhshan. The protection of the Tajik-Afghan border has also become fairly weak after the departure of Russian border guards, which is dangerous in view of the accelerating destabilization in Afghanistan’s border areas.

Excesses in the struggle against Islamism may also be conducive to the diffusion of radical Islam. Such actions as the mass closure of mosques, the introduction of a strict dress code contradicting Islamic traditions, and the banning of the moderate Islamic Revival of Tajikistan party may consolidate the radical Islamic underground.

Kyrgyzstan is also subjected to serious threats. One of the specific risks is the country’s geopolitical split into north and south. As the Batken war bore out, Kyrgyz government agencies are traditionally weak and were further weakened by two revolutions (in 2005 and in 2010). Radical Islamism presents the biggest threat in the south of Kyrgyzstan, especially within the large Uzbek diaspora. The situation in this area is complicated by an acute ethnic conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks which led to pogroms in 2010.

The situation in Turkmenistan has been traditionally considered one of the most stable in the region (as the above statehood ratings show). Nevertheless, it seriously deteriorated in 2014-2015, after ISIS had penetrated areas adjoining the Afghan-Turkmen border. Turkmenistan’s neutral status has started to demonstrate its negative effects. The country does not have a strong army to protect its borders nor can it request military aid, for instance from Russia, as this would contradict the concept of neutrality. The domestic situation leaves much to be desired, too. If one goes by the abovementioned numbers of militants in Syria and Iraq (counted in terms of militants per one million of the population), Turkmenistan ranks first in the post-Soviet space.

Uzbekistan’s standoff with extremist trends in Islam is characterized by substantial contradictions. On the one hand, the region’s strongest extremist groups originated in Uzbekistan. In 1999, the IMU staged massive terrorist attacks in Tashkent. In May 2005, Akromiya (Akromiylar), a radical Islamist group, organized an uprising in Andizhan (Fergana Valley). On the other hand, the state’s powerful law-enforcement agencies and its generally repressive policy have put the activities of religious extremists in the country under some control.

Islamist propaganda and terrorist activities today are growing in Uzbekistan against the backdrop of an aggravating socio-economic crisis. Uzbekistan is second after Russia in the post-Soviet space in terms of the number of militants who are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The problem of the growing religious extremism in Uzbekistan is further complicated by its clan policy. This country has a traditional “division of labor” between regional clans that is well illustrated by the proverb: “A resident of Samarkand rules; a resident of Tashkent counts money, and a resident of the Fergana Valley prays.” This proverb highlights Islam’s special role in the Fergana Valley and the fact that all key clergymen in Uzbekistan traditionally come from the Fergana Valley.

During the post-Soviet evolution, the Samarkand clan (the president himself belongs to it) and the Tashkent clan (in charge of the economy) came to power in Uzbekistan. Many experts believe that the Fergana clan has traditionally used the threat of Islamic extremism to increase its influence. The aforementioned inter-clan alignment of political forces is highly important as the lingering power inheritance problem may sharply aggravate the struggle between clans.

Kazakhstan is least affected by Islamic radicalism owing to a number of factors: a stable economy (about two-thirds of Central Asia’s GDP is produced in Kazakhstan), a fairly high level of social modernization in the Soviet period, the existence of a large strata of Russian-speaking people, and the historical specifics of Islam’s dissemination among the Kazakhs.

Two regions of Kazakhstan largely determine the overall situation with radical Islam in that country. Islam’s influence was historically strong in southern Kazakhstan, an area with settled population. Its recent revival in this area has been accompanied by the emergence of its radical forms. A no less complex situation has been taking shape in western Kazakhstan. The intensive industrial development of the region’s oil and gas deposits has attracted socially marginalized groups, especially guest workers (many of whom are Oralman, or “returnees,” a term used to describe ethnic Kazakhs who return home from fairly backward countries). Riots in Zhanaozen in 2011 revealed tensions which, although not caused by the Islamic factor, may facilitate the growth of radical Islam in this complex situation.

Resistance Points

The threats to secular statehood in Central Asia are substantial, but its countries have the potential for countering them.

Historically, Central Asia, as part of the Muslim world, is characterized by developed Islamic science (Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Farabi and Al-Biruni, to name a few) and a strong Sufi tradition of Islam, including mystic poetry (Attar, Jami, Mashrab, and others). It is these local cultural traditions of Islam that are one of the main targets for Islamic radicals denying national forms of Muslim religion and culture. Central Asian Sufis (primarily the great Uzbek teacher of the Soviet era Muhammadjan Hindustani) actively countered the spread of radical Islamism (Salafism and Wahhabism). Importantly, religious extremism is less characteristic of Central Asia’s ancient civilizational centers such as Samarkand and Bukhara due to the high traditional culture of their population.

The potential of the traditional legal Hanafi School should not be underestimated either. It is one of the four Orthodox Sunni religious schools of jurisprudence, whereas radical Islamism (Salafism) is linked with the Saudi-adopted Hanbali School in the radical Wahhabi interpretation. The development of traditional Islam and the consolidation of the Hanafi School as officially recognized (for instance, in Tajikistan) is a resource for fighting radicalism along the Islamic path of development.

It should also be emphasized that Central Asian states have positive historical experience in modernizing Islamic ideology, which may well be used in current conditions. The late 19th and the early 20th centuries saw the emergence of the Jadid ideology (Young Bukhara and Young Khiva movements, etc.) both in Central Asia and the European part of Russia. It was introduced by Muslim liberal reformers in the regions that were in the lead of disseminating such ideas. This factor has predetermined the cultural tradition of developing along the secular path, which is typical of the region’s more advanced countries such as Kazakhstan.

The Soviet modernization heritage also facilitated the preservation of secular statehood. It led to many changes in Central Asia. Many Soviet-established non-Muslim stereotypes of everyday life (for instance, high-level literacy skills and secular education owing to the system of comprehensive schools, the consumption of alcohol and infrequent visits to mosques) still make many residents of this region substantially different from their brethren-in-faith in the rest of the Muslim world.

In the post-Soviet period, the efficiency of reforms aimed at building modern institutions was different in different countries of the region. Kazakhstan has been in the lead in terms of developing a market economy and attracting investment. An efficient market economy is one of the largest obstacles to a return to archaic Islamic institutions as urged by radicals. It is only natural that Kazakhstan’s leaders sharply intensified institutional economic reform in response to the general growth of instability in 2014-2015. It is Kazakhstan that is a kind of “bastion of stability” primarily owing to its relative (regional) socio-economic well-being. It ensures the security of Russia’s southern borders, China’s western borders, and eventually the security of the European Union’s eastern borders.

The assistance of great powers is a major resource in the struggle against radical Islamism in Central Asia. In this context special credit goes to Russia which has key positions in terms of ensuring regional security. The Moscow-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization is the main protection for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan against possible invasions from Afghan territory and potential ISIS expansion.

Russia is vitally interested in fighting Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. Its further spread is linked to the potential growth of many cross-border threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, uncontrolled migration, etc.). In the migration context, the security of Russia’s metropolitan areas (above all Moscow) largely depends on where Russia and the entire international community will be able to render effective support to Central Asian countries in countering the growing threat of radical Islamism.