Landmarks on the Road of Jihad
No. 1 2003 January/March
Alexei Malashenko

Research Director of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Berlin, Germany; a member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center and the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Alexei Malashenko is Vice-President of the Academic
Council of the Moscow Carnegie Center, and professor at the Moscow
State Institute of International Relations. This article has been
published in Russian in the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

Alexei Malashenko

It has become rather fashionable today to give particular
attention, as well as multiple definitions, to the various
religious groupings now dotting the globe. Fundamentalism,
neofundamentalism, Wahhabism, neo-Wahhabism, Islamism, integrism –
these are just a few examples.

Occasionally, discussions over these kinds of terms become
theological in nature, and the secular scholars must quote ayats
from the Holy Koran and the Hadis to support their statements. No
doubt, people do need to exercise their intellects, but they
sometimes overdo it and invent different kinds of definitions for
one and the same phenomenon.

Russians of the older generation may still remember a speaker at
the 26th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party telling his amazed
audience: “The struggle for liberation may be launched under the
banner of Islam, as shown by early and late history. But that same
history also teaches us that Islamic slogans can be used by
reactionary forces stirring up counter-revolutionary revolts.” What
a universal guide to action for Vladimir Putin, Aslan Maskhadov,
Islam Karimov, and Dzhuma Namangani (if he is still alive, of

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, but the deep
inner link between religion and politics has remained unchanged.
Secularism is now interpreted in a much more “diplomatic” way,
while religion is already perceived as a normal “factor” of the
secular political world and public life in general.

These changes are particularly manifest in the Muslim world
where all political forces appeal to Islam. It is common these days
for a pro-reform president and a fierce opponent from among
orthodox Islamists to begin their speeches with “Bismillah”
(“In the name of Allah”). Central Asia is no exception – and in a
sense, the rule.

Riddles Of The Islamic “Threat”

The actual power of the Islamists, and the degree of their
influence upon an individual society, is difficult to judge,
despite an avalanche of articles on this issue. An overwhelming
majority of these articles stem from ‘information’ regularly leaked
to the press by various sources. The allegedly ‘official’
statements which derive from the secret services, ambitious
‘spiritual leaders,’ and opportunistic politicians and analysts
serve to cloud the facts. The existence of radical Islam has long
become an instrument actively used by secular leaders for achieving
their goals. Similarly, it is used by power agencies which exploit
the ‘Islamic threat’ to pump funds out of the national budget.

In the past, the experts sometimes portrayed the Islamists (or
whatever other titles they may go by) as the only effective
oppositional force. And in some countries – Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan – they really were. In other places they enjoyed varying
degrees of success: in Kyrgyzstan, they played a minor role in the
political processes, whereas in Kazakhstan, the Islamic forces
found themselves cast along the roadside of political life. And in
Turkmenistan they simply do not exist as an organized movement. One
must not rule out, however, the emergence of Muslim opposition in
the land of the new Turkmen ‘Gospel’ – Rukhnama – written by
Saparmurat Niyazov, the proclaimed “President-for-Life” of
Turkmenistan, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, “Father of all

At various national and regional levels, double standards are
widely used with regard to Islamic movements. The ‘Islamic threat’
never stops making the headlines of government-controlled
publications and is a dominant theme of political statements. But
if you ask a well-informed official in a private conversation how
real this ‘threat’ is, he may merely shrug his shoulders. Some
highly placed politicians in Central Asia know nothing at all about
the existence of Islamist organizations in their countries, not to
mention their leaders’ names.

At the same time, it is generally believed that if chaos begins
to run rampant throughout the economy, and the gap between the rich
and the poor continues to increase together with blatant
corruption, “they will make us suffer the consequences.” “They” are
perceived as some sort of a surrealist force which is everywhere,
yet nowhere. “They” are mighty, of course, but their actual rise to
power seems as unrealistic as the end of the world.

It may be helpful at this time to outline specific periods of
Islamic activity in Central Asia which are common to all the
countries of the former Soviet Union. Our chronology of events, as
is typical with any broad analysis, may lack full synchronization
of events. Furthermore, one may find many exceptions to these
stages; nevertheless, they will help us identify distinct landmarks
in history.

The first stage continued from the late 1980s to the early
1990s. The landmark date in this stage was 1990: in that year the
all-Union Islamic Party of Revival (IPR) was established in
Astrakhan, Russia. Naturally, there had existed independent Islamic
structures in Central Asia before, but they were small and
amorphous organizations without any ambitious goals. The IPR had
numerous branches in the country, which promoted the establishment
of other parties and groups, large or small.

The year 1991 saw the establishment of the famous Adolat party
in Uzbekistan, a kind of synthesis of the Soviet Union’s voluntary
people’s patrols and moral police. This party was preceded by
Hezbollah and the long-forgotten Islamic Party of Turkestan. In the
same years, the Alash National Freedom Party was founded in
Kazakhstan, and four Islamist groups emerged in Azerbaijan. In
November 1991, the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) was officially
registered in Tajikistan. The Muslim revival movement was “raging
like high water.”

But the “Islamic Renaissance” proved to be short-lived. In
December 1991, following the first election in newly independent
Tajikistan, the IRP entered into confrontation with the People’s
Front. In 1992, the Uzbek government began to suppress the Adolat
party. Finally, Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev,
refused to conduct negotiations with Alashists whom he had labeled
“fascists” in a fit of emotion.

Grapes Of Wrath

The years 1992-1993 marked the beginning of the second stage, in
which the suppression of political Islam intensified. At first, a
few dozen opposition mosques were shut down, and soon the doors of
hundreds of opposition mosques were closed; rebellious Muslim
politicians and clergymen were sent off to prison.

Islamists who appeal to the Moslem religion in pursuing their
objectives went into deep opposition, and more often resorted to
military activities to achieve their political goals. In Central
Asia and the North Caucasus there emerged special training camps
for Islamic fighters. Tajikistan was torn by a civil war.
Nationalistic Islamic movements – “the grapes of wrath” – ripened
in Russia’s Tatarstan region. The first president of the breakaway
Republic of Chechnya, Air Force Major-General Dzhokhar Dudayev,
declared a jihad (religious war) against Russia.

By the mid-1990s, Islamic radicalism became an ordinary
political force in the former states of the Soviet Union. The main
success of the Islamist movement was a peace agreement signed in
1996 by the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) and the government of
Tajikistan; this led to the subsequent establishment of a real
government coalition (however, UTO members reportedly do not feel
at home in Dushanbe’s corridors of power to this day).

The developments in Tajikistan demonstrated that the use of
force alone against radical Islamists may have tragic and
unexpected consequences. It is possible to reach an accord with
them, thus turning enemies into partners, however difficult the
working relationship may be.

At the same time, the civil war in Tajikistan, which took a
heavy toll on human lives (tens of thousands of people were
killed), came as an important trump card for all the Central Asian
presidents. They blamed the outburst of Civil War on their
bloodstained neighbor, whose weak political power had prevented it
from preserving stability, thus forcing it into concessions with
the “children of Shaitan” – fundamentalists.

Some analysts argue that another big achievement of the radical
Islamists was the 1996 Khasavyurt agreement, signed in Moscow.
However, this agreement did not increase the chances for a peace
settlement in Chechnya and was eventually repudiated. Although some
circles described it as a victory for the militant Islamists, one
should not forget that Aslan Maskhadov, who signed the agreement on
Chechnya’s behalf, always opposed Chechnya’s “Islamization” and the
foundation of an Islamic state there. The Khasavyurt agreement
heralded the victory of the Chechen separatist movement, not

The Taliban As An Ideal

The beginning of the third stage can be dated to 1996. At this
juncture, the Taliban rose to political power in Afghanistan. In
Turkey, the leader of the Refah (Welfare) Party, Necmettin Erbakan,
became prime minister. This first victory for the Turkish Islamists
(the second came last year) was a momentous event. If such outcomes
are possible in Turkey (a would-be member of the European Union),
one should not be surprised when and if they happen in Central

By that time, Islamists had become more consolidated and
organized, as well as more experienced, in opposing a government
that totally rejected all compromises. The radical Islamists now
had a territory under their control, which made them less
vulnerable in their struggle against secular authorities.
Afghanistan became an international transfer point for arms
traffickers, and an area where Islamic extremists and their allies
from various countries could freely meet and share their experience
with each other. (In those years, Russian newspapers and television
considered it to be good policy to regularly frighten their
audiences by suggesting “a Taliban invasion of Kazan” or “an
Islamic parade through Red Square.”) Contacts between Islamists in
Central Asia and the Chechen fighters became more and more obvious.
Russian troops identified Uzbeks among the Chechen fighters taken
prisoner, while many Chechens were apprehended in Uzbekistan’s
Fergana Valley.

The establishment of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan had an
immense demonstrative effect on Central Asians: “Look, those people
have been able to establish a truly Islamic regime! Why not build
such a state right here?” Needless to say, an overwhelming majority
of Central Asians, even in the Islamist-dominated Fergana Valley,
would not have been able to live even ten minutes under a real
government of the Taliban, who threw television sets out of windows
and closed down the public baths.

Yet, the myth of the Taliban regime’s justness kept spreading.
People, especially the poor, tend to always believe in a better
future. This belief was strengthened by accounts of those who had
visited Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban. Many of them
reported a decrease in corruption in that country, an evil that
remains widespread among its northern neighbors.

In 1996, the strengthened Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan began
to make regular raids in the Fergana Valley, fighting against Uzbek
and Kyrgyz regular troops. The Kyrgyz town of Batken became a local
“Battle of Stalingrad” in the war against Islamic fighters.
Finally, in 1999, in a climax to the tensions, the ‘legendary’
assassination attempt on Uzbek leader Islam Karimov was made. Even
if we agree with those who are confident that the explosions in
Tashkent had no relation to the Islamic opposition and were
organized by other forces, we cannot fail to notice that the
terrorist act coincided in time with the intensification of the
opposition’s activity.

Another important political force in Central Asia is the
Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), which has
become a favorite subject for reporters. Indeed, Hizb-ut-Tahrir
members make an essential difference from the more traditional
“Islamic fighters.” They declared their devotion to nonviolent
activities and launched a propaganda campaign among the population
by spreading leaflets and culturing people about the ideas and
rules of Islam.

Eventually, the Uzbek authorities launched a crackdown on the
Hizb-ut-Tahrir members. Kyrgyzstan displayed more tolerance for
them: they were arrested and then released; if they were placed on
trial, the sentences were not very severe. In Kyrgyzstan,
Hizb-ut-Tahrir members reminded one of the Maquisards (members of
the French underground resistance movement during World War II),
who fought Nazis out in the open and were not particularly keen on
secrecy rules.

September 11. Intermission

The slow, grueling struggle for a caliphate and Islamic justice,
marked by seasonal upsurges of military activities, continued until
September 11, 2001. That day marked the beginning of a new, fourth
stage in the history of the Islamic movement in Central Asia, as
well as the whole world. It can be described as an intermission in
the noisy religious and political performance.

The fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, together with the
large-scale offensive against al-Qaeda, placed the Central Asian
radicals in a difficult position. Their flow of financial support
began to dry up, together with the support they had once enjoyed
from their Afghan allies. Finally, they lost many valuable fighters
in Afghanistan as well: the Uzbek Islamists were known to be among
the fiercest fighters in the Taliban forces. Finally, no one knows
the fate of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,
Dzhuma Namangani, who has gone missing.

A year after September 11, the ‘Islamic threat’ to the ruling
regimes in Central Asia was nonexistent. At this critical juncture,
the Islamists are not ready to take risks; and an intermission has
settled in the region. However, the grounds for radical Islamic
protests still exist. There also remains the possibility that the
existing Islamic organizations will survive, while new ones could

In the North Caucasus, the post-September intermission is long
over. In a sense, the continuation of the Chechen conflict proves
its special autonomy from bin Laden and his people. The Middle East
has seen no intermission at all. The war there continues despite
the strikes against international terrorism.

Attitudes to people considering social changes in the context of
Islam may differ, yet these people have a right to have views of
their own, even though their views may be utopian. The significance
of an Islamic alternative for Central Asia should be neither
underestimated nor exaggerated. The authors and followers of such
ideas are unable to stir up society on their own, but they have
good chances to promote their ideas fast (and without any bin
Laden) if the general situation in their countries becomes more
aggravated. One must be constantly ready for such a turn of events
everywhere: be it democratic Kyrgyzstan or authoritarian
Uzbekistan, that is, in every country where the government is
unable to markedly raise the standards of living, and to bring the
population above the poverty line. Islamists may well establish
cooperation with other political forces that are not “pure

Like the Chechen separatists, some members of the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan like to compare themselves to wolves. Most
likely, they (and we too) do not realize how true this comparison
is: both forces attack “sick” and socially vulnerable state
systems, and really resemble wolves who perform “sanitary
functions” in the wild by killing the weak and sick animals. One
gets the impression that Central Asia is awaiting the fifth stage
in Islamic political activity. And no one can say when and how this
fifth stage will begin.