Guli Yuldasheva, Ph.D. (Political Science), senior fellow, Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies (ISRS) under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

The events of 11 September in New York and development of Islam in Central Asian republics neighboring Afghanistan have become the subject of direct attention of the world community. First of all this refers to Uzbekistan with its sizable Muslim population, close from geographic and kindred cultural-historical point of view to such regional players as Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran.

Two priority questions connected with this emerge: (1) what is the possibility of avoiding the future radicalization of Islam and the growth of anti-western sentiments in Uzbekistan, and (2) what will be the main trends for the development of local Islam?

To answer these questions it is necessary to take into account a series of objective and subjective factors of historical, modern regional and global character.

Before delving into the study of the reasons for Islamic terrorism let us define the terms fundamentalism, Islamism and extremism. It seems to us that the most accurate interpretations and explanations of these concepts are those provided by Kazakh analyst E.V. Tukumov. To extremism he ascribes all kinds of radical actions, directed against existing political relations, an established political system and steady religious views in the society.1 The notion of fundamentalism in Islam means roots, basis, fundamentals, that presupposes return to the sources and roots of Islam and strict observance of the regulations of Koran and Sunnah. Fundamentalism in Islam, E.V. Tukumov justly observes, is rather an ideological, not political phenomenon. At present this is a deep spiritual-cultural and ideological protest of Muslims against the obtrusion of the Western way of life. Fundamentalism itself does not suppose either political or religious extremism, nor, in particularly, terrorism. As to the notion Islamism, this is a practical realization of ideas of fundamentalism, in which E.V. Tukumov divides supporters of Islamism into radicals, centrists and supporters of a moderate approach.

We can add here that existence of various misinterpretations of Islam at different stages of its development makes possible, however, that fundamentalism can in certain conditions become a fertile ground for appearance of radical Islamic extremism.

Islamic terrorism is a phenomenon, which is not restricted to one country and is influenced also by global changes in the world. Appearance of the new mistakenly interpreted version of Koran about jihad has given rise to the whole network of more keen, technically equipped and dogmatic Islamic international organizations, whose activity went far beyond the boundaries of its own country.

That is why it is important here to examine modern tendencies in Islam and the ways they found their expression in Uzbekistan.

New Tendencies in the Islamic World

The analysis of the reasons for the radicalization of Islam allows us to single out inner and outer reasons for the growth of Islamic extremism. Experts stress as inner reasons socioeconomic difficulties, weakness of the political institutions and political regimes in Muslim countries.

Thus, specialists believe that the manifestation of terrorism and anti-governmental stances of such organizations as Jihad and Islamic Group in Egypt, The Front of Islamic Liberation in Algeria and An-Nahda in Tunis, are mainly of internal origin. More often they are found in undemocratic societies with deep economic problems.2

According to other opinion,3 in the majority of Islamic states, like Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia, this is linked with corruption of a ruling elite, not capable of reacting to the important social needs of their societies. At the same time, ethnic reasons, like those existing in Afghanistan, are also mentioned as contributory factors to radicalization of religion.

Some analysts note as main external reasons processes of modernization and domination of the western influence in the world, the result of which, they say, is the struggle of civilizations.

The majority of Islamic fundamentalists in the world regard western ideals, ideology and institutions as a threat to the norms and laws of Islam. At the same time attention is paid to the fact that blind copying of western models of modernization and democracy cannot solve, but only create new global problems. Hence, the return to their own traditional sources.

An example of the struggle between western secularism and Islamism is the conflict between Islamism and the process of modernization in Egypt.4 The dispute in May last year over a controversial book written by Islamic radical Heider Heider, A Banquet for Seaweed, reflected the discontent of religiously minded masses with domination of western atheistic secular culture in Egypt.5

In the Middle East the western secularism of Ataturk and others is regarded by some Islamists as a source for regional social disorder and instability, by others, as a failed western Christian ideal.6 To this tendency one can also refer a revival of Christian fundamentalism as a counterbalance to the Islamic one and activization of Christian Solidarity after the 11 September tragedy.7

While studying perspectives for development of the Islamic movements two general trends of thought are seen: (1) pessimistic, emphasizing the religious background of modern conflicts and the globalization of terrorist organizations,8 and (2) optimistic, stressing an increase of a secularist tendency in the world.

Thus, representative of the first trend of thought David Pryce-Jones writes about corruption, tyranny, poverty and political extremism as characteristic features of Islam. Khomeini has revived the medieval concept of the war between Islam and the West, and Bin Laden has turned it into contemporary reality, he wrote.9 It is unjust to think that a radical movement of Islamists is doomed to failure, others consider. At the same time there is an element of doubtwhy cannot radical Islam, in spite of its relative strength, come to power anywhere?10

The supporters of optimistic line are quite right, saying that radical movements were not strong enough to overthrow the governments anywhere, excluding Iran. Even in relatively traditional Muslim societies the majority aspire for peace and well-being. Preference is given to economic growth, social justice and political participation, and not to abstract religious theories.11

Furthermore, the research in the sphere of the development of the liberal branch of Islam and the study of similarities and differences of the western and Islamic religious thoughts brought another analyst Charles Kurzman to conclusion that both trends can peacefully coexist in a multireligious society. The progress of liberal Islam is based, in his opinion, on the following factors:

  • development of science and technology has put an end to the monopoly of religious institutions on the sphere of religious studies;
  • development of communications and international trade and various means of mass media naturally brings to more close international contacts and influence of the western image of liberal democracy;
  • failure of Islamic regimes and their ideologies.12

Indeed, even modern Iran, having rather a strong conservative political establishment, experiences today relative erosion of the radical moods and gravity to a secular way of life, rather than return to ideas of the Islamic revolution. And in a Saudi-Arabian society a split between the supporters of the extreme, more rigid forms of Islam and supporters of its more moderate interpretation is observed.

The absence on the whole of radical moods in Turkey is acknowledged with certain reservation, where, analysts state, the religion is combined most successfully with politics.13 Indonesia can also be another example of the weakness of radical forces. The effort of the former Afghani and the leader of Lashkar Jihad Jaffar Umar, who recently advanced the program of radical Islamization of the country, was not supported by the Muslim population.14

Thus, despite some separate successes of radical Islam the general tendency in the Islamic world testifies to the qualitative changes of global sociopolitical space in favor of strengthening secular tendencies. It is quite possible that in the long run this will find its expression in the gradual disappearance of radically minded Islamic regimes from the political arena. Clearly a large portion will gradually transfer to the category of moderate Islamic regimes, further paralleled by a strengthening of secular-oriented Muslim countries. And this process will certainly embrace Uzbekistan as well.

Perspectives of Islam in Uzbekistan: Confrontation or Secularization?

In spite of the obvious community of destinies of the Islamic world and common problems, such as socioeconomic difficulties, problems with democracy, and corruption of a certain part of the ruling elite, the development of Islam in Uzbekistan has its own peculiarities.

It is important to point out that Islam, as an ideological system, has always been far from being monolithic, and historically was formed amidst a fight of ideas and opinions. That is why even today Islam in Uzbekistan is influenced by two main factors. On the one hand, it has from the very roots of its foundation the powerful charge of liberal-tolerant ideas of Sunni Hanafi madhab, and on the other, it experiences the influence of radical extremist ideas, whose sources can also be traced back to history.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the bankruptcy of socialist ideology created an ideological vacuum, which can be filled only with an ideology responding to the spiritual needs and demands of the population, and corresponding with its way of life and mentality. Such an ideology for the Muslims of Uzbekistan (about 80%) could only be that of Islam. Consequently, the restoration of cultural-spiritual and historical values became an objective necessity, and not merely the need to legitimize the new regime. To meet this obstacle, the Government of Uzbekistan has undertaken a series of sociopolitical reforms in the sphere of religion and culture, the dynamics of which can be assessed by the following facts.

In 1991 the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations was adopted, qualitatively changing the role and legal status of religious organizations. In accordance with the Law, citizens individually or on a group basis were granted the right to profess religious ceremonies and make a pilgrimage to the holy places. Thus, if in the 1980s only 25-30 men in the Soviet Union made pilgrimage annually, in 1991 already 1,500, and in 19924,500 went out.15 In 2000 already 4,000 people went to pilgrimage and about 4,000 for Umra. In addition, the Spiritual Administration of the Republic of Uzbekistan has two educational institutionsthe religious school Mir Arab in Bukhara (since 1945) and Islamic Institute in Tashkent (since 1971), and about 80 cathedral mosques. Since 1995 an International Center for Islamic Studies has functioned in Tashkent and since 1999, there has been a Tashkent Islamic University.16

In spite of these measures the period of independence has been characterized in Uzbekistan by the appearance of radical Islamic movements and parties, as well as by general instability in the sphere of religious relationships, which were demonstrated by a series of disturbances in Ferghana Valley, Namangan Region, and the events of February 1999.

What are the main reasons for this phenomenon in Uzbekistan? First, with the restoration of contacts with the Muslim world and the building of mosques and madrasahs, a real stream of religious literature and missionaries, representing illegally operating radical movements in their own societies, poured into the country. Different transnational Islamic organizations and trends, such as the movement of Wahhabism born as early as in the 18th century in Saudi Arabia and ideology of Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in 1953 in Jordan, try to promote their vision of Islam in the country. Now, with the potential joining of Uzbek Muslims in their ranks, they got a chance to improve the existing balance of forces in the world in their own favor and to restore a middle-aged Islamic Caliphate on the territory of Central Asia and far beyond it. Uzbekistans strategic location in the heart of Central Asia is very significant in achieving these goals.

The first of their followers, an Islamic specialist O. Bibikova rightly observes, became young people, who had a possibility with the beginning of reconstruction to study at foreign theological centers, and also those, who by their age, individual, social character turned out to be in confrontation with the current division of power, influence, prestige and wealth in former societies.17

Secondly, as a result of the transition to a market economy, the quality of life in Uzbekistan has been sharply reduced. Unemployment, differentiation in the income level of various groups within the population, and aggravation of the socioeconomic atmosphere due to the incompleteness of the governmental reforms, created favorable ground for the growth of discontent toward official policy, and increased the rows of radically inclined Islamists, who were at this point advancing their own program to improve life conditions.

Thirdly, a serious factor, which stimulated the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism in the region, was drug trafficking. It is commonly known that the biggest drug producer in the world is neighboring Afghanistan. Afghani opium is the source of 80-85% of heroin delivered to Europe and indeed the world. During the transitional period following the withdrawal of Soviet power, Central Asia became the main route for drug supplies to other countries. Correspondingly, the number of crimes connected with the drug business and its consumption has continued in the past and continues to grow in the region.18 Today about 65% of drugs produced in Afghanistan go through the territory of Central Asia in order to reach world markets, and during a nine month period in 2000 in Kazakhstan, for instance, 18,000 crimes, connected with illegal drug circulation were reported.19 Unfortunately, illegal drug trade has turned out to be the best income source for the supply and maintenance of a wide variety of Islamic terrorist and various criminal groups. The goals of Islamists here are twofold. By increasing drug consumption among the population of newly founded states they try to undermine the societies from within that would make easier to influence upon them and to achieve then their political goals of building a true Islamic state in the region. On the other hand, profits from drug trafficking are used for recruiting new supporters. Indeed, under poor economic conditions the unscrupulous part of the population in Uzbekistan is ready for high payment to spread illegal leaflets and participate in radical Islamists activities. However, the open trials have demonstrated that many of them at the same time do not know even the essentials of Sharia.

Fourthly, the demographic factor coupled with a lack of religious education among the masses is of great significance. The most sensitive to radical Islamic teaching, by virtue of their traditional character and lack of religious education, are rural population (60%) and the youth, constituting two thirds of the population. Various sects and unconventional religious teachings, including those of an extremist and dogmatic character, often manipulate the conscience of this part of the population, utilizing the ideas of social justice. The lack of knowledge in the sphere of real Islam has divergent results. On the one hand, it helps radicals, mainly from foreign countries, to promote their image of Islam as the only true variant. On the other hand, failure to differentiate moderate (fundamentals of pure Islam, having nothing to do with extremist teachings) and radical types of Islam draws government and law enforcement institutions into mistakes in religious policy.

Fifth, and finally, a sizable role in the strengthening of radical movements was played by elements of corruption and bribery, and mistakes of the representatives of some state power branches. This has undermined the belief of Muslims in the justice of the existing power structure, driving them to extremism.

It is clear from the above that appearance of radical Islam in the territory of Uzbekistan was caused primarily by external factors. Inner socioeconomic difficulties, corruption and abuses of power, being common to all developing countries in the world, created a favorable environment for its spread. However, while undoubtedly contributing to it, they cannot at the same time play a crucial role in the emergence of terrorism. For instance, socioeconomic problems and even the atheistic propaganda of the last years of the Soviet pluralistic period did not lead to an organized network of religious terrorism; indeed, all conflicts were mainly of ethno-national and political character. Thus, such terrorism had no roots in Central Asian republics, but came only with achievement of their independence and contacts with the rest of the Muslim world, where these ideas, as was mentioned above, had been spread long ago.

The main difference between the Uzbekistani Muslims and the rest of the Islamic countries, including secular Turkey, is their relative weakness of theological preparation for all of the aforementioned reasons of historical character, and a large interval in the continuity of theological education.

The Soviet type of modernization created a peculiar secular-minded type of population, a fact which differentiates us greatly from other Muslim states. Even so-called modern fundamentalists prefer to give their daughters professional education, opportunity to own a small business and business enterprises, and participate in public life, all of which contradict the demands of a radical type of Islam. Thats why even in the most pessimistic scenario a moderate type of Islam can be developed in Uzbekistan, which means observance of fundamental values and norms of Islam, not distorted by radical ideas and extreme actions. In this sense, restoration of traditional Central Asian Islamic teachings of Imam al-Bukhari, Abd al-Halik al-Gijduvani, Baha ad-din Naqshband, Ahmad al-Yassavi and others, play significant role. And it is clear, because ideas of Sufism of our great ancestor Naqshband, rejecting ostentatious piousness, ceremonies and asceticism, are close to the hearts of many Uzbek Muslims and existed on our territory since the 14th century.

And at last, political development of Uzbekistan fully corresponds to modern global changes in the sphere of international relations, as this development is distinguished by the growth of pragmatism and orientation toward economic interest, which, while it may not exclude, can sufficiently reduce prospects for the further radicalization of Islam.

It is obvious that specifics of Uzbek Islam and governmental measures directed at strengthening the secular trend in religion do not guarantee in the near future against recurrences of Islamic extremism, as the main aforementioned roots for such movements have not been fully removed. To avoid this at present, Uzbekistan should accelerate sociopolitical reforms in the country and take steps toward ensuring the economic prosperity of the Republic. In practice this can be realized today through cooperation with leading foreign powers headed by the U.S. Thus, taking into account general tendencies in Islam toward moderation and secularization allows us to look at the Uzbek long-term future more optimistically.


While assessing the scope of challenges of Islamic extremism to the world community one should take into account the heterogeneity and discrepancies within the Islamic world that will hamper widening radical movements; opposition to them in the Muslim world from the side of secular and military structures; and dependence of all countries, including Muslim ones, on the world economy. Objectively these factors create conditions for steady strengthening secular or moderate tendencies in Islam. In the meantime, the preservation of inner political contradictions, economic difficulties, inequality in the development of states and global redistribution of profits will not prevent the appearance of sporadic local terrorist acts, including in Uzbekistan. Completion of their own models of modernization in Islamic states, based on their traditional Eastern and common world values, demands time, readiness to compromise and an open dialog of cultures.

The paper reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the governmental point of view.

1 E.V. Tukumov, Problema religioznogo ekstremizma v stranakh Blizhnego i Srednego Vostoka, Analytic (Analytical Review), 1 January, 2001, pp 16-20.
2 See: Bruce W. Nelan, in: Time, Vol. 142, Issue 14, 4 October, 1993, p. 62.
3 See: R. Marquand, How Islamic Extremism Can Dissolve Old Borders, Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 90, Issue 187, 20 August, 1998, p. 1 (map).
4 For more detail, see: Fauzi M. Najjar, The Debate on Islam and Secularism in Egypt, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 18, Issue 2, Spring 1996, p. 1.
5 See: A. Hammond, Dispute over Controversial Book A Banquet for Seaweed Becomes Increasingly Politicized in Egypt, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 19, Issue 6, July 2000, p. 32.
6 See: F. Rhodes, in: Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (Book Review), ed. by John Esposito and Azzam Tamimi, published by C. Hurst & Co ISBN-Middle East, Issue 306, November 2000, p. 43.
7 See: R. Ponnuru, What We Are Not Fighting For, National Review, Vol. 53, Issue 21, 5 November, 2001, p. 20; K. Armstrong, ries of Rage and Frustration, New Statesman, Vol. 130, Issue 4556, 24 September, 2001, p. 17; J. Green, Gods Foreign Policy, Washington Monthly, Vol. 33, Issue 11, November 2001, p. 26.
8 See: S. Simon, The New Terrorism and the Peace Process, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, BarIlan University, Israel, October 2000.
9 David P.-Jones, Islam in Action. Extremism Now and Everywhere. What Later? National Review, Vol. 53, Issue 23, 3 December, 2001, p. 20.
10 See: E. Sivan, Why Radical Muslims Arent Taking over Governments, MERIA Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, May 1998.
11 See: Bruce W. Nelan, op. cit.
12 See: Ch. Kurzman, Liberal Islam: Prospects and Challenges, MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 1999.
13 See: E. Ozdalga, The Veiling Issue, Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey, Curzon Press, London, 1997.
14 See: D. Murphy, Indonesian Moderates Send Militant Packing, Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 93, Issue 239, 5 November, 2001, p. 10.
15 See: U. Zhuraev, Y. Saidzhonov, Dune dinlari tarikhi, Shark nashriet-matbaa kontsernining Bosh takhririiati, Tashkent, 1998, p. 13.
16 See: Entsiklopedicheskiy spravochnik Respublika Uzbekistan, State Scientific Publishers Uzbekiston millii entsiklopediiasi, Tashkent, 2001, p. 367.
17 O. Bibikova, Fenomen Vahhabizma, Azia i Afrika, No. 8, 1999, pp. 48-52.
18 For more detail, see: I. Adinaeva, International Drug Trafficking and Central Asia in the Post-Soviet Era, in: Building a Common Future. Indian and Uzbek Perspectives on Security and Economics, ed. by P. Stobdan, Knowledge World /IDSA, New Delhi, April 1999, pp. 70-87; M.S. Ashimbaev, K probleme formirovania sistemy regionalnoi bezopasnosti, Analytic, 1 January, 2001, pp. 6-8.
19 See: M.S. Ashimbaev, op. cit.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank