A useful journalistic introduction to contemporary Islamic movements in Central Asia

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Safar 03, 1423 2002-04-16

Book Review

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 4, Safar, 1423)

Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid. Pub: Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, and London, UK, 2002. Pp: 281. Hbk: $24.00 / £16.95.

Lest anyone be tempted to judge a book by its cover (or in this case, the title on its cover), let us start by saying that this is a far better book than most of the numerous books on ‘Jihad’ that have flooded the bookstores since September 11. The fact that his publishers could not resist the temptation to cash in should not be blamed on the author. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who writes for several western papers, including the Wall Street Journal, the Far East Economic Review and the British Daily Telegraph, is considerably more knowledgeable and understanding of Muslim peoples and societies than most Western journalists, and this is clearly shown in his writings. His book on the Taliban was already widely-read before September 11, and has become a best-seller since.

This book, which appears to have been written before September 11 and to have been only superficially updated before being rushed to press, is rather less substantial than Ahmed’s book on the Taliban. Much of it reads as a potted account of the region’s history — Central Asia for beginners, so to speak. The book’s own organization divides it into two section, but it is better viewed as having three parts. The first, called ‘Islam and Politics in Central Asia, Past and Present’, provides a readable and basic introduction to the region and Islam in it. It contains three chapters, on Islam in Central Asian society before the twentieth century, Islam during the communist period, and on the post-Soviet Central Asian states’ first decade of independence.

Even though this introductory section takes a third of the book, it is still very short for the material it seeks to cover, and is not more than a very superficial survey. It is, however, well-written and readable, in a journalistic style that is comfortable for most readers. It provides an overview of major themes — the role of sufis in the spread and maintenance of Islam in the region, the decline of the Central Asian sultanates and the emergence of modernist and populist Islamic institutions; the inconsistent and unpredictable official policies towards Islam during the Soviet period, and the parallel operation of official and unofficial Islamic infrastructures; and the resurgence of popular Islamic movements as the Soviet empire disappeared, to be succeeded by independent states led by former communist leaders utterly unprepared to stand alone. All these are clearly areas on which Ahmed is knowledgeable and comfortable.

For readers with little or no prior knowledge of the region, it is perhaps a good introduction; others will find it little more substantial than a basic primer. That impression is emphasised by the fact that each section is apparently written to stand alone, with few linking threads or running arguments; indeed some lines are repeated almost word-for-word in separate sections. The result feels more like reading a series of magazine features than parts of a book; which is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, for people more used to reading magazines than books.

All the same observations are also true of the first four chapters of the second part of the book, which is called ‘Islamic Movements in Central Asia since 1991.’ This section, of less than a hundred pages, is perhaps the core of the book, consisting of discussions of the three most important contemporary Islamic movements in the region. These are the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) in Tajikistan, the Hizb ul-Tahrir al-Islami (HT), which is well-established through most of Central Asia, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This section of the book is revelatory, for very little material is available on these movements. Despite suffering from some of the same problems as Ahmed’s early chapters, therefore, it is likely to be invaluable to most readers, providing as it does perhaps the only survey of these movements. Now Ahmed’s journalistic style comes into its own, superbly synthesising information culled from a wide variety of sources, many of them tangential to the subject (and only some of them referenced), to produce accounts of these movements that are, for the most part, informative and convincing.

He emphasises the origins of all three in trends that existed in the region during the Soviet period, which found sudden space and opportunities for growth and activism in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991. The IRP is unique among them, he points out, in that it brings together disparate strands of Central Asian Islam, including the unofficial ulama who operated underground during the communist period, ‘official’ ulama, sufi pirs and younger activists influenced by the war in Afghanistan, and the global resurgence of the Islamic movement. He discusses the origins of the IRP and its leaders, particularly of course Abdullah Saidov, better known as Sayyed Abdullah Nuri, the influences on its development, its role in the civil war in Tajikistan from 1992 to 1998, which was closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan; and its decline as a political party after accepting a role in Tajikistan’s government and electoral party system.

The Hizb ul-Tahrir, which Ahmed describes as "the most popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan", is very different in its style and activities. Ahmed provides a good summary of its general objectives and understanding, and then looks at its activities in Central Asia, where its vision is of "uniting Central Asia, Xinjiang Province in China, and eventually the entire ummah under a khilafah." As in other places, the HT works primarily in the educational and ideological areas, and is highly secretive about its structure and institutions. It is highly popularly and influential among university students and young professionals. Although it apparently avoids official links with other Islamic movements, many young people influenced by it are known also to have links with other groups, particularly the IMU and Afghan groups. Although HT opposes violence against existing regimes, preferring to mobilise mass support in the expectation of a peaceful mass uprising at some time in the future, it is severely repressed by governments. Ahmed points out that there are more HT prisoners in Central Asian prisons than those of any other opposition movement, including the IMU.

The IMU, led by Tohir Yuldeshev and Juma Namangani, is the only major Central Asian Islamic movement currently engaged in jihad against a government. It was established in 1997, both its key figures having previously been active in the IRP and in other Islamic political organizations in the region. Ahmed traces Namangani’s Islamic activism back to his service as an NCO in the Russian army in Afghanistan, when he was impressed by his Afghan opponents’ commitment to Islam. Back in Namangan, he joined Yuldeshev, a local Islamic leader agitating for the establishment of an Islamic state following the disappearance of the Soviet empire. Since 1997, the IMU, which has (or had) close links with the Taliban, has regularly been conducted military operations against the Uzbek regime, with the avowed intention of liberating and establishing Islamic rule in the Ferghana Valley.

In discussing all three of these major Islamic movements, Ahmed is strong on their narrative history and development, but perhaps less strong on their ideology and thinking, and weakest on the current situation, which is perhaps inevitable given that two of the three are effectively underground. Ahmed has provided an informative introduction to these Islamic movements that virtually all readers will find fresh and thought-provoking. It is a pity that there is less analysis and that the sections are so short; there is ample room for more substantial work in the area. Nonetheless here Ahmed does succeed in making a genuine contribution to the literature.

The final, short part of the book seeks to place Central Asia in the regional context of the "great game" of politics between Russia, the US and China. Despite mentions of September 11, this section was clearly written before that date. It is useful for its recognition and discussion of the US’s key interest in the region — oil — and it is a credit to Ahmed’s understanding that little he has said has been rendered irrelevant by the rapidly changing current situation.

Ahmed is a journalist who approaches Islamic issues with a degree of sympathy and understanding rare among western commentators, even though his own politics appear to be firmly secular and liberal. This is perhaps essential for a Pakistani Muslim writing in the Western press; indeed, he appears to pander to western prejudices occasionally. This book lacks the analytical depth and insight of his work on the Taliban (although that too had flaws), but it is perhaps unrealistic to expect too much. At its level, it provides a useful introduction to Islamic movements that few know very much about, and that is a contribution not to be disparaged.

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