Islam and Central Asia: Threat or Myth?

Islam and Central Asia: Threat or Myth?


During Vladimir Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan last December, Uzbek President Islam Karimov asked his Russian peer to help his country against the rising threat of militant Islam. While this article discusses why these calls for help are generally unfounded, an ironic coincidence shows that the most likely threat in the name of Islam will come in March, when Karimov is scheduled for re-election. The terms extremism, radicalism, terrorism and fundamentalism are used interchangeably by the leaders in the region to describe the threat that political Islam could pose to their well-established regimes. The ruthless violence of some groups, such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, has been a recurring nightmare for Central Asian leaders and now it seems even more crucial, as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. A haven for moderate Islam is under siege, according to the governments of the region.

Communication and discourse seem to be at the heart of the problem. The student of international relations would quickly tend to see the matter through a “securitization theory” lens. Without getting too academic, suffice it to say that several actors and their speech shape the way threats are constructed and become rooted in the discourse on national security. Rustam Burnashev, professor at the Kazakh-German University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, has extensively explained how Central Asian regimes “link Islamists with terrorism and violence” in order to ensure their own survival, without real or tangible concerns for the security of their citizens. After all, Central Asian governments have been quick to label any episode of violence as Islamic, from the civil war in Tajikistan to the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.

On November 11, 2014, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan (KNB) estimated that around 300 citizens were involved in ISIS. Beyond the headline, however, Chief Nurtai Abikayev provides little evidence to back his numbers. Repeatedly, local news agencies have spun the government’s discourse, emphasizing the threat. Even Russian outlets have pointed fingers to Central Asia for “bringing radical Islam to Russia.”

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On January 13, ISIS sent out a video – dubbed in Russian – showing a ten-year old Kazakh executing two “Russian spies” accused of conjuring against the aims of the caliphate. One of the victims, Zhanbolat Mamayev, is an ethnic Kazakh, something even more upsetting for the government in Astana. Earlier in December, due to the circulation of a video that showed Kazakh children – the young executioner among them – being recruited to fight in Syria, the media echoed government concerns about the diffusion of radical Islam. Over following days, authorities in Astana blocked the sources that published the video. In Kyrgyzstan,, a news portal, was shut down after having hosted the video on its pages. A strikingly different coverage of the issue was provided by different English-language sources, although most of them concluded that the video would have probably pushed young Central Asians towards joining the fight. Only a few journalists were concerned with the stranglehold on press freedom that a government ban on a news website represented. The issue of the reliability of the sources and the objectives of their patrons is as present as ever: Only a careful navigation through the ocean of warning signs can provide a reliable basis for analysis.

A United States-sponsored source showed concern regarding Tajikistan, reporting that up to 300 Tajik fighters could be in Syria, some of whom were allegedly recruited through Odnoklassniki, the Russian-language version of Facebook. In addition, the issue of foreign-trained scholars of Islam remains a hotspot for the governments of the region. Hence some selective bans were put in place: There are selected limitations in importing religious books into Kazakhstan, as well as restrictions and probationary periods for foreign-trained imams and priests.

It is not easy to argue against the lack of evidence, which is precisely the persuasive power of a “securitized” discourse. Once it becomes a matter of national interest, whoever questions it is automatically an enemy. In this case, to counter’s argument that radical Islam “is knocking on the door of Central Asia,” one can only use a desecuritizing approach. When governments instrumentally use the “Islamic threat” to clamp down on religious and press freedom, de-bunking arguments can be more sophisticated, as in the case of the Chatham House paper by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery.

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