Increasingly over the past year, much discussion about extremism in Central Asia has been linked to the rise of ISIS. While the number of Central Asians who have joined the fighting in Syria is low in comparison to those joining from elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe, the ISIS phenomenon has nonetheless colored many outside discussions about the region.
At a recent talk organized by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program (CAP), Noah Tucker presented a series of papers which lay out ISIS messaging toward the individual Central Asian countries and discuss state and public responses. But the ultimate takeaway of what Marlene Laruelle, the director of the CAP, called Tucker’s “sober analysis” was the conclusion that religious freedoms are the best concrete policy option to combat extreme ideologies.
ISIS messaging toward Central Asians varies widely from state to state. At one extreme is Uzbekistan. Until the Fall of 2014, ISIS media outreach toward Uzbek-speakers was organized in a way it had not been for other regional groups. But, as Tucker pointed out, Uzbek-language messaging was focused on “an ethno-linguistic community,” rather than the citizens of Uzbekistan, per se.
With regard to Tajikistan–which has gone to lengths to instrumentalize extremism threats to crackdown on domestic opposition–the messaging has never been organized, Tucker said. What Tajik-language messaging has been produced revolves around so-called celebrity commanders such as Abu Holid Kulobi and Gulmurad Halimov, both of which made big headlines but didn’t last long (Kulobi was killed in June 2015 in Syria and Halimov hasn’t been seen since a photo last summer showed him in a hospital bed).
According to Tucker’s research there has been little messaging aimed at Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan fits into ISIS messaging in a particularly interesting way: as the poster-children (literally) of the multi-ethnic Caliphate. The videos featuring Kazakh children are often not in Kazakh or even in Russian and have little resonance with people inside Kazakhstan.
Just as ISIS messaging has varied across the region, individual states have responded in a myriad of ways. The primary response in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the problem of ISIS recruiting, Tucker said, “has been the same response that they’ve had to any type of Islamist extremism over the past 10-15 years.” Viewing the issue as one of a contest between national values and foreign values, the responses largely target “foreign Islam.” In Tajikistan, for example, this has taken two forms: forced beard shavings and crackdown on Islam-related political activity.
This trend also bleeds into public responses, which fall into a range of familiar conspiracy theories centered around the United States. As Tucker noted, whether these theories and the memes that carry them come from the Middle East or Russia, they focus on the “fact” that Washington (and also Israel) created ISIS and resonate with how Central Asians understand history. The same conspiracy theories are also, it happens, popular in far right-wing circles in the United States. Paradoxically, sometimes Russian-sourced memes mix conspiracy theories: the United States is trying to force both ISIS and gay marriage on Central Asia.
Another response more noticeable at the local level (but also at the national level) has been opportunism. For example, Rashod Kamalov, an influential moderate Uzbek imam who was the only high-profile imam in Kyrgyzstan’s south to remain in place after the violence of 2010, was jailed for ten years on charges that he encouraged his flock to join ISIS. The 17-minute sermon, which the Moscow Times reported prosecutors cut to three minutes, discussed the idea of the Caliphate. But as Tucker noted in his talk, Kamalov’s sermon came shortly after ISIS declared it had founded the Caliphate and in full, “rejected those claims and very soundly laid out the theological and historical principles for why Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi] could not claim to be the leader of all Muslims.”
The most successful policy responses in the region have essentially allowed the region’s Muslims to push back and surprisingly Uzbekistan leads in this. After a pamphlet from the state Mufti explaining why ISIS is illegitimate failed to gain traction the state “did something really interesting and unprecedented in the recent history of Uzbekistan.” Hayrullo Hamidov, a prominent Islamic scholar and popular public figure who had been thrown in jail in 2010 on terrorism charges was released and put in charge of the Mufti’s anti-ISIS campaign. With his words, the images from the pamphlet and a partnership with an Uzbek pop-culture site, the campaign took off.
The takeaway, Tucker said, is that religious freedom “is one of the key conditions for any sort of broad, grassroots, anti-extremist pushback.” Because the task is too big–the conspiracy theories too ubiquitous–governments need the public to push back on ISIS messaging itself. This, in turn, necessitates that the public have freedom to practice their religion and gather around religious figures who have authority in their communities. Uzbekistan’s release of Hamidov–and the success of his messages–is a powerful argument against the past practice of jailing Islamic figures who became too popular.
In one Facebook exchange Tucker talked about, an IMU recruiter said to an Uzbek that he had no religious freedom in Uzbekistan and that he’d have to come join them in Afghanistan to be “a true Muslim.” The man responded with a picture of a packed parking lot outside the incredibly photogenic Minor mosque in Tashkent, “and said ‘how can you tell me that we don’t have any religious freedom in Uzbekistan when we have all these Muslims who are able to come and meet together?’”
In his vein, Tucker argues, religious freedom can be useful policy tool–if it is applied widely. And the reverse is also true, the lack of religious freedom becomes a tool for recruitment. Muslim leaders at the community level are the best allies for governments concerned about extremism as they provide guidance and explanations to those tempted by glossy ISIS propaganda and clever messaging.
The papers presented by Tucker go much deeper into ISIS messaging and state and public responses in each individual Central Asia country. They’re definite must-reads: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.