Uzbekistan was “trending” in 2017, but not for its tourism opportunities, or economic and government reforms.
Three terrorist attacks — in Istanbul, Stockholm, and New York City — that killed 52, were the handiwork of Uzbek immigrants. This lead to many breathless assertions that the country is a “hotbed for violent extremism and radicalism.”
In actuality, the most dangerous part of a visit to that “hotbed” is the drive to and from the airport.
Independent Uzbekistan’s first encounter with violent extremism came shortly after its birth, with the formation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 1998. The IMU had two goals: overthrow the secular Islam Karimov regime, and replace it with an Islamic state ruled by Sharia.
The IMU was reportedly responsible for a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000 that were met with a crackdown that drove the IMU into neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Karimov regime prioritized domestic security and regime preservation; its hyper-vigilance alienated many citizens and helped the IMU recruit disaffected Uzbeks into its ranks.
An IMU splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union, staged a bombing campaign in Uzbekistan in 2004, and the fatal 2005 protest in Andijan may have been inspired by Islamists; but, in the words of a former U.S. ambassador, the country is “actually a pretty safe place.”
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed the threat of extremism early in his tenure in a June 2017 address “Ensuring Social Stability, Safeguarding Purity of Our Sacred Religion is an Imperative of Time.” He recalled that Uzbekistan was an ancient cradle of Islamic science and culture, then told the imams, officials, and civil society groups in attendance that “protection of youth from the influence of various religious extremist groups stands as a major task for all of us.”
Secular Uzbekistan can create a successful deradicalization effort with the ready collaboration of the imams, the government, and civil society as it won’t have to deprogram wayward citizens who have received an education – state-sponsored or otherwise – in intolerance. That said, Svante Cornell has pointed out that the Soviet legacy of atheism left many in Central Asia with no strongly rooted religious tradition to form a counterweight to extremism.
With that in mind, the government established a Center for Islamic Civilization in Tashkent, in addition to Islamic educational centers in Samarkand, Ferghana, Bukhara, and Kashkadarya to train qualified imam-khatibs.
Mirziyoyev is betting that economic opportunity, citizen participation in governance, proper Islamic education, and — in extremis — timely intervention by imams and local officials can ensure “delusioned persons” avoid the “crooked path” of extremism.
Uzbekistan and the other Central Asians state, emerging from the atheist Soviet Union in 1991, are having to construct the relationship between the state and religion and do it quickly. They have been denied the time and space that was available to Europeans and settlers in North America to construct that balance gradually. The result is a larger role for government than many observers are comfortable with.
In North America during the founding and expansion of the United States, when a religious group was persecuted it could move: the Mormons moved from Illinois to Utah after the murder of their founder Joseph Smith; the French Catholic Acadians moved from British Nova Scotia to Louisiana seeking freedom of religion. The Europeans worked toward their religious-secular balance via a century in a series of religious civil wars that ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia that recognized the contending Christian factions.
Post-independence Kazakhstan restored its traditional religions, Hanafi Islam and Orthodox Christianity, and discouraged an open marketplace of religious ideas, feeling a new state would be vulnerable to religious entrepreneurs. After 2011, all religions had to re-register with the government and religious services in private homes were banned.
Uzbekistan found itself a target of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, accused of limiting the rights of religious groups, attempting to control religious activity, and censoring religious materials. The U.S. State Department followed up by designating Uzbekistan a Country of Particular Concern.
The Commission was rebutted by scholars who pointed out that Uzbekistan’s rules “help protect secular Muslims, women, and minorities, from religious coercion” and that its recommendations will punish a country that observes strict separation of church and state, has refused to designate Islam as a formal state religion, and maintains secular laws and courts (in contrast with major non-NATO allies of the United States, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
In the region, this laxity on the part of the West about religious movements that wish to destroy a way of life is viewed with dismay.
Uzbekistan has good border controls and ensures that online radicalization is difficult, but it needs to offer opportunities so Uzbeks will be less susceptible to extremist recruitment (none of the attackers in Istanbul, Stockholm, and New York City were recruited while in Uzbekistan), and for youth to be too busy with education, job, and family to fall prey to radicals.
Mirziyoyev’s focus on improving the economy will hopefully encourage the return of the estimated 2 million Uzbeks working in Russia. In addition to uniting the workers with their families, their return will give the country more latitude in dealing with Moscow.
Uzbekistan is on track to achieve 5.6 percent economic growth in 2018, according to the World Bank, which is supporting Tashkent’s effort to modernize agriculture and develop the private sector. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the largest institutional investor in Central Asia, has returned to Tashkent and has signed agreements to support small and medium-sized enterprises, trade finance, and agribusiness.
In 2017, Russia committed to $12 billion of investments (including continuing efforts by national champions such as Lukoil) and trade agreements worth $3.8 billion. China also inked agreements with Tashkent in 2017 to the tune of $20 billion.
The Chinese and Russian trade and investments opportunities, welcome as they are, need to be offset by similar activity by Western firms to diversify Uzbekistan’s foreign economic relations. Western shareholders and activists can be won over by Uzbekistan’s deradicalization efforts that emphasize the efforts of the whole community to rescue wayward youth from extremism and put them on the “straight path.”
Uzbekistan may create a virtuous circle of sorts by priming the pump with cash from sources that worry less about reputational risk, like Russia and China, using the job gains to generate opportunity and support the counterextremism effort, thereby drawing in Western investment to create further growth.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy sounds like it was written for Uzbekistan: “…we seek Central Asian states that are resilient against domination by rival powers, are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms.” The Americans may be ready to recognize that some of the best weapons against extremism aren’t launched from a drone, but may be as simple as a good job and a regular talk with the imam.
James D. Durso is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years. His overseas postings were as a military adviser in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.