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How Authoritarian Oppression Breeds Religious Extremism in Central Asia

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How Authoritarian Oppression Breeds Religious Extremism in Central Asia

The overwhelmingly authoritarian governments in Central Asia have utilized severe repression against Islamist movements – extremist or not.

How Authoritarian Oppression Breeds Religious Extremism in Central Asia

The Minor Mosque in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Credit: Catherine Putz

For centuries, Central Asia has served as a major center of Islamic culture and civilization. The role of Islam in Central Asia diminished during the periods of Russian and Soviet rule. Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev sought to isolate Central Asia from the Muslim world and replace Islam with Soviet-backed doctrines of communism and atheism by such measures as closing or destroying mosques and religious schools, burning veils in public, and discontinuing Islamic Shariah courts. Nevertheless, Islamist ideals and principles survived through underground networks

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and fall of communism in 1991 created an ideological void. Political Islam arose as a potential successor, with its adherents striving to revitalize Islamic beliefs and values throughout Central Asia. While independent Central Asian governments accepted Islam in a socio-cultural context, they made herculean attempts to repress politically-oriented Islamism. 

Meanwhile, Islamic extremism gained momentum in the world and did not bypass Central Asia or Central Asians, as exemplified by the March 2024 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack and high levels of Central Asian recruitment for the Islamic State and the Taliban.  

The status of so-called radical Islam in Central Asia initially presents a paradox: How could this extremist religio-political ideology gain momentum amid the backdrop of heavily state-sanctioned restrictions on Islam? Factors including widespread societal instability stemming from the post-Soviet transitions, as well as geographic proximity to the extremist hotbed of Afghanistan, partially explain this scenario. 

Another critical element regards the hypothesis that when state actors attempt to use severe repression to quell political opposition, resistance movements tend to move underground and retaliate violently. Regarding Islamism in Central Asia, the overwhelmingly authoritarian governments in the region have utilized severe repression against Islamist movements, extremist or not alike. Lacking legal and official channels to conduct activities, some groups grow disillusioned and resort to increasingly extreme actions to propel their goals forward, as illustrated in the case studies below.


Following independence, then-President Islam Karimov and his regime initially permitted a degree of Islamic revivalism in Uzbekistan, including the formation of Islamist organizations. Some of the most prominent groups included the Adolat Party and its successor, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU); Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami; and the Islamic Revival Party of Uzbekistan. 

From Karimov’s vantage point, these groups soon began to pose threats. Adolat explicitly called for the elevation of Islam as the official religion of the country, as well as the recognition of all opposition groups as key political actors. The state responded by increasingly limiting these organizations’ activities and jailing many of their members, which drove most of their operations underground. 

The non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir has done little to retaliate against state oppression; similarly, the Islamic Revival Party of Uzbekistan has not warranted itself as a serious threat to Tashkent. However, the IMU, an offshoot of the Adolat Party, grew into one of the most powerful Islamist armed parties in Central Asia. It has a history of carrying out terrorist activities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which many regional experts directly attribute to Tashkent’s tight grip on it and other Islamist movements. 


The relatively moderate Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the most prominent Islamist group in the country. Following independence, Tajikistan plunged directly into a civil war that lasted until 1997 that pitted the central government against the IRPT and other coalition forces. The 1997 peace agreement, signed by President Emomali Rahmon, who came to power in 1994 amid the conflict, brought an end to the war and incorporated the opposition into the government.

However, the Rahmon regime gradually ramped up its pursuit of the IRPT, despite its status as a legal political party. In the post-911 era, many Islamist groups – whether moderate or extreme – were labeled as “terrorist organizations.”  By the end of 2015, the IRPT had been banned. IRPT members and other Islamists had lost their previously-held governing positions and many were arrested. Regional offices were closed down, and discussing Islamist groups in the media became a banned activity. 

While Dushanbe claims that it opposes Islamist groups to prevent the proliferation of extremist and “terrorist” ideals, state authorities also have their self interest in mind to maintain their positions of power. Diminishing groups such as the IRPT has not prevented Tajik citizens from becoming embroiled with extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, as the Crocus City Hall attack illustrated.


Following independence, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev utilized religion to champion a new marker of national identity: “Kazakh Islam.” This hybrid of moderate Hanafi Sunnism and Tengrism, a pre-Islamic shamanistic religion, was developed into an independent muftiate in 1990. 

Astana began to target non-state sanctioned Islamist activity as part of the U.S. “Global War on Terror.” In 2004, it banned major Islamist groups such as the IMU,  Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and Jamaat of Central Asia Mujahedins. The Kazakhstan Anti-Terrorist Center also deported 36 foreign preachers between 2003 and 2006.

In addition, Astana has constrained citizens’ rights to religious expression by outlawing public prayers in buildings and workplaces, criminalizing unregistered religious activity, and restricting students’ capacities to enroll in foreign religious institutes. These measures also maintain state control of religio-cultural life while minimizing the influence of external influence, though many Islamist Kazakhstanis have chaffed under these restrictions.


In Turkmenistan, Ashgabat has taken advantage of Islamic ideals and warped them as a tool of state control. Despite surface level displays of piety – for example, then-President Saparmurat Niyazov swearing into office with the Quran in 1991, as well as undertaking hajj to Mecca the following year – Ashgabat began to utilize the Council of Religious Affairs to oversee strict control over religious activity in the country. The state regulated the activities of  imams, including mandating that every mosque display copies of the president’s spiritual-nationalistic book, “The Ruhnama” (“Body of the Soul”) and quote it during sermons. Imams who failed to comply with these standards faced forced closures of their mosques. 

While Turkmenistan initially accepted foreign funding for mosques and other educational institutions, by 2005, a government degree stated that it did not recognize foreign qualifications and severely limited students’ ability to receive an education abroad. 

Even after the end of the Niyazov era in 2006, the Berdymuhammedov regime has continued to constrain religious expression, especially by curtailing applications for hajj. Turkmenistan continues to exercise extreme state control over everyday life, and multiple international observers have designated it as the “North Korea of Central Asia.” 


In the early days of independence, Bishkek tolerated Islamist group activity for the most part. Following armed raids by the IMU into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000,  Bishkek promoted a state-led interpretation of Islam and began to crack down on Islamist organizations, especially the influential Hizb-ut-Tahrir.   

Despite official promises to uphold greater political and religious freedoms after the 2005 Tulip Revolution, state activities have not reflected those assurances. In 2008, local residents in southern Kyrgyzstan protested against authorities banning Eid-al-Fitr celebrations, resulting in the arrests of 32 “suspected Islamists.” A 2009 Kyrgyz law implemented strict regulations on the registration of mosques and other religious institutions, as well as requiring imams to undergo occasional testing to ensure religious compliance. 

However, these stringent control tactics appear to have backfired. A 2013 poll indicated 35 percent of Kyrgyzstanis supported Shariah law, especially in the religiously conservative Fergana Valley region. Perhaps most concerningly, there has been a growing trend of Kyrgyz citizens participating in extremist activity, such as joining the Islamic State.


Authoritarianism prevails in Central Asia; even Kyrgyzstan, previously the most democratic country in the region, has recently taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. As a consequence, state-mandated constraint on the formation and activity of Islamist groups has bred frustration and disillusionment after initial hopes of post-Soviet openness and revitalization of Islamic ideals into societal life. 

Radical Islamism does not pose an existential threat to regional stability. The majority of Central Asians are secular, moderate Muslims who care more about the practicalities of establishing better lives for themselves and their communities as opposed to fervently adhering to religious ideals. Nevertheless, trends relating to Islamism in Central Asia are still worthy areas of observation, as their activities could pose major implications for political reform and create more open avenues for Central Asian political participation in the near and long-term future. 

Guest Author

Kashif Hasan Khan

Prof. Kashif Hasan Khan is a faculty member in the Economics Department at Ala-Too International University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Kashif formerly held positions as an assistant professor in Konya, Turkey, an international business consultant in Manila, the Philippines, and a consultant economist with the Asian Development Bank. He has multiple books with highly reputed publishers and research papers in scholarly journals that are indexed in the Web of Science, Scopus, ABDC, and other databases. He is focused on researching economic corridors, India-Central Asia connections, and international trade.

Guest Author

Marin Ekstrom

Marin Ekstrom is a lecturer and researcher currently based in Tokyo, Japan. She received her M.A. in International Relations from Central European University in 2020. Her research interests include Eurasian integration and language policy and education.