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Triumph of Taliban power could pose an existential threat to the ‘Anti-Taliban’ states of Central Asia

Central Asia has significant ethnic and religious minorities, and populations of Russian-speaking Slavs. Islamism threatens to upset that delicate balance—and with it, the élites who rule the region.

August 21, 2021 / 07:40 AM IST
Taliban fighters display their flag on patrol in Kabul on Thursday, August 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Taliban fighters display their flag on patrol in Kabul on Thursday, August 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

For a time, it seemed certain the searing heat of revolution would burn all that stood in its way: Shari’a courts were abolished; religious tithes abolished; seminaries and mosques closed; the clergy brutally purged. Then, the angry red fires set off by the dictator Joseph Stalin in 1928 began to dim. “Lately,” a Communist Party of the Soviet Union meeting glumly recorded of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1960, “atheistic propaganda has weakened and the activities of clergy and religious sects have been on the rise.”

This month, as the Taliban’s armies took control of Afghanistan’s borders with Central Asia, rulers across the region have begun to wonder what the rise of Islamism might mean for them.

For more than a generation, Central Asian regimes have built what might be called anti-Taliban state systems—seeking to aggressively, even brutally, secularise their societies. In Tajikistan, mosques operating without state sanction have been converted into teahouses, cultural centres, medical clinics and kindergartens. Authorities even opened a movie theatre in a mosque in Khujand, the country’s second-largest city.

“After showing the films,” a local official in Khujand said, unrepentant in the face of the entreaties of the pious, “people will be able to get together and discuss what they have seen. That is what they do in Europe.”

Even though some regional regimes have reached out to the Taliban, seeking to avoid crisis, it isn’t hard to see signs of concern. Tajikistan has deployed over 20,000 reservists along its borders; regional hegemon Russia has staged military exercises along with the Uzbek and Tajik militaries. Tajikistan even seems to be supporting displays of defiance by diplomats of the now-deposed Afghan government.

Looking out south from their borders, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours have reason to worry. Following the fall of the territory along the country’s borders with Tajikistan in July, the Taliban put a commander from the jihadist organisation Jama’at Ansarullah in charge of the districts of Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay.  The commander, Muhammad Sharifov, heads a group of over 200 jihadists committed to overthrowing Tajikistan’s government.

Even though Uzbekistan has reached out to the Taliban—hosting at least three rounds of negotiations—families of jihadists linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have been settled in the district of Bala Murghab. The IMU—its rank and file made up of the children of an earlier generation of jihadists, who fought in Pakistan’s North Waziristan—is believed to have provided a core of bomb-making expertise to the Taliban.

Although Beijing has also cultivated a functional relationship with the Taliban, it remains concerned about ethnic Uighur jihadists nestled in its ranks. The Afghanistan-China border runs for a mere 75 kilometres—easy enough to police against infiltration—but Beijing fears the Taliban’s Uighurs, many with combat experience fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Syria.

In talks with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Gani, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, demanded that the jihadist organisation cut its ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and make a final break from transnational terrorism. For now, China has held its hand on recognising the Taliban; its government wants more than post-dated promises of action.

Each of Central Asia’s nations has good reason to fear what might lie ahead. Even though the Taliban alone succeeded in winning a state for itself, setting up the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996, other movements came dangerously close.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led, just as it had in Afghanistan, to a savage civil war in Tajikistan. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which sought to create a Shari’a-centred political order, almost seized power, at one point capturing Dushanbe. Emomali Rahmon, who has served as Tajikistan’s president since 1994, fought back, sparking off a civil war which was to claim over 50,000 lives. “The country degenerated into semi-anarchy, warlordism and crime,” scholar Edward Walker has noted, “fuelled by smuggling, hostage taking and narcotics trafficking.”

In 1997, Rahmon signed a peace deal with the IRP, guaranteeing it a share of power. From 2002, though, he began to crack down on the Islamists, eventually outlawing both the IRP and another hardline group, the Hizb-ul-Tahrir.

Tajikistan now enforces a culture of authoritarian secularism, using police coercion to outlaw the use of the hijab and other expressions of conservative piety. Thousands of seminary students were ordered to return from foreign religious studies institutions, among reports that some had joined the Islamic State; minors are no longer permitted to join prayer congregations.

Instead, the Tajik state has sought to reinforce traditional cultural practices—among them, pervasive beliefs in shamanism, which have long coexisted with Islam.

Faced with challenges from Islamist groups, Uzbekistan responded similarly. In 1991, the ideologue Tahir Yuldashev, and former Soviet Union paratrooper Jumaboi Khojayev set up Adolat, an Islamist grouping committed to bringing down President Islam Karimov’s regime. Adolat briefly seized the town of Namangan, and established an Islamist mini-state where Shari’a law was ruthlessly enforced. In 1992, though, Adolat was defeated; Yuldashev and Khojayev fled to Tajikistan.

In the wake of the 1997 peace deal in Tajikistan, the two men established the IMU. Khojayev was able to recruit large numbers of cadre from the Ferghana valley, sparking off a long and grinding insurgency.  In February 1999, the group carried out lethal bomb attacks in Tashkent, almost succeeding in assassinating President Karimov.

Faced with ruthless repression, the IMU became increasingly entwined with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, helping consolidate their power within Afghanistan.

Even though Uzbekistan now has a somewhat more relaxed approach to religiosity, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s regime continues to police faith aggressively: in 2019, bloggers were jailed for advocating for minors to be allowed to join congregational worship, and for women to be allowed to wear hijab.

Even states in the region which have not suffered insurgencies are sensitive to the potential threat of political Islam. In 2011 and 2016, the country suffered terrorist attacks, carried out by individuals with links to groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Evidence that hundreds of its citizens joined the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria, for example, has heightened those concerns; the country, interestingly, brought back hundreds of orphans of jihadist families, and launched an expansive programme to rehabilitate them.

Kazakhstan president Kassim-Jomart Tokayev’s regime does not police religion as aggressively as is the norm in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, but it has enforced restrictions on displays of religious symbols, like the hijab, in schools. Kyrgyzstan has similar restrictions; Turkmenistan, for its part, has enforced restrictions on public displays of piety, including the hijab.

For states across Central Asia, upholding secularism is an existential imperative. The region is studded with significant ethnic and religious minorities, as well as significant populations of Russian-speaking Slavs who arrived there during the Soviet period. Islamism threatens to undo that delicate balance—and with it, the élites who rule Central Asia.

The two great powers in the region, China and Russia, engaged the Taliban, in the interests of evicting their principal adversary, the United States. That end has been secured. There’s some hope the Taliban can be now be restrained from exporting its ideology. The Afghanistan that emerged over the last two decades, as the Pakistani analyst Khurram Husain has perceptively pointed out, rests on pillars like a central banking system, a bureaucracy and modern infrastructure. The Taliban, the argument goes, need peace and international recognition to secure what it has inherited.

From bitter experience, though, Central Asian leaders have reason to question if such accommodation will prove durable. For over a century, the region has fought the role faith ought to have in shaping states and societies. The forces which drove that contest are far from spent.
Praveen Swami