The countries of Central Asia began process of returning their citizens from the war zones of Syria and Iraq, mainly children who became orphans and women who were taken to refugee camps and even held hostage. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have already carried out their first humanitarian actions. By the end of September, Bishkek plans to send a plane to Baghdad to take its citizens. Bakhtier Ergashev, director of the Man’o Research Initiatives Center, told Vestnik Kavkaza about situation in the religious sphere in Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole.
- Bakhtiyor Ismailovich, what can you tell about the process of radicalization of society in the countries of Central Asia in general and in Uzbekistan in particular that experts are talking about?
- After 2016, one of the main goals of the team of new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev was improvement of Uzbekistan's image. For some reason, it was believed that Uzbekistan had a bad image. They worked based on data of foreign organizations, as well as reports of the US State Department, which included Uzbekistan in the list of countries of particular concern for restricting Muslim religious practices. One of the directions of their work was gradual liberalization of the system of state regulation of religious life. This applies not only to Islam, but also to other faiths.
President Mirziyoyev signed a series of decrees, amnestying part of prisoners convicted for terrorism and religious extremism. Uzbekistan has facilitated conditions for registration and activities of various Christian churches. Many bans on external signs of belonging to certain Islamic trends were lifted. A vivid example of government relief is the appearance of children in mosques. They come to the mosque with their parents, which was previously forbidden. The ban was informal, but very strict. The United States noticed changes, in particular in their latest report, the State Department noted a serious breakthrough in Uzbekistan when it comes to matters of religious freedom.
While giving people religious freedom, for example opportunity to choose clothes, look the way they want, the state doesn't intend to let the situation go out of control. There are stil restrictions on students and public servants. They are forbidden to wear clothes that are not characteristic for the Uzbek people - hijabs and niqabs. But it's noticeable that the street is already out of control of the authorities. If you go, for example, to Andijan region, you will see a picture that exists since 2005, a significant part of women and girls are wrapped in hijabs.
Supporters of jihadist and salafi views have become more active on the internet. They lead tough debates, but at the same time they are united under task of promoting their ideas, their ideology. They are active in Telegram channels, very clearly use all opportunities that YouTube and Facebook provide, as well as other social networks.
- Does the concept of "underground" still exist? Do secret meetings and gatherings continue in apartments or other secret places?
- Right now just one telegram channel is much more effective than 10 clandestine printing houses that printed Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets in the 1990s (radical movement prohibited in the Russian Federation). This must be recognized, and this must be resisted. The radicals are very tough. For example, at one of the Internet conferences dedicated to the role and place of Khamza Hakimzadeh Niyazi (an educator of the early 20th century, a poet and playwright, one of the founders of modern Uzbek literature, a revolutionary leader brutally murdered by fanatics), he was stoned for trying to create the first theater with women), a discussion broke out, which showed that Islamist ideologists and propagandists work very clearly and harmoniously. They are well organized, able to work as a team and score their opponents. Supporters of Hamza, secular Islam and secular ideology, lost.
Also on the Internet there are interesting cases, the so-called bows between extreme nationalists and Islamists. In the struggle with secular opponents, they unite, find new ways to propagate their ideas and their values. The state, unfortunately, cannot yet find new ways to resist the onset of Islamic ideology. Old methods do not work, new ones are poorly thought out and used. There is not even a format where the state and non-governmental organizations could unite and develop tactics of confrontation in this network war, which is ongoing, but they are not willing to notice it.
If in the 1990-2000s extremists gathered for sermons underground, now they work in small cells of two or three people, more often in a "sleeping format" and are waiting for external shocks that will have to "wake them up", and then they will proceed to acts solitary jihad. Moreover, they are tied to external ideologists, external curators.
- Is it about ISIS members (banned in the Russian Federation) or about those who have already fought in Syria and Iraq and, under the guise of a ordinary citizen, have returned to their homeland?
- Uzbekistan held a humanitarian campaign "Welcome" to return its citizens from Syria, but these were women and children. The militants who participated in the wars in the Middle East have not yet returned to Uzbekistan. There is evidence that a group of Uzbek militants traveling to the East via Odessa lingered in Ukraine. Many militants settled in Turkey, some in Afghanistan. But where they "wake up", where they will be used, is not yet clear. Children and women who allegedly were deceived are returning to Uzbekistan.
- The trend of return has affected all countries of Central Asia?
“Perhaps yes.” Kazakhstan was the first to return about 500 people. Tajikistan has also taken this path - there the authorities create conditions for the return of citizens from war zones. In Uzbekistan, a sanatorium is adapted for this. A special adaptation camp has been created in Tajikistan. Psychologists, social workers, and special services work with the returnees. And only then, as they make sure that people get out of a situation of constant stress and psychosis, they are distributed among the settlements. Experts say that many are zombified. Of the 114 Tajik citizens who returned, one had already fled back. So far this is an isolated case.
How to deal with the situation in Bishkek is not clear. It is well known which people sit in the same Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan: among them there are adherents of the Jamoat Tabligi movement, banned in a number of countries, including the Russian Federation, and supporters of Salafism. It is they who are busy returning the citizens of Kyrgyzstan to their homeland.
- Do the special services of the Central Asian countries coordinate their actions?
- When they talk about integration in Central Asia, I laugh. I am pessimistic in this matter. But the special services are really trying to find a common language. Perhaps in Central Asia this is the only area of constant cooperation - information is being exchanged. The special services and law enforcement agencies of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan work most effectively. But there are examples of successful cooperation with the special services of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
- Does this affect Turkmenistan?
- Turkmenistan "self-switched off" from all processes. Exchange of information, contacts through the special services - all this is very difficult. Even at the level of interaction between special services, Turkmenistan most often does not take part. According to insider information, Turkmenistan is now catching up with regional neighbors in terms of increasing interest in the Islamic past, the present, and the consolidation of the Islamic cult in all its manifestations. Dozens, hundreds of young Turkmens observe Islamic traditions, observe fasting, etc. More recently, this was not characteristic of the Turkmen. There is an Islamic renaissance in Turkmenistan, but how much interest in Islam is increasing along with radicalization is difficult to assess when not in the country. But this trend is the same for all countries. I do not think that the trend will be different for Turkmenistan. The revival of interest in Islam, in the origins, in religion, in cult, is always accompanied by the radicalization of a certain part of new believers.