Feb 17, 2002

Review of Ahmed Rashid’s “Jihad”

a book review of Ahmed Rashid's "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Souls on Fire a book review of Ahmed Rashid's "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" By Peter Bergen Fellow The Washington Post February 17, 2002 Visiting Kabul in 1993, I struck up a conversation with a group of soldiers outside the bombed-out shell of a stately old palace. They were under the command of the Afghan Islamist militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and confidently assured me they would soon export their Islamic revolution northward deep into Central Asia, to the storied formerly Muslim lands of Samarkand and Bukhara. At the time, I took these bold declarations to be simple bravado. As the prolific Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid deftly demonstrates in Jihad, I was wrong. Rashid's previous book, Taliban, a thorough, authoritative exegesis of the then-obscure movement of religious students-turned-warriors, became an international bestseller after Sept. 11, as people around the world sought answers to the causes of the attacks on Washington and New York. Now comes his new analysis of the role of militant Islam in Central Asia, and Rashid again puts his formidable reportorial powers to work on another little-understood subject: the various "stans" of the former Soviet Union that remain uncomfortably suspended "between Marx and Mohammed," as one scholar of the region has put it. The countries in question -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- are beautiful, unsettled, scarred by their Soviet heritage. As Rashid notes, "the vast, empty landscape [of central Asia] dotted with oases of vibrant populations and political ferment, sitting on the world's last great untapped natural energy reserves, is still almost unknown to Westerners as it was to Europeans in the Middle Ages." Rashid sets out to redress this information deficit, and his tour d'horizon is a tour de force, illuminating one of the murkier regions of the world. Rashid introduces us to Central Asia's very own Osama bin Laden, who goes by the nom de jihad of Juma Namangani. Namangani's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) aims to bring its holy war to countries across the region; it is, as Rashid writes, "the most potent threat to the Central Asian regimes." The IMU also threatens U.S. civilians, as demonstrated by its kidnapping of a group of American climbers in August 2000. There are reports that Namangani may have died fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan last year, but the threat the IMU poses to the governments of the region has not abated. This is largely due to one simple, disheartening condition: The various incompetent Central Asian governments have little to offer their people other than an unsavory stew of neo-Soviet policies and spectacular mafia-style corruption. As Rashid explains, "The real crisis in Central Asia lies with the state, not the insurgents." Those states emerged out of the rubble of the Soviet Union at the same time that a spectacular florescence of Islam was spreading across Central Asia. In Tajikistan, between 1990 and 1992, mosques were opening at the astonishing rate of one a day. The autocratic regimes of Central Asia reacted to this Islamic resurgence with a heavy-handed program of suppression seemingly inspired by Stalin's brutal repression of the region's Muslims six decades earlier. That approach turned out to be a costly mistake. As Rashid skillfully shows, the traditional laissez-faire Islam of Central Asia is a world away from the neo-fundamentalism of the Taliban. When the authorities cracked down on the Muslim revivalists, that only hardened the revivalists' resolve. They increasingly turned to extremist groups such as bin Laden's al Qaeda and the Taliban for both aid and ideology. The one honorable exception to this authoritarian trend is Tajikistan, which, after suffering through a little-noticed and brutal civil war with Islamist militants between 1992 and 1997 that left at least 50,000 people dead, has moved toward a more pluralistic state. Rashid is at pains to point out that not all Islamist groups in the region necessarily advocate the violent overthrow of their ruling autocracies. Hizb ut-Tahiral-Islami (HT) is a movement that has spread, since its inception in Jordan in 1953, across the Muslim world in places as disparate as London and Central Asia. The HT advocates the institution of shar'ia, Islamic law, and believes that its supporters "will rise up in peaceful demonstrations and overthrow the regimes of Central Asia." Rashid observes that continued oppression of the HT will likely push it in the direction of armed resistance. It was a failed Central Asian state -- Afghanistan -- that turned out to be the incubator of al Qaeda. Rashid's timely book reminds us that Afghanistan is not the only country in the region threatened by the jihadists. Yet at the same time, his unsettling portrayal of the repressive regimes of Central Asia, particularly of Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan, where more than 1,000 U.S. servicemen have been based since the attacks of Sept. 11, is a reminder that the United States must choose its bedfellows in the war on terrorism with more than a modicum of discretion. Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post