When in doubt, blame the Islamists
Kyrgyzstan, Politics and Society, Uzbekistan6 Comments
Editor’s note: Yesterday’s in southern Kyrgyzstan and today’s bombing in Bishkek have once again raised the spectre of Islamism over Central Asia’s “island of democracy”. But is there any substance behind the “Islamism” label? neweurasia’s Mary Pole sees something much more sinister at work. “The context of oppression and intimidation of the ethnic Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan,” she writes, “and the frequent use of the word ‘Islamist’ and ‘terrorist’ in justifying arrests and detention in many of these cases [are] indicative of a concerning trend.”
(This post was filed before today’s bombing in Bishkek, but we think it applies to that incident, as well.)
Despite widespread panic, Monday’s gun battle in Osh was localised and is reported to be due to a state security raid to arrest Islamic Militants. The State National Security Services are eager to state that they have the situation under control and that they ‘will not allow any massacres and clashes.’ It’s a shame they didn’t feel the same way in June.
While they may not be allowing any violence on the same scale as the mass killing and destruction earlier this year, yesterday’s events are part of a concerning pattern of intimidation and detention of ethnic Uzbeks in which combating ‘terrorism’ and ‘radical Islam’ is being used as a guise for the abuse of human rights.
The explosion and gun battle that sparked fear of a reprisal of June’s violence were part of an operation by the State National Security Services to capture ‘nationalist separatists’ accused of planning acts of terror. As a result one of those targeted detonated an explosion in which he was killed, and three others were killed by gunfire while attempting to evade security forces. This follows arrests six days before the Osh events in which nine Kyrgyz citizens were arrested for planning terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the socio-political situation.
In a statement to the news agency 24.kg Zarylbek Rysaliev, Minster of Internal Affairs emphasised that those arrested on November 22nd were of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Russian ethnicity, and are not linked to any international terrorist or extremist organisation. Official statements about yesterday’s events are not as clear, with suggestions the raid was targeted at the ‘detention of dangerous criminals, members of the religious and separatist movement’. Reuters indicates that the operation involved one of the two nemeses of the Karimov regime and the Kyrgyz government: the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
At this point conclusions drawn from this single event are mere speculation. We don’t know, and probably never will, whether those who died were indeed involved with the IMU or Hizb ut-Tahrir, whether they were members of a nationalist separatist movement, or indeed neither. Their ethnicity too remains unclear.
Yet, postured within the context of oppression and intimidation of the ethnic Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, and the frequent use of the word ‘Islamist’ and ‘terrorist’ in justifying arrests and detention in many of these cases, Monday’s events are indicative of a concerning trend.
While in Osh in September I met Alisher sitting outside his shop, with a curious mixture of décor due to being half gutted by arson in the June events, and half fitted out with new stalls and stock thanks to US Aid (the very large poster on the wall showed all who came that the replenishment was thanks to the people of the USA). He told me of his arrest in August. ‘The police came to the mosque and arrested me along with several others after Friday prayers. We were charged with inciting hatred and mobilising young Uzbeks to attack Kyrgyz during the violence, and with being religious extremists.’ He added, ‘Young men are too scared to go to the mosque now. We pray at home.’
The trend extends to journalists and human rights activists, labelled as members of separatist groups and arrested. Since the violence in Osh in June several prominent Uzbek human rights activists have been detained on charges relating to inciting violence and being involved in Islamist groups. On 15th September Azimjon Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in June’s clashes and other charges including possessing extremist literature, despite widespread condemnation.
Playing the ‘Islamic radicalism’ card to achieve other means is not new in Central Asia. President Karimov of Uzbekistan is an expert, using the ‘terrorist’ label to clamp down on any opposition to his regime, as famously highlighted by Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, back in 2004.
Perhaps the most spectacular of Karimov’s attempts to cover up his persecution of those he considers a threat to his autonomy by citing Islamic radicalism were the Andijan events of May 2005. Several prominent businessmen in the city involved in a cooperative were arrested on the pretext of Islamic extremism, evoking an unanticipated public demonstration of support. While portraying the events on state television as an Islamist group attempting to gain control of the city, Uzbek Security Services fired into the crowd killing several hundred in what has since been described as a massacre. A report published last week by the refugee group Anjidan Justice and Revival recounts the events in detail, based on the stories of survivors now living in the diaspora.
The stand off between Kyrgyz Security Services and ‘terrorists’ yesterday marks a trend sweeping the divided nation. There is no doubt that some in Kyrgyzstan do want a separatist state, and freedom from persecution because of their religion or ethnicity. But we need to see beyond the smokescreen of ‘fighting terror’ created by the West and now used to deceive it, to the oppression of ethnic minorities by state security services.
One only has to look at the Wikileaks revelations from Iraq and Afghanistan to see the dangers inherent in the abandonment of human rights standards for the new norm ‘do whatever you like in the name of the eradication of terrorism.’ In Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay this has incited a deeper level of hatred and extremism- there’s no reason to suggest it wont do the same in Central Asia.