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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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In 1991, the Soviet Republics of Central Asia including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan suddenly and unexpectedly gained independence from the Soviet Union. The international community, however, paid little attention to the enormous economic, social, and political challenges of this transition. Yet there were some peculiar differences. Kazakhstan was arguably the country most attentively courted than the other republics due to its nuclear arsenal (later transferred to Russia in 1995) and its vast natural resources. The relatively soft-spoken Kyrgyz President, Askar Akayev, attracted modest international development aid by presenting Kyrgyzstan as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” perhaps more for its impressive mountain ranges than for its democratic statehood while deliberately ignoring the overall disintegration of state structures. Turkmenistan was globally noticed, if at all, for its megalomaniacal president, Turkmenbashi, and his bizarre cult of personality, which included renaming months after family members and erecting golden statues of himself turning to the sun. International mockery, however, obscured the cruel plight and ordeal of the impoverished population. Many observers hoped that Uzbekistan with a population of 30 million and thus the most populous country in the region would become a driving force of regional integration and economic reform. Islom Karimov’s firm rule, however, bitterly thwarted these aspirations. Authoritarian inertia and mismanagement paralyzed industrial productivity and regional integration. Finally, Tajikistan, the smallest and least developed republics of the Soviet Union, was least prepared for independence and plunged into a bloody civil war in 1997. When the Taliban conquered Kabul, international pressure eventually resulted in a peace agreement. Thus, Central Asia languished in a rather peripheral position, in terms of consistent political engagement, development, and cooperation during the decade after independence. This all dramatically changed with 9/11 and the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Suddenly, international journalists and aid experts flooded the tranquil capitals of Central Asian republics, new embassies were opened, and military delegations explored derelict Soviet airfields. Predominantly “Western” states and multilateral actors, such as the EU, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), or the UN drafted strategy papers that delineated the economic, social, and political future of the Central Asian post-Soviet republics. Elections, democratic reform, transparency, and the rule of law became the buzzwords in the immediate post-9/11 years. With democratic transition and reform, the international community expected stability and liberal peace to diffuse transregionally. However, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the “return” of an authoritarian Russia under Vladimir Putin, and increasing Chinese economic engagement in Central Asia fundamentally changed the prospects for this strategy. Both Russia and China dealt with Central Asian political elites and their insistence on sovereignty, stability, and (regime) security in their own ways. After the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005), Central Asia became increasingly hostile toward Western discourses of political, social, and economic transformation. By then, Central Asian autocrats and their entourage exploited the ambiguities of the “Western” approach to Central Asia. While being bogged down militarily in Afghanistan and overstrained by the challenges of violent transition in the Middle East, Western states gradually disengaged from Central Asia. They silently tolerated the “virtual politics” by Central Asian autocrats faking democratic processes and institutions. 1 Western diplomats and policy makers viewed Central Asia increasingly through the narrow lens of (regime) security and stability in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Central Asian states expanded their capacity in governance and security by tapping into international security assistance. The U.S. and various European governments provided military equipment and training, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is dominated by China and Russia, organized large scale military exercises. The result was that Central Asian states saw their operational capacity and military readiness improved, thereby establishing greater regime security. The SCO reaffirmed their mission to combat any form of terrorism, separatism, and extremism ,” as set forth in the organization’s charter, further reinforcing the alienation between the Central Asian autocrats and the Western international community. With regards to regime security, Islam and Islamist movements were already identified, by the 1990s, as the most imminent menace to Central Asian political elites. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relevance of religion in Central Asian societies, particularly with Islam, became a highly controversial topic. While Central Asian regimes insisted on a secular statehood and implemented a range of hostile religious policies, the public observance of Islamic religious practices, as well as an Islamic habitus, significantly increased among Central Asian republics (albeit with some differences). Although surveys on religious issues in Central Asia often suffer from methodological inconsistencies, 2 the available information demonstrates that an increasing percentage of the Central Asian population signifies Islam as an essential or “authentic” part of Central Asian and national identity. In the first decade after independence, a certain diversity within the religious field and a search for “normativity” of religious practice and thought characterized this “religious revival.” Conversely, 9/11 and the subsequent Global War on Terror facilitated an ambivalent process of co-option and alienation in the Central Asian religious sphere. Initially, Central Asian governments insisted on secular identity politics based on ethnicity, language, and (pre-Islamic) history. They simultaneously securitized “Islam” and framed any form of political or social dissent in their republics as manifestations of “radical Islam,” “Islamist terrorism,” and so forth. Over the past decade, however, authoritarian regimes co- opted previously independent religious authorities and integrated a highly sanitized idea of a national Islam into their official identity politics (i.e., as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, or Turkmen). The global trajectories of authoritarian, religious governance after 9/11 inspired this strategic change: notably, by the paragon of Turkey, where the initially post-Islamist AKP 3 government empowered the national Directorate of Religious Affairs, via the Diyanet, with full control over the religious field and propagated a highly statist idea of Turkish Islam. Central Asian regimes carefully studied the Turkish model and eventually implemented policies that, according to James C. Scott, have made Islam “legible.” 4 Turkey, vice versa, offered assistance in the implementation of this interventionist religious policy. Eventually, this policy restricted religious pluralism and imposed highly sanitized concepts of an exclusive “traditional” Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, or Turkmen brand of Islam in each of the Central Asian republics. Ultimately, these national brands of Islam have reduced the complexities in the religious sphere with the ulterior intention to depoliticize Islam and fit it into the legitimation narrative of the authoritarian regimes. This policy of co-option and de-politicization, however, does not exclude a paradoxical outcome: as Islam often defies these processes of de-politicization. Post-9/11 Central Asia may offer a scenario for this development.
September 20, 2021 Post-Soviet Central Asia after 9/11: The Global War on Terror, Authoritarian Consolidation, and Religious Revival Source: The Kremlin
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In 1991, the Soviet Republics of Central Asia including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan suddenly and unexpectedly gained independence from the Soviet Union. The international community, however, paid little attention to the enormous economic, social, and political challenges of this transition. Yet there were some peculiar differences. Kazakhstan was arguably the country most attentively courted than the other republics due to its nuclear arsenal (later transferred to Russia in 1995) and its vast natural resources. The relatively soft-spoken Kyrgyz President, Askar Akayev, attracted modest international development aid by presenting Kyrgyzstan as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” perhaps more for its impressive mountain ranges than for its democratic statehood while deliberately ignoring the overall disintegration of state structures. Turkmenistan was globally noticed, if at all, for its megalomaniacal president, Turkmenbashi, and his bizarre cult of personality, which included renaming months after family members and erecting golden statues of himself turning to the sun. International mockery, however, obscured the cruel plight and ordeal of the impoverished population. Many observers hoped that Uzbekistan with a population of 30 million and thus the most populous country in the region would become a driving force of regional integration and economic reform. Islom Karimov’s firm rule, however, bitterly thwarted these aspirations. Authoritarian inertia and mismanagement paralyzed industrial productivity and regional integration. Finally, Tajikistan, the smallest and least developed republics of the Soviet Union, was least prepared for independence and plunged into a bloody civil war in 1997. When the Taliban conquered Kabul, international pressure eventually resulted in a peace agreement. Thus, Central Asia languished in a rather peripheral position, in terms of consistent political engagement, development, and cooperation during the decade after independence. This all dramatically changed with 9/11 and the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Suddenly, international journalists and aid experts flooded the tranquil capitals of Central Asian republics, new embassies were opened, and military delegations explored derelict Soviet airfields. Predominantly “Western” states and multilateral actors, such as the EU, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), or the UN drafted strategy papers that delineated the economic, social, and political future of the Central Asian post- Soviet republics. Elections, democratic reform, transparency, and the rule of law became the buzzwords in the immediate post-9/11 years. With democratic transition and reform, the international community expected stability and liberal peace to diffuse transregionally. However, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the “return” of an authoritarian Russia under Vladimir Putin, and increasing Chinese economic engagement in Central Asia fundamentally changed the prospects for this strategy. Both Russia and China dealt with Central Asian political elites and their insistence on sovereignty, stability, and (regime) security in their own ways. After the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005), Central Asia became increasingly hostile toward Western discourses of political, social, and economic transformation. By then, Central Asian autocrats and their entourage exploited the ambiguities of the “Western” approach to Central Asia. While being bogged down militarily in Afghanistan and overstrained by the challenges of violent transition in the Middle East, Western states gradually disengaged from Central Asia. They silently tolerated the “virtual politics” by Central Asian autocrats faking democratic processes and institutions. 1 Western diplomats and policy makers viewed Central Asia increasingly through the narrow lens of (regime) security and stability in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Central Asian states expanded their capacity in governance and security by tapping into international security assistance. The U.S. and various European governments provided military equipment and training, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is dominated by China and Russia, organized large scale military exercises. The result was that Central Asian states saw their operational capacity and military readiness improved, thereby establishing greater regime security. The SCO reaffirmed their mission to combat any form of terrorism, separatism, and extremism ,” as set forth in the organization’s charter, further reinforcing the alienation between the Central Asian autocrats and the Western international community. With regards to regime security, Islam and Islamist movements were already identified, by the 1990s, as the most imminent menace to Central Asian political elites. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relevance of religion in Central Asian societies, particularly with Islam, became a highly controversial topic. While Central Asian regimes insisted on a secular statehood and implemented a range of hostile religious policies, the public observance of Islamic religious practices, as well as an Islamic habitus, significantly increased among Central Asian republics (albeit with some differences). Although surveys on religious issues in Central Asia often suffer from methodological inconsistencies, 2 the available information demonstrates that an increasing percentage of the Central Asian population signifies Islam as an essential or “authentic” part of Central Asian and national identity. In the first decade after independence, a certain diversity within the religious field and a search for “normativity” of religious practice and thought characterized this “religious revival.” Conversely, 9/11 and the subsequent Global War on Terror facilitated an ambivalent process of co-option and alienation in the Central Asian religious sphere. Initially, Central Asian governments insisted on secular identity politics based on ethnicity, language, and (pre-Islamic) history. They simultaneously securitized “Islam” and framed any form of political or social dissent in their republics as manifestations of “radical Islam,” “Islamist terrorism,” and so forth. Over the past decade, however, authoritarian regimes co- opted previously independent religious authorities and integrated a highly sanitized idea of a national Islam into their official identity politics (i.e., as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, or Turkmen). The global trajectories of authoritarian, religious governance after 9/11 inspired this strategic change: notably, by the paragon of Turkey, where the initially post-Islamist AKP 3 government empowered the national Directorate of Religious Affairs, via the Diyanet, with full control over the religious field and propagated a highly statist idea of Turkish Islam. Central Asian regimes carefully studied the Turkish model and eventually implemented policies that, according to James C. Scott, have made Islam “legible.” 4 Turkey, vice versa, offered assistance in the implementation of this interventionist religious policy. Eventually, this policy restricted religious pluralism and imposed highly sanitized concepts of an exclusive “traditional” Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, or Turkmen brand of Islam in each of the Central Asian republics. Ultimately, these national brands of Islam have reduced the complexities in the religious sphere with the ulterior intention to depoliticize Islam and fit it into the legitimation narrative of the authoritarian regimes. This policy of co-option and de-politicization, however, does not exclude a paradoxical outcome: as Islam often defies these processes of de-politicization. Post-9/11 Central Asia may offer a scenario for this development.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Post-Soviet Central Asia after 9/11: The Global War on Terror, Authoritarian Consolidation, and Religious Revival
Written by
Professor for Islamic Studies at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
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