Interview with Rafik Saifulin

by Nathan Hamm on 11/17/2004

The Jamestown Foundation’s Spotlight on Terror has an intverview with Dr. Rafik Saifulin, adviser to Islam Karimov, on Islam and Uzbekistan. The entire thing is definitely worth reading.

Also, to what extend is it appropriate to compare HT and the IMU? We have to take into consideration that these organizations use different tactical methods. The IMU has already spoiled its image (both among supporters and at the international level) by its involvement in drug-dealing, by its terrorist and violent methods, and by its contact with the Taliban. But it is necessary to ask whether HT supports direct contact with international terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda. It is impossible to exclude such a possibility. At the same time, it is necessary to note the similarities in the slogans and strategic goals [of HT and the IMU], which are based on a priority of Islam, and also to point out their similar social niches and geographical foci.

On the whole, then, assuming a link between [the decline] of the IMU and a [rise in the] influence of HT, including a strengthening of its social base, is appropriate. However, supporters and sympathizers of HT are a recruiting base from which small groups of fanatics/terrorists are selected.

Also, one must ask how true is it that HT has no military structure or capabilities? This is basically correct, but there are also some serious concerns. I believe that the presence or absence of a military structure or military capabilities is not a parameter – [it is not] an indicator of the real long-term plans and goals of HT. Today, HT focuses mainly on its social base, that is the key precondition for a cardinal expansion of its financial, political and, certainly, military opportunities in future – at a time convenient for HT.

In case of Uzbekistan – the formation of a military structure would certainly be difficult, but nevertheless possible, if we consider the wide potential of HT’s social base. If socio-economic conditions deteriorate, we can not exclude such a development. By comparison with other Central Asian countries, HT’s military structure could be generated most successfully and quickly in Tajikistan; this structure could be based on steady contacts between the HT and IMU offices in Tajikistan – given the inhibitions on the IMU’s structure – and also an HT military formation could be based on the large number of dispersed supporters of violent actions.

In a case of the Kyrgyzstan, HT already has the most important condition for the fast expansion of a military structure – significant rates of growth in its social base of (so-far peaceful) supporters of Islam as a whole and HT in particular. We have to remember that for the population of Kyrgyzstan, the norms and principles of Islam were not dominant for a long period of time. The principles of Islam were borrowed basically from the Uzbek part of the republic’s population. [This segment of the population is significant in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the south of the country.] HT has become stronger in Kyrgyzstan because of the migration of HT’s supporters from Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan keeps a neutral stance regarding the growth of religious sentiment among the local population. But socio-political instability in Kyrgyzstan creates a wide field of action for HT, at least in short-term.

In the case of Kazakhstan, as in Uzbekistan, opportunity to create a military structure for HT is minimal – though there are very real opportunities in the southern regions of Kazakhstan. Also, we can see certain attempts by HT to strengthen its hold in the western parts of the country, which are rich in oil. They are doing this because a growth in religious sentiment has been observed [in the west] as illegal laborers/migrants are pouring into these parts of Kazakhstan from the most religious areas of Uzbekistan. We notice a move in HT’s activities from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. As a whole, HT is attractive to those who cannot find a place for themselves in the modern, complex social and economic conditions of Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan. Even fatwahs from the High Muslim spiritual leadership of these republics, forbidding youths to have any contact with representatives of HT, are not obeyed. Any such instruction, even from authoritative clerics, is viable only if the youth have an opportunity to express themselves in legal, public practices. But because of mass unemployment among the young, these individuals are being easily recruited to become members of radical Islamic or pseudo-Islamic organizations. Also, it is possible to assert with confidence that the tendency toward radicalization will gradually increase, since the objective preconditions for improvements in the standard of living in these countries are not yet visible.

At the same time, it is not necessary to exaggerate the potential of HT. Grave economic conditions and daily concerns about their own survival make most of the population socially passive and apolitical. Moreover, about one million people (the most socially active part of the population living outside of Tashkent) are annually involved in labor migration to the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, which sharply decreases social pressures. Only human rights professionals or the radical youths from Islamic organizations are engaged in political activity. HT’s activities will most probable increase only if the internal political situation is aggravated because of a struggle for authority and power.

There’s much more–all interesting–in the rest of the interview.


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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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