Igor Rotar Briefs Washington on Central Asian Religious Issues

by Laurence on 1/18/2007 · 11 comments


Last week, Forum 18 and Jamestown Foundation correspondent Igor Rotar made a couple of public presentations to Washington, DC think-tanks–about “Religious Freedom and State Policy in Central Asia” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and “The Future of Islamic Radicalism and Relgious Freedom in Central Asia” at the Jamestown Foundation (Streaming video of Rotar’s Jamestown talk is available: Part 1 here, Part 2 here.)

Rotar’s comments were particularly relevant at this time, especially given new accounts of the Andijan violence of May 2005, reported by NewEurasia.net and Uznews.net’s Galima Bukharabayeva’s account of testimony by accused Akromiya leader Kobul Parpiev.

I attended Rotar’s CSIS talk in person, and viewed the video of his presentation at Jamestown. Because the video is available, I’ll summarize only the points that caught my attention. No friend of Karimov, Rotar argued that harsh measures were the wrong way to fight already unpopular groups, and may provoke them to become terrorist organizations. He suggested openly confronting extremist ideas. Rotar appears to be honest and careful, one might even say cautious, in his assessments of Central Asian prospects and tendencies. He does not use hyperbole, he is not shrill, and he does not make accusations against anyone that he cannot document. Rotar’s presentation was refreshing because it avoided stereotypes, slogans, and political correctness. Despite his caution, Rotar appeared unafraid to challenge the conventional wisdom in Washington.

First, Rotar reported the status of religious freedom in Central Asia as mixed. Rotar distinguished between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where there is a relatively relaxed atmosphere, and Chinese Turkestan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where the state tightly controls religious activities. He did not present much information on Turkmenistan, which had the tightest controls of all.

Second, Rotar noted that although some states are intolerant of unofficial Islamic groups, as well as Christian proselytizing, these tendencies need to be understood in context. He cited:

(1) Widespread Muslim intolerance of former Muslims who convert to Christianity;
(A) Under Sha’aria, a convert must be killed. Uzbeks and Tajiks tend to be very hard on those considered apostates;
(B) Even milder Kazakhs and Kyrgyz consider converts traitors to national identity.
+Crowds in Kyrgyzstan have invaded churches, set fires, burned Bibles, persecuted Christians, and killed pastors;

Therefore, Rotar suggested that the Uzbek position of tight controls–on Islamic and Christian activity–is not as unreasonable as it may seem. Rotar quoted one official who indicated that unregulated religious activity might result in bloody religious conflicts. He added that the Uzbek government doesn’t really mind Christian activity, except to the extent that it disturbs the majority population; but must arrest Christians as well as Muslims in order to show the population that the government does not “single out Muslims”. He noted that sentences for Christians tended to be light, although groups like Jehovah’s witnesses are banned–because of their missionary activity.

In the Q&A, Rotar discussed the Andijan violence of May, 2005. Unlike some reporters in the West, who described a spontaneous outburst from “peaceful demonstrators,” Rotar said the May 2005 violence was organized and well-planned in advance by the armed group that assaulted city offices and the Andijan prison. Although he did not accuse them directly of full responsibility, Rotar believes that the group Akromiya does exist–he had interviewed members of the organization before the “uprising” and they did not hide their membership in Yuldashev’s organization, which they called a “brotherhood” at that time. He said Yuldashev’s principles appeared to be a form of “Islamic socialism,” similar to the former communist system, that mainstream Muslim clerics denounced as “a heresy.” He said they must have planned to seize power, for if they had merely wanted to free the 23 “businessmen” they would have escaped to Kyrgyzstan over a lightly-guarded border, after successfully taking over the Andijan prison. Instead, armed men remained in Andijan’s main square with their hostages.

In his Jamestown appearance, Rotar expanded his analysis of Islamist factions. He began with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which he said was not violent. He said that the organization essential is a propaganda operation that teaches that the USA, Israel, and Great Britain are the creation of Satan. He noted that Uzbek Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets say that Islam Karimov is a Jew, and all their enemies are secret Jews–analagous to far-right Russian nationalists such as “Pamit” who said that Yeltsin was a Jew.

He then gave a brief history of Akromiya, explained why followers prefer to call it a “brotherhood”–because there are only 4 legitimate branches of Islam which carry the names of their founders. Yuldashev teaches that Muslims do not need to pray five times a day, or to hold Ramadan fasts. They support “Islamic businesses” with a revolving fund. Before Andijan, there was no clear evidence that the group was terrorist. However, after Andijan, it is “not so clear.” The Andijan demonstrators included professional gunmen, who took 100 prisoners. “Peaceful people can’t do it,” declared Rotar, pointing out that the Andijan prison was one of the most fortified in the former USSR. “So for me now, it is not clear that this is not a terrorist organization.”

Rotar then added there were many types of so-called “Wahabi,” many were accused of “Wahabism,” but that the term is used as a label for all “independent Muslims” and therefore is not clear. “If 2 imams have a conflict, they call each other Wahabi.” The Chinese government is particularly repressive towards “Wahabism” but also bans Sufism. While the Uzbek government, and other Central Asian authorities, support Sufism–because it favors local traditions; because Wahabis and Sufis hate each other; and because Sufis reached an understanding with Russian authorities in the 19th Century.

Rotar’s conclusion: “We can consider Akromiya and Hizb-ut-Tahrir enemies of the United States and Western Civilization.” Most of the population remains secular, however. Rotar estimated that 70-80 percent of the population “don’t want to live in an Islamic state.” Islamic radicals cannot take power under these conditions, although “they can provoke some destabilization.”

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Kipp Efinger January 18, 2007 at 2:38 pm

I attended one of Rotar’s presentations last week and I was alarmed by the fact that most of what he reported could not be substantiated and much of it seemed like rumour and perhaps even hysteria. I was especially disturbed by the fact that he seemed comfortable spreading stereotypes about Central Asian people that I personally disagree with and it seemed clear that several other people in the room disagreed with as well. This weak kind of analysis is potentially dangerous, as several people in attendance may not have ever been to Central Asia and are now left with the impression that Tajiks and Uzbeks are generally religiously intolerant. I’ll add that several of the people in attendance were with the security community and I hope they were not persuaded by Rotar’s presentation.

One person in the audience asked what standard he was comparing Tajiks and Uzbeks to, because anyone who has traveled to the region would leave with the impression that Tajiks and Uzbeks are remarkably tolerant when compared to people in other countries. In the end, Rotar said that Russia is more tolerant, which is ludicrous on several levels. Perhaps if Rotar was referring specifically to government policy, he could have formulated some kind of argument about the Karimov government. Instead, the whole event came off as weak analysis and misleading stereotypes. Some of it may have been a problem with translation, but several people I talked to walked away from the event dismayed by the level of misleading analysis.

Nick January 18, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Thank you for this summary, Laurence. Btw, did Mr Rotar have any comments to make on allegations regarding co-operation between Akromiyya and ‘outside’ (i.e Western) powers? I ask this because it seems as if the Uzbek government is keen to establish such a connection, which would contradict Mr Rotar’s assertion that Akromiyya is an ‘enemy’ of Western Civilisation (leaving realpolitik aside). If any of it is true, of course … I have also heard that HRW officials acted as advisors to Akromiya before the events in Andijan.

Nathan January 18, 2007 at 5:12 pm

I’ve not watched all the video yet, but I think he overstates the importance of the difference between Uzbek and Tajik and Kazakh and Kyrgyz attitudes toward those who abandon Islam. In my experience, it is the case with all of those nations that the main issue with leaving Islam is one of national identity and communal membership.

I once (briefly) met an Uzbek in Gulistan who had become a Protestant. According to someone who knew him well, he’d had a very rough time since converting in part because he was so gung-ho about his new faith. He had, I was told, been shunned by many Uzbeks and had been “adopted” by Korean Baptists in the city. Based off my experience with other Uzbeks, the hostility toward him likely had nothing to do with the Shari’a but with the fact that being a “real” Uzbek is being a Muslim. That’s not too different from what he has to say about Kazakhs or Kyrgyz. In fact, I’d wager that Kyrgyzstan has the greatest problems with intolerance toward apostates, but again, it is an issue of communal solidarity and communal identity rather than religion.

The result, I’ll admit, is pretty the same, but I think it’s important to distinguish where anger over converts to alien religions comes from.

NathanA January 18, 2007 at 7:25 pm

I agree with Nathan. I spent two years in CA as a missionary and had many encouters similiar to his Uzbek from Gullistan. Islam seemed to be more of a cultural identity than a faith that guided ones life. To leave Islam (even if you haven’t ever taken it seriously) is to threaten the community.

Laurence January 19, 2007 at 5:04 am

Nick, The only mention I can remember that Rotar made about any allegations of American involvement was a reference to a conversation with an advocate for one of those accused in the Andijan uprising–according to Rotar, this advocate told him that Radio Free Europe in Prague had called before the uprising began, to ask how the uprising was going, and that this was suspicious. However, Rotar acknowledged that this was mere rumor, repeated by an Uzbek official, and may not have any truth to it…. You can check the Jamestown video to see this comment for yourself.

Ataman Rakin January 19, 2007 at 9:07 am

“Before Andijan, there was no clear evidence that the group was terrorist. However, after Andijan, it is “not so clear.” The Andijan demonstrators included professional gunmen, who took 100 prisoners. “Peaceful people can’t do it,” declared Rotar, pointing out that the Andijan prison was one of the most fortified in the former USSR. “So for me now, it is not clear that this is not a terrorist organization.””

OK, let us accept that the Akromiyya had a violent scenario or, rather, was prepared to use violence if needed. So what? Is there any other, realistic way to oppose and get rid of a rogue regime like that of the Karimovs? How many of you opposed violence against Saddam and Milosevic?

Also, it all depends on how one defines ‘terrorism’. Reigning by terror/intimidation? Use violence against innocents? Then the karimovite regime perfectly qualifies as state terrorism.

I agree that part of the hostility towards Christan sects can be explained by the perception that they pose a threat posed to the coherence of the community on the whole. That is true. There have been cases — some witnessed by myself —where converts were brainwashed, set up against and isolated from their relatives by the missionaries.

Also, there seems to be a feeling among an increasing number of people at least that the Christian converts issue goes beyond the ‘freedom of religion’ mantra and is part of a more coordinated move. Even though I’m not into conspiracy theories, it is clear that some evangelist outfits enjoy high-level support — eg. from elements in local goverment and certain Western embassies — and seem to have a lot of resources.

In Kyrgyzstan for instance, especially in the later years of the Akayevs’ rule, the authorities had a clear ‘laisser faire’ attitude towards evangelist Christian sects while every Muslim initiative or show of devotion encountered immediate scrutiny and harrassment.

That has certainly caused frustration among a number of people. IMO, there lays the danger posed by these evangelist sects even where they are a relatively marginal phenomenon (eg. less then 1% of the population in Kaz and Kyr according to certain research): that they create inter-religious tension where there was none; and that they further screw up communities already heavily affected by the Soviet collapse and fifteen years of ‘transition’ , as the IFI glitzboys call it.

It’s not a matter of Christianity vs. Islam on itself. Both Christians and Muslims are ‘ahlu al-kitap’ (people of the Book). Yet these evangelist and pseudo-religious (e.g. scientology, bahaism) sects are just that: sects. And sects are not there to ‘help the poor’ as they pretend, they are there to subjugate and exploit.

And that is probably the aim of who- or whatever might be behind them. The aim of the sects is *to create a slave mentality*. It’s not enough that people are structurally impoverished, that these countries are looted by rogue ‘elites’ and turned into an hiv-brothel for randy expats. No, people also have to resign and accept all that. And that is where the sects come in: “don’t resist, turn the other cheeck instead”. In that respect, I am not surprised to see that in some CA countries, some officials and their spouses were/are in cahoots with such sects since they are perfect ‘opii dlya naroda’ much much more than Hanafi Islam or indep-minded Sufism are.

Ataman Rakin January 19, 2007 at 9:12 am

For those interested, the research on evangelists and their impact in Kyr and Kaz I refered to can be accessed here:

Brian January 19, 2007 at 12:52 pm

Is it surprising that people might be shunned for changing their religion? Are you saying people living in a small town in the heart of America’s Bible belt wouldn’t get grief from many in their own community if they switched to Islam? I’m just trying to put it into context.

A woman I know (and I’m now related to by marriage) recently converted to Christianity, and is married to a pretty conservative Muslim man in Tajikistan. I’m sure it caused some serious family arguments, but they’re still married, and she was certainly tolerated enough to show up to our wedding in Bukhara with her family, and behave just as bitchy as she was before the conversion. I don’t want to generalize based on my experiences, but if it is so devastating to convert to Christianity then probably people would hardly ever do it.

Brian January 19, 2007 at 1:01 pm

Something else: Is it just me or has anyone noticed that it seems that Christian converts make up a proportionally high percentage of the (well-paid) local staff of foreign organizations? In Christian organizations I would expect this (although I’d bet that it violates USAID/ECHO rules as recipients of government money) but I also noticed it at, say, the UN.

If true, and if prevalent, stuff like that has a way of breeding resentment.

Ataman Rakin January 19, 2007 at 1:11 pm

“Is it just me or has anyone noticed that it seems that Christian converts make up a proportionally high percentage of the (well-paid) local staff of foreign organizations?”

No Brian it’s not just you. That is my observation as well, also incl. the UN. It is also teh case for Kyrgyz who go to work at the US army compound in Bagram, Afghanistan. Indeed stuff like that has a way of breeding resentment.

zilany January 20, 2007 at 10:02 pm

hizb ut tahrir is a non violent islamic political party

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