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  Central Asia: Islam and the State

Osh/Brussels, 10 July 2003:

To avoid future instability, Central Asian states need to re-examine their policies towards Islam and step back from reliance on repression. A new report published today by the International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Islam and the State,* examines the treatment of both moderate and radical Islam in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While each country has imposed different degrees of repression, all have sought to control any appearance of political Islam, whether moderate or extreme, and all have sought to use Islam as a tool of the state.

“This undifferentiated repression of religious activism is likely to lead to more radicalisation rather than less”, warns ICG’s Central Asia Project Director David Lewis. “It is important for the international community and especially those states with significant strategic interests in the region, such as the United States, to continue to support freedom of belief for members of all religions. They should take a firmly critical line against governments that practice torture and abuse of religious prisoners and insist that regional leaders follow policies that undermine support for extremist groups namely, political liberalisation, economic reform and effective governance.”

ICG calls for the United States government to declare Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan “countries of particular concern” in its annual review of religious freedom. In both countries laws on religion are severely restrictive. Religious activity carried on outside officially registered organisations is a criminal offence and in Uzbekistan there are at least 6,000 religious prisoners.

ICG Asia Program Director Robert Templer said: “These high levels of repression provoke widespread discontent and have fuelled political Islam as a focus for opposition. The danger is that without open political systems to channel discontent, and with secular state structures failing to deliver economic and political development, Islamist groups may gain greater credibility and increasingly take over the role of the opposition on a wide range of political, social and economic issues”.

In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan there has been much less interest in ideologies that challenge secularism, but there is a growth in influence of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks the overthrow of all secular states in the region in favour of a single Islamic caliphate. This group, which claims to be committed to non-violence, also has increased its following in Tajikistan where tension over the role of Islam was a contributory factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1992 and where President Rakhmonov is still seeking to undermine the position of the main Islamic party in the political system.

In Turkmenistan Islam has only weak roots but President Niyazov has combined widespread repression of any religious activity with attempts to create a pseudo-Islamic spiritual creed centred on his own personality.

Media Contacts: Katy Cronin (London) +44 20 7981 0330 [email protected]
Francesca Lawe-Davies (Brussels) +32-(0)2-536 00 65
Jennifer Leonard (Washington) +1-202-785 1601
*Read the ICG report in full on our website: http://www.crisisweb.org/


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