Monday, 22 January 2018 14:48

Central Asia: Where did Islamic Radicalization Go?

By Svante E. Cornell

in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.


Click here for PDF of the chapter.

Click Here for entire book at RAND website.

The specter of Islamic radicalism in Central Asia received considerable attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The U.S. government, dependent on access to Afghanistan from bases in Central Asia, spent considerable resources on seminars covering the subject, while academics and policy analysts penned numerous studies on the subject.

A distinct paradigm has emerged in this literature, one that argues that the combination of repressive governments and economic deprivation in Central Asia, and particularly Uzbekistan, would serve as an incubator of radicalism. Unless the Uzbek government changed its ways and opened its political system, radical Islam would only grow larger and more menacing. The Central Asian regimes advanced the opposite argument: The specter of Islamic radicalism—inspired and supported from abroad—was so severe that it legitimized their reluctance to engage in serious political reform and restrictive policies toward nonsanctioned religious groups. In fact, the 1999 events further convinced the Uzbek leadership that the more open political system in Kyrgyzstan was a serious mistake. Thus, regional governments and Western analysts clashed on the causal mechanisms at hand regarding the rise of Islamic radicalism. Yet they were in full agreement that Islamic radicalism was, indeed, a potent force in Central Asia.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that these predictions and fears did not materialize. While it is undeniable that Islamic extremist groups formed a considerable challenge in the 1990s, the widespread radicalization that was expected in the region has not occurred. In fact, its absence has led some scholars to recently talk of it as a “myth.” As will be argued in the next section, that may be going too far: There were indeed serious indications of a potential for radicalization in the region. Yet in the past decade, Islamic radicalization has swept the Middle East, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Turkey, and come to strongly affect Muslim communities in Western Europe. In the same period, it has not been a serious factor in Central Asia. In fact, the academic and policy interest in Central Asian Islamism that was apparent a decade ago gradually receded, albeit receiving a new lease on life recently with concerns of Islamic State recruitment.

This chapter seeks to shed light on the relative absence, contrary to predictions, of Islamic radicalization in Central Asia. Following an overview of the emergence of radical Islamic groups in the region, it will assess factors that could explain radicalism’s limited development—ranging from the cultural and historical traits of Islam in Central Asia to external Islamic influences and the policies of regional governments.

Click here for PDF of the chapter.

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    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

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    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
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    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.