Régis Genté: “Central Asia is not an Islamist powder keg nor a radicalizing space.”

Cover: mosque of Rangkul (3 818 m), Tajik Pamir. Archive image by Bernard Grua

Almost two months ago, all of Afghanistan fell under the control of the Taliban, including remote areas where they never gained a foothold, such as the Wakhan Corridor. A specialist in Central Asia, Régis Genté, presents us how we could anticipate the possible repercussions of this event on the stability of this part of the world, as well as how we might assess its geostrategic importance, particularly concerning Turkey, a close ally of Pakistan, the major sponsor of the Taliban. On August 18, 2021, Régis Genté delivered his thoughts to Alla Lazareva for the Ukrainian media Tyzhden. He was kind enough to give us his original text in French for being published on Pamir Institute. Here below, is its English version.

This document remains, today, particularly enlightening, even if, since its publication, the author is carefully observing the friction emerging between Kabul and Dushanbe. The latter is, in fact, the leader of the opposition to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Such a situation raises questions about a possible endorsement from Moscow regarding the positions taken by Tajikistan.This country is part of Russia’s “near abroad”, which is its main guarantor in terms of security. China’s troubled game is also challenging. Beijing, exerting a strong influence on Pakistan, poses as a privileged interlocutor of part of the Taliban groups, as a possible interested protector of Tajikistan, and above all as an actor eager to promote its economic advantages, there.

The article in Ukrainian language is available on Tyzhden: Режіс Жанте: “Центральна Азія не є пороховою діжкою, що постійно радикалізується”

The original French text is available on Pamir Institute website: Régis Genté: “L’Asie centrale n’est pas une poudrière islamiste en cours de radicalisation”

Is there a high risk of radical Islamism contagion in Central Asia countries?

Because we are talking in the context of Afghanistan re-capture by Taliban, I believe that we have to distinguish between the risks coming directly from the Taliban movement and those coming from radical Islamism in general. What I mean is that the Taliban movement is a political force per se, comprising several currents. This movement is predominantly Afghan and primarily concerned with Afghan issues. Admittedly, Taliban, today, are not the same as when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. But, if we refer to this experience of power, we realize that they had no political aims on post-Soviet Central Asia. And I believe it remains true. I see that many observers from the countries of the former USSR say that Taliban do not and will not threaten post-Soviet Central Asia.

Pamir Institute: Jamat Khana, lieu de réunion et de prière des Chiites ismaéliens, branche de l'islam pratiquée par les Wakhis peuplant le Wakhan à Khandud, chef lieu du corridor du Wakhan Afghan tombé sous le contrôle des taliban sunnites. Image d'illustration par Bernard Grua
Jamat Khana, place of meeting and prayer of Ismaili Shiites, a branch of Islam practiced by the Wakhis inhabiting Wakhan in Khandud, the capital of the Afghan Wakhan Corridor which fell under the control of the Sunni Taliban. Archive image by Bernard Grua

What happened between 1996 and 2001, however, was that groups from this post-Soviet Central Asia fled to Afghanistan.They were able to use it to attack the power in their country. I am thinking mainly of the 1999 attacks in Uzbekistan, committed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But this is not a contagion of Central Asia by the radical Islamism of the Taliban. They are rather movements born in Central Asia, in this case in Uzbekistan, for purely Uzbek reasons, namely the fierce dictatorship of President Islam Karimov.

Mosque of Murghab (3 613 m) Tadjik Pamir. Archive image by Bernard Grua

Now, to talk about the contagion of radical Islam in general, beyond the Taliban movement, yes the risk exists. But it is already at work, independently of the Taliban. And sometimes, often, the radical Islam contagion came from other movements such as the Islamic State (Daesh). The countries of Central Asia saw thousands of their fellow citizens join the parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by Daesh after, say, 2013. The phenomenon was important, but not more than for other countries, if one speaks of the number of citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan for example who joined the ranks of Daesh. In this sense, these countries are fully included in the global phenomena that we observe.

By the way, the phenomenon should not be exaggerated.

Karakul mosque, Tajik Pamir (3,645 m) by Bernard Grua

Many researchers and think tanks portray Central Asia as an Islamist powder keg or as a radicalizing space. It’s wrong.

The population is certainly more and more practicing Islam, a small part of it inclining to radicalization. But the figures, which we have, show that it is not worse than anywhere else in the world.

The impact of the Taliban takeover on Turkey: is its role in the region growing, along with pan-Turkic feelings?

Pamir Institute: Madrassas et minaret d'Arslan-Khana, Boukhara, Ouzbekistan.  Image d'illustration par Bernard Grua
Madrasas & Arslan-Khana minaret, Boukhara, Uzbekistan. Archive image by Bernard Grua

I don’t know if there is a direct impact of the Taliban takeover on Turkey. It has been playing the Turkic brotherhood for 30 years in the Turkish-speaking countries of Central Asia, that is to say all except Tajikistan. We saw, at the end of 2020, that this Turkic brotherhood allowed Ankara to advance its pawns in the South Caucasus, by helping, in a decisive way, Azerbaijan to reconquer the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh and a small part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. But Azerbaijan is the country closest to Turkey among the former Soviet republics. Not sure whether Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan will become as close to Turkey as Azerbaijan has become. The pan-Turkic feelings are, it seems to me, not very real. This is something that is invoked in political discourse. But,the reality of things is the concern of the states of the region to defend their own interests. They are based on the major powers actually acting in the heart of Eurasia.

It turns out that Turkey is there, making its strengths available through policies that combine economy, trade, military support, cultural and linguistic cooperation …

Central Asian countries take this cooperation and exchange, but that does not make them supporters of a pan-Turkic alliance.

A summer mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Archive image by Bernard Grua

This is because these former Soviet republics are evolving in the emerging multipolar world, balancing their international relations between Moscow, Beijing, Washington, Ankara, etc.

About the author

Régis Genté

Freelance journalist, Régis Genté has been living in Tbilisi for almost twenty years. He is one of the main French specialists of Caucasus and post-Soviet Central Asia. There, he covers news for Radio France Internationale, Le Figaro and France 24, in particular. He is the author of three books about this part of the world.

Translated from French by Bernard Grua

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Published by Pamir Institute

The Pamir Institute is an activist research and documentation group which aims at empowering the autochnous populations of the “Roof of the World” in High Asia. Its area of concern embraces the Pamirs from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tadjikistan.

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