Central Asia has been a political backwater since the end of the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for domination of the Eurasian heartland. It was always an ethnically complex region, but Soviet efforts to divide and rule, combined with suppression of religious expression and free thought, winking at corruption and environmental devastation, left the nations of this huge mountainous and desert region with almost insuperable challenges when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed in 1991.
Although Central Asians were traditionally tolerant Sunni Muslims who took pride in their ancient Buddhist monuments, since the early 1980’s Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had sponsored guerrilla armies in Afghanistan. These holy warriors, many of them Arabs, introduced strict practices associated with the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Encouraged and armed by the United States, they not only forced the Soviet Union to retreat, but encouraged the rise of a variety of Islamic movements in the region. The subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, won by the Pakistani-backed Taliban, allowed al-Qaeda to train international terrorists who were soon in action in Chechnya, Bosnia, Algeria, and even the United States. Their goal was a jihad, a holy war against the enemies of Islam.
What was this jihad, however? As understood in the West, by many modern Muslim fundamentalists, and apparently by hot-blooded young Islamic fanatics from time immemorial, it was literally armed conflict, with believers obliged to honor the memory of martyrs and to marry their widows. Intellectuals, in contrast, said that it meant the lifelong struggle for improvement, a complete dedication to God. Obviously, the intellectuals have lost the argument among those discontented with their rulers’ current inability to end poverty or crush the enemies of the faith. For the Wahhabi fundamentalists, jihad emphasized overthrowing local corrupt regimes more than attacking Western infidels, and then imposing sharia (Islamic law), which requires men to wear beards and pray in public and women to cover themselves from head to foot in plain clothing and to behave as properly meek and submissive wives and mothers. Unlike most Muslims—certainly those living in Central Asia—the fundamentalists hated the modern world and all regional variations of Islam, particularly the mystical Sufi sects of Tajikistan. Consequently, the Taliban and al-Qaeda made few local converts; they were dependent on Pakistani and Saudi money and volunteers.
Locally born Islamic revolutionaries thrived on the severe economic crises following independence in 1991, on ethnic strife, and on the growing corruption and repressive nature of the new Central Asian regimes. Regional politics had always reflected personal and clan associations, and consequently all concepts associated with governing through representative assemblies were weak, especially the idea of holding fair elections that might require surrendering power to the opposition. Now, however, power was held by dictators who would rank high in any list of history’s strangest and least competent rulers. All are former Communist Party leaders.
Kazakhstan, with its large Russian minority, must be aware of the wishes of its powerful northern neighbor, which has revived under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Russian leaders today, having suffered through the Afghan war and two long conflicts in Chechnya, have no sympathy for any kind of Muslim; on the other hand, they have no interest in assuming the financial and military responsibilities for this or any other region. Khazak president Nursultan Nazarbayev counts on oil exports replacing the country’s dependency on ecologically devastating irrigation for cotton, but he is not allowed to build pipelines to the south; instead, he must use Russian pipelines and accept Russian prices. Well on the way to establishing a family dynasty, he has no frontier with Afghanistan and hence has fewer immediate problems with fundamentalism than neighboring despots.
Kyrgyzstan almost escaped economic dependence on a combination of nomadic herding and Soviet subsidies, but was pressed by its more powerful neighbors into abandoning democratic processes and ethnic pluralism. Forced into unwise policies, Kyrgyzstan now suffers from massive unemployment, illegal drug production, and political extremism.
Turkmenistan is entrapped in the bizarre personality cult of President Saparmurad Niyazov, who likes to be called...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)