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Extremism Foretold

A new documentary argues that radical Islam was a myth in Central Asia – until the region’s leaders started fighting it. by 27 January 2010

[Danish journalist and filmmaker Michael Andersen has spent years reporting from Central Asia, notably on repression in Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov. His 2008 documentary Andijan: A Massacre Foretold, Forgiven, Forgotten chronicled the violent government crackdown in that city in 2005 and the American and European response.


Andersen’s latest film, Breeding Discontent: The Myth of Extremism in Central Asia, which recently aired on Aljazeera English (and which can be viewed below),  explores Islamism in Central Asia and the uses to which the terrorist threat is put by governments in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. He discussed the film, and its contention that the region’s regimes might now face an Islamist threat of their own making, in an interview with the Moscow-based news agency] Why did you decide to make this film?


Michael Andersen: For many years, I have observed how the dictators in Central Asia are using this “threat” from this so-called “extremism” to oppress anybody who disagrees with them. Just by labeling them “extremists” or “terrorists.” And how Western politicians are buying the propaganda of people like the Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov. That is why I decided to make the film and call it The Myth of Religious Extremism in Central Asia.


You call it a myth. Does that mean that you do not believe that extremism is a threat to Central Asia?


It’s not as simple as that. Earlier extremism was not a threat, but now it is, thanks to people like Mr. Karimov. Back in the 1990s, when the leaders in Central Asia started warning against this so-called extremism and radicalism, the threat was very, very limited. Historically, the kind of Islam that exists in Central Asia is a very moderate type of Islam.


But Karimov and others used the image of Islamic extremism to scare the local population into submission – “Only I can protect you against these dangerous Islamist terrorists, so in the name of stability, democracy must wait.” He could have added, “And anybody who dares criticize me is a traitor or an extremist and will be thrown into prison, tortured, etc.” After 11 September 2001, the West [was] either naive or cynical enough to buy this kind of propaganda about a threat from extremism in Central Asia. So, at first – when the regimes started warning against it – “extremism” in Central Asia was mostly a myth.



But what is the situation today?


Today, as a direct consequence of the regimes’ oppression and their failed economic and social policies, the threat from extremism is growing. The regimes have turned their own prophesies into truth. As many expert analyses have showed, organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir [Party of Liberators, an international Islamic organization that favors unifying Muslim countries under a single caliphate] are getting more members all the time. And more importantly, still more people sympathize with what they propose, even though they are not members of any of these organizations. But – and this is extremely important – despite the primitive fabrications by the regimes in Central Asia, nobody has ever proved that Hizb ut-Tahrir has actually used violence.


In the film, the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] ambassador to Bishkek, Andrew Tesoriere, tells me, “The rights of people in detention – even if these people are suspected of terrorism – must be respected. If you do not do that, you are multiplying the problem of extremism and maybe even terrorism.” Unfortunately, this is of course something that the local media cannot really talk much about.


So today you believe that a real threat from extremism does exist?


Yes, a threat does exist now. But it is important to know the roots of it in order to tackle it. The extremism has been brought on by the oppressive policies of the regimes in the region.


But when we talk about “extremism” in Central Asia, it is wrong and naive to focus only on religious extremism. For the film, I interviewed Mohammad Solikh, the leader of the Uzbek opposition. He told me that he now fears extremism in Uzbekistan on a much wider scale, not just amongst religious people. He is warning that average businessmen, teachers, workers are being drawn towards radicalism. And I personally think that events in Andijan in 2005, and a number of smaller demonstrations and shootings in Central Asia over the last few years, show that more and more people do feel pushed to extremes.


And when you see what the regimes of Central Asia do to people, can you blame them? As the Tajik expert Parwiz Mullojanov says in the film, “The leaders in Central Asia do not understand Islam. They are afraid of Islam. The are not able to define who is an extremist and who is just a moderate believer –   and therefore they suppress everybody. And if you do that, you only strengthen the radical organizations.”


Do you think that people in the West understand the situation?


No. As the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri, told me, “The West sees only two sides in Central Asia – the religious extremists and authoritarian regimes. And in order to preserve stability and their interests, they support the authoritarian regimes. The West forgets the third group – normal people.”


For the West – I mean for the leading politicians in the West – access to Afghanistan and energy and geopolitics is much more important than the lives of people in Central Asia.


What made the biggest impression on you when you were filming in Central Asia?


The “heroes” in this film are the few but extremely courageous human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists who continue to stand up to the brutal regimes – often risking their lives, as we now see new terrible evidence of almost every week. Unfortunately, there is little sign of an efficient, trustworthy political opposition in any of these countries.


My other lasting impression is that of human beings and whole families being so brutally treated by the regimes: innocent people being thrown in prison for 20 years for crimes everybody knows they did not commit, without a proper court case or even without access to a lawyer. Or the police brutality, the torture, or … the list goes on. This is daily life for thousands of innocent people in the region. Yes, the situation is worst in Uzbekistan, but it is clear that the other leaders are now increasingly taking “the Uzbek way.”


Dilyor Jumabaev works with the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan.
How do you see the future for Central Asia?


I am very worried. The policies of the regimes have been a complete and dangerous failure. The only ones to have benefited are the kleptocrats now in power. Throwing thousands of people in prison is seriously counter-productive – the prisons have in effect become a breeding ground for radical groups, as shown by reports from the International Crisis Group.


A representative for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan, Dilyor Jumabaev, told me, “In the prisons there are lots of our people, there is a whole ‘army’ of our people coming out. After prison, they are not afraid of anything. Very soon – very soon – we will have an Islamic state, a caliphate.” But when I asked him whether they would use violence for this purpose, he looked straight at me and said, “No, no way, just the strength of the Koran.”


Most experts agree that the regimes of Central Asia are living on borrowed time. As the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, told me, “With the Western support to the brutal regimes, we are creating a time bomb of discontent in Central Asia. And because the West is backing the dictatorships, that discontent will take an anti-Western turn.” is a Moscow-based Russian and English news agency covering Central Asia.
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