An expected end
Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid takes us into countries once part of the Soviet Union, now grappling with the complex problems of transiting to democracy while simultaneously facing the challenge by militant Islamic movements. HARSH SETHI takes a look.
The cry of Islam today is that Jihad is not the central tenet of the religion.
IT clearly is the season for books on Islamic radicalism and jihad. In the last few weeks we have had books by lawyer-analyst A.G. Noorani, activist-commentator Tariq Ali and journalist M.J. Akbar. And while each of these monographs vary in style and content, common to each is the effort to respond to and correct the distorted image of Islam as a religion and of the Muslim communities post-September 11.
Ahmed Rashid's Jihad, though it too underscores that jihad is not a central tenet of Islam and that it focuses more on self-improvement rather than advocate war (defensive or aggressive) against those threatening the Muslim community, takes a different tack.
As a companion volume to his much acclaimed work, Taliban, Rashid uses his considerable journalistic skills to take us into the Byzantine world of Central Asia countries once part of the Soviet Union, now grappling with the complex problems of transiting to democracy while simultaneously facing the challenge by militant Islamic movements. In so doing, he deftly sidesteps possible theological concerns about the nature of the religion, in particular whether intolerance towards the "non-true" believer, including from within the fold, is an intrinsic element of religions and peoples of the book.
Way back in 1994, Rashid's book The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism had sought to map out the possible futures of the States Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan all with substantial Muslim populations and recently freed from the oppressive control of the Soviet Union.
The fear then, as now, was whether these resource-rich and underdeveloped countries could successfully manage to transform themselves into modern, democratic and tolerant countries or lapse into inter-ethnic strife.
The answer, further developed in the book under consideration, is that the future remains uncertain, not so much because such is the fate of all Muslim societies, but because insufficient effort has been made by the different ruling elite to both take their populations into confidence as also the role played by neighbouring states and global forces, more interested in the resources (oil) and the geo-strategic positioning of the region than helping people emerge from decades of authoritarianism and distorted planning.
It is undeniable that the forcible suppression of religious and religious identity concerns by the communists gave a boost to these feelings. This, we have seen equally in Russia and the Christian majority East European states.
What is less understood is that the phenomenon of radical Islam is relatively new, that the three biggest movements in the region the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have different origins, beliefs, influence and activities, and that today if they are pulling together it is because of the state repression of even moderate Islam and the role of movements like the Taliban and Al Qaeda. "They are spreading with incredible speed in what is basically alien territory because local governments and the international community alike have failed the people of Central Asia, offering them little but massive repression, unemployment, poverty, disease and war."
That a region which for centuries has been at the crossroads of both the East and West, with a complex history of empires and high civilisation can fall into a dark zone and today demands attention primarily because of its untapped resources and as a site for destabilisation is a stark reminder of our perennial short sightedness.
Ahmed's rich tapestry provides us an engrossing entry into this world, both of the ruling elite and the emerging militant opposition, much too complex to be summarised in a brief review. All actors have been dealt with, briefly but pithily.
The prime villain is Stalin's theory of nationalities which governed Soviet policies in the region relocation of populations, suppression of religion and democracy, a one-party expropriate state, reworking the entire ecology of the region and one can go on, the fruits of which the people are now suffering. How, after all, do countries, which for decades were structured as colonies, now develop autonomously? And who will let them? Not Russia or China or the West?
Alongside is the role of oil and heroin, a direct fallout of Afghanistan. But the most depressing part is that the different regimes in the region, stuck with national boundaries that divide ethnic communities, refuse to trust each other, cooperate and define a common strategy.
Rashid, expectedly is not hopeful about the future, except in the case of Tajikistan which is attempting, post-civil war, to bring erstwhile conflicting parties into government.
He is also scathing about the unwillingness of key global players the U.S., China and Russia to rise above their petty self-interests. Nevertheless, after the wake-up call given by Afghanistan, he hopes that a massive economic reconstruction programme might turn the population towards development more than the romantic visions of a new Islamic Caliphate. The only thing certain is that the latter route leads only to catastrophe.
The writer is Consulting Editor, Seminar.
Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid. Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd., 2002, p. 281, Rs. 295.
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