Sanity In The Time Of Jihad

Updated: May 26 2002, 05:30am hrs
Jihad, the five-letter word, has come to haunt the world in recent times, especially after the September 11 terror attack on the United States. In the west, as also by many of us in this part of the world, Jihad has been often perceived simplistically as a Holy War against non-believers. Why just the west, even the new fundamentalist and Islamic militant movements have distorted its broader meaning of an inner struggle to be a good and devout Muslim, says Ahmed Rashid, the author of Jihad: The Rise Of Militant Islam In Central Asia. And this is precisely what is leading to the conflicts that are tearing apart the Central Asian region.

Mr Rashid, an investigative journalist who has contributed to The Far Eastern Economic Review, Daily Telegraph and The Independent, has travelled and held interviews extensively across the region. He begins his account by delving into the history of Central Asia, the ethnic conflicts, the growth of Islam and the crucial part played by geography in the region. He uses maps to mark out the pockets of conflict in the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose people got the opportunity to reconnect to their Islamic past, which they had been forced to renounce and hide, after the fall of the Soviet empire.

Mr Rashid then moves on to what he calls the “new phenomenon of radical Islam” in Central Asia and focusses on three big movements in the region—the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Hizb ut-Tahir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Based on various discussions with those directly connected with these movements as well as with political observers, the author comes to the disturbing conclusion that though these movements began with different ideologies and support bases, they are being pulled into the orbit of movements like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and are spreading with incredible speed.

All this is happening because both the local governments and the international community have “failed the people of Central Asia, offering them little but massive repression, unemployment, poverty, disease and war”, he says. For instance, last year, Tajikistan saw its worst drought in 74 years. Cereal production fell by 47 per cent, leaving 1.2 million, one-fifth of its population, facing hunger and malnutrition. All this provides just the ground that the militant Islamic movements require. “The best way for the Central Asian regimes to destroy the influence of these groups would be to bring them out into the open; to allow Islamic practice in their countries and to institute reforms that would leave the movements with only their alien ideologies to sell.”

For this, what is required is regional cooperation, and oil offers the greatest hope. The three big powers, the US, China and Russia, eager to exploit the region’s resources, need to join up and force the Central Asian regimes to initiate social and political reforms. The Central Asian regimes, too, need to draw lessons from Afghanistan and make the most of the global community’s engagement in the region.

Mr Rashid puts across to the reader the complexity of the region, the various faces of militant Islam and the threat to peace in a style that makes it easy—at times even gripping—reading, rather than an academic tome.

Jihad: The Rise Of Militant Islam In Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid; Orient Longman; Rs 295; Pp 281