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Central Asia. Tough policy on political Islam increases violence

Bishkek/Brussels -  Prisons in Central Asia are becoming hothouses for the growth of militant Islamism, threatening long-term stability in the region. 

Central Asia: Islamists in Prison, the latest update briefing from the International Crisis Group, highlights the rising number and political significance of Islamists in state detention. It argues that the governments’ tough policy on political Islam only increases the risk of violent militancy. The failure to differentiate between armed Islamist groups and those who oppose the state by political means will deepen the divide between the observant Muslim population and central governments – a particularly dangerous development at a time when the risk of armed Islamist insurgency is growing.

“Central Asia’s crackdown on political Islam, and particularly on movements like Hizb ut-Tahrir, will not hinder other groups who explicitly espouse violence to achieve their aims”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director. “In fact, it is more likely to increase recruits for armed movements and turn a low-level insurgency into something much more menacing. Governments need urgently to initiate a dialogue with Islamist groups who are willing to repudiate violence. Lumping all groups together as they do now, risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

The increased arrest of Islamic activists only advances their cause, as prison officials themselves acknowledge. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a clandestine political party which aims to create a caliphate in the Muslim world, and similar groups view prisons as an important theatre of political struggle. Well-organised Islamist proselytisers are consolidating their position within the informal structures of power behind walls. They have exploited the weakness of underfunded and corrupt prison systems to extend their networks and recruit. The growing numbers of imprisoned Islamists mean that more inmates, often with a record of violence, are drawn into the Islamist ideological orbit. In the future they may apply these skills to the promotion of their new faith.

The best way for Central Asian governments to forestall armed Islamist insurgency is to launch a dialogue with observant Muslims, and take urgent, energetic and tangible steps to fight against corruption and abuse of office. Conditions in prisons should be improved, and even more importantly, governments must be seen to be working in society at large to address unemployment and declining standards of living – the very conditions that drive young men in particular into recruiters’ arms.

“Indiscriminate and harsh state measures do nothing to address overall security in the region, which will be further threatened as Afghanistan’s shadow looms more darkly next door”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “By targeting groups using political means, the security forces are doing little to combat the militant organisations whose fighters are now gradually returning to Central Asia and are committed to destroying the current regimes by force of arms”.
© Crisis International -

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