Features

Talibanizing the other '-stans?

Central Asia | Ex-Soviet states-Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan-feel the heat from radical Islam

Issue: "John Smoltz: The closer," Aug. 3, 2002

When state officials visited the homes of two Baptist families in Turkmenistan on July 14, the city's imam, or head of the Muslim community, accompanied them. Security police and the Muslim leader ordered the deportation of Nadezhda Potolova, along with her four children, and Valentina Kalataevskaya, a mother of seven. A year ago their husbands were ordered out because the families belong to an unregistered, independent Baptist congregation. The women and children have managed to avoid deportation for a year, while the men now live in Kazakhstan.

Turkmenistan is the most repressive of the five Central Asian republics. It, along with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, formed the underbelly of the Soviet Union until the '-stans gained independence just over a decade ago. Breaking with Moscow, however, has not eased Soviet-style repression. All five of the republics insist on government control over religion. Under those regulations, pastors are imprisoned for refusing to register their churches. Last year in Kazakhstan, police officers beat a Baptist pastor and threatened to cut off his tongue with scissors if he refused to renounce his faith.

In Turkmenistan most congregations are not allowed even to register as churches under its strict policy. Only Russian Orthodox churches and mosques approved by the state-sponsored Muslim Board are permitted. Two clergymen-Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, the chief Muslim mufti, and Andrei Sapunov, the country's Orthodox leader-serve together as deputy chairmen of the government's Council for Religious Affairs. That gives them veto power over non-Orthodox churches and independent mosques.

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Local officials are using the immigrant status of some Christian worshippers as cause for deportation. During the communist era, Moscow resettled Russians, Ukrainians, and others to the five republics. Officials canceled the residence permits of the Potolovs and Kalataevskys, then ordered their ouster. Those orders arrived at the families' doorstep last month in Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), a Caspian seaport.

The two families belong to a congregation affiliated with the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, an alliance of non-Orthodox congregations in the former Soviet republics, according to Keston Institute. The city's imam joined an officer of the KNB intelligence service (formerly the KGB), a passport inspector, and a local police officer to personally deliver the news. The officials gave the families one month to leave.

For Muslims, that kind of political power is new. Although 80 percent of Turkmens are Sunni Muslims, identifying themselves as Muslims was not permitted under atheistic communist rule. In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov was forced to change his surname from Karim in order to advance his political career under the Soviet system.

Now Muslims are well beyond an identity crisis. At the end of the Soviet era only 160 mosques existed in the region; that number has now shot past 5,000. Saudi Arabian financial backing helped build most of the mosques. While Christian workers have also made inroads in the now-independent states, experts say there is no question that Mohammed is replacing Marx.

The trend arises just as the region's strategic significance is increasing in the West. Within weeks of Sept. 11, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan military bases became home to American troops. The Bush administration desperately needs friendly real estate in this part of the world: to deploy troops, gather intelligence, and hunt down terrorists. With Afghanistan under U.S.-allied control, Pentagon officials say the bases are to remain launchpads for military assaults on al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists linked to terrorism.

At the same time, they worry that the independent republics themselves could fall prey to radical elements like Afghanistan's Taliban, whose leaders have fled Afghanistan and may be hiding in the bordering republics. Only Kyrgyzstan has changed heads of state in the last 10 years. Mr. Karimov, Uzbekistan's president, recently pushed through a referendum extending his presidency at least through 2007. He refuses to eliminate state control over most business enterprises, and thwarts foreign exchange of the currency. The average wage is $20 per month, and thousands of political prisoners-Muslim and Christian-languish. In cracking down on the radicals, the former Soviet thugs often thwack the good guys, too.

Despite those policies, the United States has rewarded Uzbekistan for granting U.S. troops a foothold in the region. The United States has signed a classified security arrangement with Uzbekistan and promised a multimillion-dollar economic-aid package. Mr. Karimov's public thanks for his support was a visit last week from U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

Yet a volatile mix of repression, poverty, and religious persecution is optimal weather for the kind of radical Islam that flourished in the madrassas, or Islamic schools, to the south in Afghanistan and Pakistan-and, with it, lethal anti-Americanism.

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