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Political Islam a "Dangerous Tool" in Caucasus, Central Asia

(Washington, DC--October 8, 2002) "Islam as a religion deals with piety, ethics and values, and is fully compatible with democracy," but when Islam is harnessed to politics it can become a dangerous tool for justifying authoritarian rule and shifting the blame for the political ills of Muslim countries to Western powers like the United States. That was the theme of a briefing today by Caucasus Project Director Zeyno Baran of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who spoke on political Islam in Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

According to Baran, political Islam--a radical, literalist interpretation of Islamic texts developed as a means of resistance to colonialism in the Middle East--is finding "a good breeding ground" in much of Eurasia, due to pervasive poverty, popular ignorance about indigenous, moderate forms of Islam, and widespread disillusionment with corrupt post-Soviet regimes allied with the West. Not one of the countries in the region, including Turkey, has found an effective way to counter the growth of political Islam, Baran said. When faced with perceived religious or popular dissent, the leaders of the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan have resorted to Soviet-style repression, as, for example, in violently suppressing recent protests in the village of Nardaran, Azerbaijan.

In Baran's view, some of these leaders might be open to learning more democratic methods of dealing with domestic protests, and the U.S. should use its increased post- September-11 leverage in the region to greater effect. This is particularly true in Uzbekistan, where the government considers many religious Muslims to be potential enemies and advocates of political Islam. The West also needs to develop better strategies for increasing employment and improving living conditions, as well as developing anti-corruption watchdog groups and strengthening respect for human rights by the governments of the region.

In the face of what appears to be increased popular support for political Islam in Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, Baran believes that anti-democratic hate speech should be a focus of international concern and possible legal action. Moderate Islamic groups should be supported in their efforts to educate Muslim populations about the moderate traditions to be found in their own religion. Baran said the U.S. needs an overall policy to address the challenge of political Islam that avoids creating a climate of anti-Muslim "McCarthyism."