Trouble in Turkestan

Jerusalem Post, Israel
April 4 2004

Trouble in Turkestan

Among the many surprises caused by the Soviet Union’s dissolution was
the emergence of the newly independent Central Asian republics, whose
most important metropolis – Tashkent – last week came under Islamist
terrorism’s attack.

Rich in minerals, under-populated, and culturally tolerant, the vast
region historically known as Turkestan tempted entrepreneurs and
confounded diplomats, as chances grew it would become a bone of
contention between modernists and fundamentalists. Spanning a
landmass roughly the size of Brazil, the six formerly Soviet Asian
republics thus emerged as the post-Cold War era’s Wild East and Big

>From a Western viewpoint, Central Asia’s development since 1992,
though far from perfect, seemed on the whole positive.

With the exceptions of Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia and Tajikistan’s
with itself, the area’s leaders have generally avoided civil strife
and international conflict. Recalling the merits and drawbacks of
Russian domination, Central Asian leaders eagerly cemented healthy
ties with America, and actively backed its war on terrorism.

Economically, local leaders derived inspiration from the historic
east-west Silk Road that linchpins their region, and got down to the
business of hinging Central Asia’s abundant natural resources – which
include everything from oil, gas, and zinc to diamonds, tin, and gold
– with the global economy. While all this does not compensate for a
frequent lack of pro-market reforms, it still is a promising
harbinger to a future of prosperity and self-sufficiency.

Culturally, Western observes initially suspected that the region that
was historically influenced by both Turkey and Iran would now be
strained by their conflicting views on secularism, Islam, and Western
civilization in general. At stake were basic questions, like what
script – Arabic or Latin – would be chosen to replace the Cyrillic,
and how much influence Muslim clerics would be allowed in local
education systems.

While Turkish foreign policy remained obsessed with joining Europe,
and as such disappointed some with its reluctance to offer Central
Asia not just inspiration but also leadership, Iran has so far failed
to seriously break path in the lands to its east. Eventually, the
early Nineties’ anxieties have proven exaggerated, as Central Asia’s
leaders took a clear stand in favor of sanity, keeping fundamentalism
at bay and welcoming things Western much the way post-Ottoman Turkey

Politically, however, it quickly became clear that Central Asia’s
leaders were no democrats. Though the intensity of human-rights
violations varied from country to country and from time to time, the
region’s leaders have generally not offered, and often actively
obstructed, freedoms of press, speech, and association. One after the
other, Central Asian leaders – most of whom remain products of the
Soviet era – have stifled political debate, arrested would-be
opponents, and nurtured personality cults.

It was into this mixed landscape of progress and reaction that
international terrorism barged last week, with a series of bombings
that have killed more than 40 people in Tashkent and Bukhara, and
wounded dozens more.

For the terrorists, the aim here is obvious. Uzbekistan, under the
leadership of communist-era boss Islam Karimov, has allowed the
establishment of American military bases on its soil, thus offering
the US a vital springboard into nearby Afghanistan. As they have done
in Spain last month, it seems that America’s enemies are out to
attack its allies in the war on terrorism.

Fortunately, the Uzbek leadership has responded with the kind of
resolve that Spain has avoided, making it plain that it will meet the
terrorists in the battlefield rather than seek ways to understand and
appease them.

Unfortunately, the free world cannot afford the luxury of ignoring an
already vulnerable Uzbekistan’s exacerbation of its own condition, by
keeping its 21 million citizens under an unnecessarily short leash.
It is one thing to fight an Islamism whose declared goal is the
restoration of medieval theocracy. It is an entirely different thing
to delay the arrival of political modernity.

We have seen countries that think tyranny will protect them from
fundamentalist Islam find their own squashing of freedom to be an
incubator for radicalism, both against themselves and the West.
Meeting their current leaders as larger-than-life, motionless statues
rather than actual-size people who deliver opportunity and
self-fulfillment is a recipe for failure. In fact, that was the kind
of leadership that Khomeini defeated handily in Iran.