For months the most debated issue in Central Asia has been the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the many destabilizing forces it might unleash on the region—among them trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, but also Islamic radicalism. Local leaders and many analysts predict that a severe deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan after the U.S. departs would encourage Central Asian jihadists who had fled their home countries to return and destabilize local regimes. But assessing the current role of Islam and Islamism in Central Asia, and the evolution of Central Asian jihadist groups themselves, reveals that the threat has been overwhelmingly exaggerated by local authorities, for both domestic and foreign political purposes.
There are sound reasons for concern about Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. Three of the five Central Asian republics—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—border Afghanistan, and their people share long-standing cultural, religious and linguistic affinities with their Afghan brethren. The risk of jihadist spillover from Afghanistan is compounded by the fact that most jihadist movements once active in Central Asia took refuge in Afghanistan after being expelled by state security forces, and some found safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
But several decades of Soviet domination north of the Amu Darya River and Afghan rule south of it have driven apart the Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen communities on either side. Although they speak the same language and have the same religion, the Soviet secular legacy in Central Asia and the very Islamic atmosphere in Afghanistan have erected cultural and ideological barriers. In Central Asia, both the elites and the ordinary population consider themselves more “civilized” and Europeanized than their southern neighbors, toward whom they have cultivated a superiority complex. Local media in Central Asia fuel negative perceptions of Afghanistan, further deepening differences and strengthening barriers. Uzbekistan provides a good example of this disdain and disinterest: Tashkent has never cultivated strong relations with Uzbek minorities abroad because doing so would contradict its strongly nationalistic state policy based on the territorial borders of the former Soviet Uzbekistan.