Uzbekistan: A breeding ground for terrorism ?

Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek-born immigrant who ran down more than a dozen people with a rented truck this past week, touched a presidential twitter stormand a debate about immigration.

This debate is misguided. Though some immigration reforms are needed, this terrorist attack should make us think about two types of self-radicalization: the personal transformation of a peaceful migrant into a determined killer and Uzbekistan’s unique use of religion (what scholars call “self-Islamization”) to bind together that Central Asian nation. Saipov’s experiences in the U.S. from 2010 onward and the policies of his homeland combined to make him into the killer that he is.

Though he claims to be a “soldier” of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, there is no actual evidence to support this claim. No intercepted communication, no orders or money from abroad. So his status remains an open question. Still, there is no question that he was an alienated young man, searching for meaning and connection in his life. Our society, which once offered definite answers, now provides mainly relative truths, conditional solutions. While Saipov was going through a process familiar to any teenager, he found no sense of belonging here, outside of his family and his heritage. And when he turned to Uzbek sources, he found a national ideology that greased the skids toward extremism. The problem was born in Uzbekistan, but grew to maturity here.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics in Central Asia had an identity crisis. The Soviets had erased virtually all aspects of national and religious identity, replacing it with a pan-national communist ideology. When communism failed, the rulers of these suddenly independent lands needed a national glue—a shared story—to hold their nations together.

Faced with both internal threats of civil war and external threats of invasion from radical Islamists from both Shi’ite Iran and Sunni factions in Afghanistan, Uzbek rulers realized that faced problems similar to Pakistan’s--a state-approved version of Islam and some careful invocations of nationalist totems--and adapted their neighbor’s political philosophy. After stealing nationalist themes from opposition groups in the 1990s, the Uzbek regime established an official form of Islam compatible with the state’s religious policy, opened Islamic schools, including Tashkent Islamic University, and an array of small and medium-sized madrassas. While Uzbek leaders never became Islamists, they promoted religious observance, which soon soared under their rule.

Unfortunately, we now know that the approach used by Pakistan and Uzbekistan indirectly encourages terror groups.

Soon, two jihadist groups emerged: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which was linked to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Uzbek intelligence was aggressive—it even organized kidnappings of Uzbek Islamists in neighboring nation of Kyrgyzstan—but ineffective. Some 8,000 people were arrested on suspicion of being Islamists between 1995 and 2005. Many died in detention from disease or mistreatment, human rights activists say. The crackdown backfired, creating opportunities for martyrdom and, therefore, if anything, encouraged recruitment into Islamic groups.

To help Central Asian governments combat terror and stop the cycle that produces terrorists bound for the U.S., the federal government should launch an integrated, multi-layered policy: help staunch the flow of illegal drugs, trafficked women and smuggled wildlife, mainly falcons and ivory, (each a major money source for jihadists), share satellite and human intelligence to kill or capture terror leaders and encourage the modernization of Central Asian economies to provide jobs and hope to the millions who might otherwise be recruited. Jailing opposition leaders is a failed tactic that sadly helps jihadists,who say that no change is possible “inside the system.” It should end.

The Trump administration should establish a new institutional structure, headed by a White House assistant to work with US allies to go all in to prevent the radicalization and recruitment of a whole new generation, as suggested in a report authored by Tony Blair et Leon Panetta.

Here, Morocco could help with its multiple and composite identity: Arab, Islamic, Jewish, African, Andalusian and Mediterranean. in 2011, in the wake of the arab spring, judaïsme became in the country's new constitution as a key part of moroccan identity. it reinforces Morocco's committment to the values of openess, moderation, tolerance and dialogue between all the cultures and civilizations of the world".

In 2014 the kingdom opened a school for training imams and other religious leaders, including women. The €18 million facility (about $20 million) opened in Rabat, in March 2017. The goal, personally endorsed by King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s highest religious authority, is to educate African Islamic leaders and remind them of the region’s long history of tolerant Islam, a religion that persuades, not commands, its converts. Both in-person and online, its teachers question extremist doctrines, which often have no real basis in the Koran or Islamic tradition.

And now Moroccan imams are taking their show on the road, traveling to France to meet with imams there. Former French President François Hollande recently praised them for teaching the “values of openness and tolerance.”

Central Asian governments are welcome to send their imams to Morocco or receive them at home. The war of ideas will be won one mind at a time.

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