A New Front for Islamic Militancy?

JONATHAN POWER

August 06, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

Russian soldiers are again poised to go back to fighting in Afghanistan -- this time against Tajik rebels who have sought refuge in neighboring Afghanistan after being driven out of their homeland by old-time communists who still hold power in Tajikistan, a former Central Asian Soviet republic.

The communists accuse the rebels of being ''Islamic fundamentalists'' and the Russians are worried about Islamic militants and weapons flowing into their own southern Muslim-inhabited regions that border on the ex-Central Asian republics.

Meanwhile, a number of influential strategists in the West are voicing not dissimilar concerns, worrying out loud that Iranian, Afghani and Pakistani Islamic militants will join to fashion yet another territorial extension of fundamentalist influence, moving right through ex-Soviet Central Asia. It is a short step from this sort of hand-wringing to joining the camp of Professor Samuel Huntington, who, in the current issue of ''Foreign Affairs,'' argues that we are heading for a ''clash of civilizations.''

Yet, much of what is happening, the fighting apart, is unexceptional. The atheistic Soviet empire dismantled, we should expect a resurgence of traditional Islamic belief. Indeed, what is so wrong with the role of Iran, whose geography, history, religion and culture will give it a natural interest in the affairs of the region?

This is not of the same order as financing Hezbollah or clandestinely building nuclear weapons to aim at the heart of Europe. A too rigid reaction by the West might possibly help generate the kind of militancy it's seeking to avoid.

The five countries of the region, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, contain some 50 million people. Kazakhstan, alone, is bigger than Western Europe. It is also a nuclear power, albeit for the present subject to Moscow's launch codes, armed with heavy missiles capable of reaching America, China, India and Europe.

The clash between the old and the new, both political and economic, has already created a mass of turbulence. Much more is sure to come. There are all the elements needed for continuous wind-shear: sizable Russian minorities, border disputes, nationalism replacing communism as a useful political creed for power-seekers, economic changes that create inflation, unemployment and serious inequality. And, not least, despite a long tradition of secularism created by the Soviet occupation, a hungering interest in all things Islamic.

Nevertheless, so deep runs the quizzical doubting of 70 years of anti-religious thought -- unlike in communist Poland -- that, among the educated, religion, much less fundamentalism, remains a minority interest, except perhaps in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In both these two countries the opposition uses Islam to attack the regime's lack of legitimacy. Inevitably, it is the acts of violence in these two countries that draws attention to the

region, and when that is set side-by-side with a highly active Iranian diplomacy, coupled with radio broadcasts, it is enough for some people to set alarm bells ringing.

But we must be wise. There is very good reason for these newly independent states to forge a close relationship with Iran. Iran with its access to the Indian Ocean and, via Turkey, to Europe offers an alternative to economic dependency on Russia.

Iran has also proposed a Turkmen-Iranian-Turkish-European gas pipeline. And Tehran offers the region a useful hub for airline connections to the outside world, closer than Moscow.

Yet the very exercise of looking at Iran's assets in the calm light of an accountant's tabulation also provides the sensible antidote to those who worry too much about Iranian influence. Secular Turkey has much more to offer than Iran and the cultural and linguistic affiliation is tighter. (Except for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Central Asians are accepting Turkish advice and help to change from Russian Cyrillic script to Latin, foregoing Arabic.)

Turkey's rather strong, market-oriented economy is a more inviting exhibition stand than Iran's in terms of trade opportunities. Turkey, as well, is better placed to proffer aid and technical expertise. It has deployed these in a sophisticated manner, without an overt use of political strings. Indeed, the contrast with Iran, rather than being destabilizing, is a useful show of comparative virtue, from which the Central Asian leaders, by and large, draw sensible conclusions.

As long as serious conflict between Iran and Turkey doesn't erupt over their competitive interests in nearby war-locked Azerbaijan, their rivalry to the east in Central Asia is not particularly unhealthy.

There are, nevertheless, reasons to worry about Central Asia-Kazakhstan being tempted to traffic its nuclear knowledge, and even its weapons, with Iran; Russia being sucked into internal conflicts on its sensitive southern border; even the angering of China if the rise of nationalism spills over into the Turkic Muslim-dominated Chinese province of Xinjiang. There is a power vacuum. There is instability. But as a seed bed for fundamentalist militancy it is still largely inhospitable terrain and, unless flooded with active Western and Russian paranoia, will probably remain so.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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