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Aleksey Malashenko: ISIS Project Is Closing Down, But Islamic State Concept Will Persist

An expert in Islam and Central Asia in the interview to CABAR.asia has told about the fate of the Islamic state concept, the role of Central Asians in this project, about religious peculiarities of the region and what can be done about it.


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Aleksey Malashenko is the chief researcher of the Dialogue of Civilisations research institute (DOC Research). Photo: CABAR.asia

CABAR.asia: Tracking the history of ISIS (a terrorist and extremist organisation banned in the Kyrgyz Republic – author’s note), the fate of their followers from our region, do you think these religious extremists and radicals in our region have drawn any conclusions for themselves?

Aleksey Malashenko: First of all, there are not so many bigots. Bigot is a bigot, who wouldn’t draw any conclusion for himself. He would believe in what he believes in. It’s like being an early communist. Therefore, the extent of their influence would be… so far, it’s slight and it’s even overrated by the authorities [of Central Asian countries] to show the threat and people need to rally around leaders to counter this threat.

If any economic collapse or public anger over the government begins somewhere for reasons beyond ISIS control, these people can join the crowd given their bigotry and fighting experience. I don’t see any prerequisites for such a violent revolt so far. By the way, the recent event in Tajikistan, where an attempted attack on the command and control centre of the Russian military unit was reported, looks strange. Because ISIS guys are experienced guys and it would be strange for them to ask for trouble.

The terrorist group of ISIS is rarely reported in international media. Do you think the ISIS project is closed or will continue?

The given ISIS project is closed. It is closing. Slowly, but surely. And the concept of a religion-based state does and will exist. The next alternative of the similar structure is inevitable, I think there would be people who will steer a middle course. It’s hard to say where it will be, but there are many places in the world where it can easily happen.

Will it have followers from Central Asia?

It’s hard to say because I don’t know when this project will be reopened and who will follow it: either experienced guys or the newcomers. In theory, the ideology itself is a global state, so people will follow it for sure.  I can’t say how, where from and how many followers it will have, it’s like making wild guesses.

In Central Asian states, the state, media and imams are actively involved in the awareness campaign “think, don’t repeat the mistakes of your fellow citizens” etc.  It seems that there would always be people ready to follow this idea regardless of campaigns.

These are protest cadres, discontented people, there are always malcontents. Especially in the countries with such an economy and corruption. Social protests, political protests in the Muslim world often take religious form. That’s why this phenomenon will persist, to a greater or lesser degree.

You say the concept of the so-called “Islamic state” can be reborn in any part of the world. What will it depend on?

It will depend on the common ideology in the Muslim world. Because people want to build a state, rebuild the state based on their religious identity. For example, it’s known that the first proto-state was built by Prophet Muhammad. We can discuss this thing endlessly, but for a man of the street, who is disappointed in the current state, who doesn’t think someone’s experience can be repeated, it’s a tempting idea to turn to the concept of the Islamic state. It’s not about beheading on the streets, but it’s about thinking “why not”, it [concept] has political aspects, legal aspects, sharia law, the experience of the seventh century. It’s no big deal, it’s a natural process.

I am speaking about all the states. But I think Central Asia has little chance. First of all, it has more moderate, traditional Islam. Second, it has no successful experience.  There used to be Hizb ut-Tahrir (an extremist organisation, whose activity is banned by order of the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic in 2003 – Editor’s note), but now it has gone; “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (banned in the Kyrgyz Republic, recognised as a terrorist organisation in 2003 – Editor’s note) has discredited itself. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was the positive experience, in my opinion, and the fact that the party was dissolved and banned was not the best way out because protest moods didn’t disappear and the next generation can have more radical thoughts. I think such a moderate Islamic opposition is a must.

What do you think about the debates among the residents of Kyrgyzstan related to religious canons: wearing special swimwear in swimming-pools, legislative prolongation of dinner time on Fridays for the purpose of namaz, removal of the Darwinian theory from the biology textbooks…?

It’s pluralism. Do you have your own madrasah? You can either remove or keep the Darwinian theory, if you wish. If schoolchildren have biology exam, will they take it according to Quran or biology?

These are complicated things. The removal of Darwin was once attempted in the United States – they called themselves fundamentalists, not Islamic, but Protestant. [In Russia], this is a perpetual process. You can see on Russian TV that the earth is not round. What can we do about it?

Do you mean that these debates in Kyrgyzstan will lead to nothing serious?

I think there would be permanent attempts. There would be some trend, but it won’t lead to destabilisation, if the authorities behave properly. Those people who want to remove Darwin won’t demand it holding weapons in their arms. They can fight, discuss, hold round tables with the participation of Darwinians and anti-Darwinians. This is the ideology. This is the ideological fight, which was, is and will be.

In the last 10 years, Islam has been on the agenda of Central Asian countries. The number of mosques and their attendants is growing, events, discussions, debates are taking place… What will be the outcome?

I don’t know because religious process is a part of some bigger process. This is one of the trends and [it’s useless] to speak about its outcome, conditions…

If we ask about the conditions, we should think what our economy, inflation rate, outside influence will be, we can estimate it all. Ten years ago, was there anybody who talked or wrote about the ISIS? Has anyone ever thought that a representative of Muslim Brotherhood (religious-political association acting in the north of Africa and the Middle East – author’s note) would be the president of Egypt? Only insane people could think so. It turns out that everything is possible.

But anyway are the attempts of the government and civil society focused on the harmonious religious policy?

I think, first of all, everyone wants stability. People think about it. But if there’s any reason for discontent, the Islamic factor will come into action just as anywhere else: in Turkey, Algeria, Libya. Central Asia is not an exception in this regard.

What Islam should be like in the modern secular state?

Diverse. The Islam has three trends: conservative, modernistic and fundamentalist-reformatory. Which one will prevail and where? At which social level? At which level of consciousness? In which environment? All three trends are available. Those who call themselves fundamentalists, also call themselves reformers. We want to carry out reforms, but based on the Islam. This would be an eternal bundle, and it is normal.

Will it apply to Central Asia?

Of course, it will. There will be no single model. There are 1.5 billion of Muslims, and you want a single model. There are Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. You must admit they are different. There are Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. They are different, aren’t they?

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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