The three characteristics that make Fergana stand out are that this patch is where the borders of Tajikistan Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet (the valley spreads in all three countries); this is the most populated area in central Asia; and this valley has a historic Islamist character – Turko-Uzbeg invader Babur was from Fergana, as is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – a terrorist organization that was formed in 1998, and one that morphed into a more dynamic entity with reflections of the Al Qaeda of the 90s.
While Stalin was responsible for drawing random lines across to divide it between the three Soviet republics, it was the collapse of the collective Soviet farming practice after the fall of USSR that rapidly deteriorated the living conditions of the most populated part of central Asia. Since then, there has been the rise of collective identities and conflicts related to that, and as is the nature in these parts of the world, a couple of people back during the end of 20th century managed to convince a few others in the powers of Islam, which led to the creation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The seeds of the IMU were perhaps planted back in the Soviet era, when the communist party allowed the ‘reformist’ mujaddidiyah to curtail the Hanafi Sufi rituals of the central Asian SSRs. This quickly cascaded into foreign funding during the 70s and 80s, the rise of Wahhabism, sermons regarding stricter interpretation of the religious books, and eventually, plans to establish an Islamic central Asian state called Muslimonabad.
Fergana remains a key in the Eurasian geopolitics. The main reason as stated by the governments, is water and border issues. Fergana is notoriously water deficit, and there are active issues related to water sharing between the countries that the valley straddles. Border issues are real too. But this kind of an official stance has brought in its own consequence. As governments have kept themselves concerned with these issues, with the involvement of Russia, and China, (and even the US trying to wriggle in the space), the subnational elements of Fergana valley – with clearly different plans have witnessed the rise of the IMU.
The IMU – the biggest ‘local’ Islamist threat to the region – morphed into existence from the mujaddidiyah movement with the idea to remove the former President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. There were a series of attempts on his life. That quickly followed the mutation of IMU into a more globalist jihadi outfit when they picked up the cause of the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, when they were found responsible for terrorism in faraway USA, when they allied themselves with the Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and finally with the ISIS, or when they migrated their headquarters to the tribal areas of Pakistan and went through a phase where they allied with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and fought against the Pakistan Army. Now, with the rise of Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), there remains a fair chance of this group renewing their jihad against the governments of CAR states and destabilizing Xinjiang.
The conventional sense of security was based on a lot of confidence in Russian forces. But a sub-optimal Russian performance in Ukraine is throwing up questions about the future of Fergana stability. With the rise of the local Islamist forces after the arrival of the ISKP, Fergana remains one of the ticking bombs in the central Asian heartland.
Xinjiang Autonomous Province
One of the biggest provinces of China that was granted an autonomous status in 1955, Xinjiang is an extremely crucial piece of geography for a number of reasons. It is China’s lifeline to the rest of Eurasia – the future of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends on it; Xinjiang has some oil and gas, and China is a major consumer; Xinjiang is Islamic which has taken it into a direct confrontation with atheist CPC; and Xinjiang borders decisive places: Chinese occupied Tibet, India, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan being among them that China remains wary about.
Chinese excesses with the local population is well known around the world, albeit poorly documented. Across several cases, neighborhood states’ compliance with the Chinese diktat on the Uyghurs that managed to escape to those states (notably Kazakhstan) has helped keep a tight lid on the stories. There have been some reports of physical or knife assaults on politically active asylum seekers in Kazakhstan, the general indifference of the authorities there, or such Uyghur people even fleeing Kazakhstan in some cases to Turkey or to the US. And as is the US nature of harboring secessionist elements that have Eurasian aims, these people are being provided and cared for (mobilizing media attention, opening offices etc).
Typically adhering to sub-nationalist behavior, not all elements that escape the host country are into non-violent activism. The first brush of the Uyghurs with the concept of global jihad was when many of them joined IMU. This was after years of terrorism in China and killing hundreds of Chinese civilians. Many Uyghurs went to Syria to join the ISIS. With the war in Syria nearly over, these people have, or are about to return. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, currently known as the Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM) is a strong underground factor as a jihadi group (the US has removed them from its terrorist list perhaps for geopolitical reasons) and a potential recruiter. Compounding Beijing’s headache, the ISKP too looms in the background; a large number of Uyghur jihadis remain a part of the ISIS chapter of Khorasan as well.
While Beijing is trying to catalyze a demographic shift (by settling more and more Han Chinese) in Xinjiang, or progressing at a breakneck speed with its Eurasian Integration plans in the hope of ushering peace and quiet to its troubled west, Xinjiang remains one of the ticking bombs in the central Asian heartland.
Arindam Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based author and a Learning & Development professional who likes to dabble in Eurasian geopolitics during his spare time.
Note: This piece is the second part of Mukherjee’s series on central Asia. The third part will appear on May 29.
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)