Ahmed Rashid Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of Militant Islam: Conversation with Ahmed Rashid, author and journalist: 3/26/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 9

Islam in Central Asia: Foreign Intervention and Fundamentalism

Let's explore this a little more. [Certain] regimes, like the regime in Saudi Arabia and the regime in Pakistan -- because of, in retrospect, very narrow definitions of their own national interests -- actually fueled this fire. Let's talk, for example, about Pakistan. It was the key agent, through its intelligence services, for funneling American money to the Mujahadeen. What was the foreign policy goal in doing that?

The foreign policy goal, first of all, was to get support from the United States and the Western world, which came a lot to Pakistan. But the other thing was that this was seen by the military, because this was a period of military rule under General Zia, as an expansion of its influence inside Afghanistan for the first time. Secondly, the military wanted what was termed at that time "strategic depth" vis-à-vis India -- India being the long-term enemy of Pakistan. Having a friendly Mujahadeen government in Kabul would give the military strategic depth -- which I think was a completely fallacious argument, because Afghanistan does not give Pakistan any kind of strategic depth in the real sense, because it was a devastated country.

But almost immediately after the end of the Afghan War and the withdrawal of the Soviets, the war in Kashmir begins. The Kashmir insurgency starts against India; Pakistan, and Pakistani groups first start going in and helping the Kashmirians. So almost immediately, a lot of these Mujahadeen, who were funded and supported by the Pakistani military, move from Afghanistan to Kashmir. This, of course, creates a vast upheaval inside of Pakistan, because then you have recruitment. The whole madrasa culture, the religious school culture, takes off, and you have these militants training in these madrasas to fight wars. And then, of course, it expands. You have Pakistanis fighting in Chechnya, in Bosnia, all around the world.

The military fuels this simply because it believes that this is the answer to India. This is the way we can keep the Indians bogged down in Kashmir, and the military can also extend its influence around the Western world.

And it's not just the Pakistanis that get implicated in this way, it's also the Saudis. Tell us a little about what the Saudi goals were as they were confronted with this vast sea of change in Central Asia and in Afghanistan.

The Saudis, since the time of King Faisal in the seventies, have had a very aggressive policy of exporting Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a Sunni sect, which is the state religion, if you like, of Saudi Arabia. It's a particularly austere, conservative interpretation of Islam, and it's not very popular in many areas of the world, particularly in South Asia. But the Saudis use a lot of their money, the oil money that was coming, to export this through the foundations, through the royal family. As part of their foreign policy, they fund madrasas, mosques, all sorts of scholarships to Saudi Arabia. This was extremely detrimental, because basically, Saudis were exporting Wahhabism, but they could not control the end results of what these Wahhabis were doing in Central Asia or Afghanistan or in South Asia. Many of these Saudi-funded Wahhabi groups, which the Saudis considered to be under their control, actually then became al Qaeda, and became these extremist groups.

The other aspect of this was that Saudi Arabia was in competition with Iran. Iran was also aggressively exporting a revolutionary Islam, but the Shia interpretation of Islam. So the Saudis were justifying their Wahhabi exports, if you like, as a means to counter the influence of Shiaism in Iran.

What you then get is a dynamic between these very narrow regimes in Central Asia responding to the penetration by these religious fanatics from other parts of the Islamic world.

Exactly. After independence came in 1991, Central Asia was viewed by many of these groups, especially these groups who had just been fighting in Afghanistan, as kind of virgin territory. Here was a Muslim population, who, according to them, knew nothing about Islam. And now we can go in with our money and our influence and our particular sectarian creed, whatever it may be -- Wahhabism, Deobandism -- and we can try to convert these people to our creed, to our sect, to our beliefs, when Central Asia, essentially, is 90 percent Sunni Muslim. Central Asia has never been ridden with sectarian divisions within the Islamic fold. But what happens is that these groups go in, they create lobbies and support inside Central Asia. These groups are from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia; and the regime reaction, of course, is to crack down very viciously. But the regime does not put in place a process which offers people a political alternative -- democratization, economic reform, modernization. So the regime cracks down on these groups, but it also cracks down on everything else also. And so obviously what happens is, when no political freedoms are allowed, the dissidents go underground. When you are underground, you become radicalized, and because the major influences around Central Asia were all radical Islam, the groups then become Islamic radicals.

It was very interesting. I met in 1991 many of the secular democratic groups in Central Asia who wanted to go the way the Baltic republics were going, or like Russia was moving -- liberals, democrats, who wanted human rights, freedoms, parliament, free elections, etc. Nobody lasted more than a year. They were all crushed. So the whole tendency then for the opposition in Central Asia was to become Islamicized.

Next page: Fundamentalism versus Traditional Islam

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