© Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF)
There are diverse and contradictory viewpoints on the concept of 'extremism' and it is hard to explain what it means and is comprised of. At the current time, we are facing a distorted reality that links extremism to Islamism and indeed, pictures the former as an inseparable element of Islam. However, studying the history of religions and the history of mankind, we realize that extremism has existed from day one and not been limited to merely one religion. Many non/anti-religion oriented intellectual schools of thought have had extremism within their tenets.
While extremism is as ubiquitous in all religions and societies, we only focus on Islamic extremism in Central Asia in this paper. When discussing Islamic extremism, we face common concepts including political Islam, fundamentalism, principalism, jihadism, militant Islam, radical Islam, to name but a few, each of which misused with each other.
The central focus of this article is not to define and explain these terms and concepts, but it tries to identify indicators for distinguishing between extremism and Islamism. In that regard, the paper will argue that Islam is inextricably linked to the civilization and history of the Central Asian nations, therefore it is a must to differentiate their inclination towards Islam from the phenomenon of extremism which is a misuse of religious beliefs of the Central Asian peoples. Therefore, to differentiate, we should be able to recognize the difference between the indicators of Islamism and core features of extremism.
The Islamic movements of Central Asia not only are not apart from entire Islamic movements of the Muslim world but also there exist a hidden or apparent intellectual, cultural and communicational relationship exists between the Central Asian and other Islamic movements. Of course, it should be noted that this does not necessarily mean an organizational relationship, but it may refer to a kind of association in which the principles of the Islamic movements of Central Asia are inspired by Islamic movements of the Muslim world. The vast majority of researchers and investigators and those who are familiar with Islamic movements believe that all Islamic movements and organizations are rooted in Islamic Awakening Movement (IAM) established by Sayyad Jamal ad-Din Asadābādī al-Afghānī (1898-1931) and Muhammed Abduh (1849-1905). Based on the core tenants of the IAM, fighting against colonialism -which had dominated Islamic lands- was the only way to save the Muslims. Therefore, they called for Muslims to unite and put aside their differences and they believed that the best way to fight was returning to Islam and reviving Islamic traditions and values in the lives of all the Muslims.
The IAM was initially an enlightenment movement against the objectives of the colonialists. However, in the course of its development it established movements that later on became active in the form of various populations, organizations and parties in all the Islamic territories from Indonesia to the Middle East, to Egypt, to Morocco, with different policies in political and social spheres. Today, in spite of all their differences and conflicts, no Islamic movement can be found that has not been inspired by Sayed Jamal and Muhammad Abduh’s awakening movement in developing its slogans, programs, attitudes and objectives.
The followers of the IAM have perused the idea of the necessity for Muslims to return to basic principles in the context of different intellectual frameworks. They have used different discourses during the course of their development. These followers have been divided into multiple groups and organizations with their own specific policies and agendas. Different categorizations have been presented to study this vast set of movements. Some, for example, have categorized them in two important Islamic branches of Shiite and Sunni. Some others have categorized the Islamic movement based on their fighting policies and call them radical, principlist or conservative. Others put all Islamic movements into two categories of political Islam and fundamental Islam.
Another classification in study of Islamic movements, organizations and groups belonging to these movements is based on how they approach their reason to return to Islam. This is a delicate and sensitive argument. Of course a lot of Islamic topics, including Kalam (the science of discourse), have been studied since the emergence of Islam with different approaches and discourses. Islamic Kalam has been presented in discussions of Mu'tazila, Ash'ari, determinism, and indeterminism. However, despite their similarity in expressing their ideas, the final results were inconsistent and contradictory.
The return to Islam is also a category similar to Kalam discussions. One narrative believes that the reason to return to Islam is to solve the problems of Islamic communities and the other one holds the idea that the problems of the Islamic communities can be solved by returning to Islam. Despite the vast similarity of these two narratives, they have actually formed two broad and widespread spectrums in the Islamic world in which extremism can be rooted.
In order to continue our discussion we try to think in a non-restrictive way and call the followers of the first narrative ‘Islamists’ and dub the followers of the second one as ‘extremists’. We should try to investigate their theoretical and intellectual differences and the practical impacts of their thoughts on political and social spheres.
The followers of both narratives can be found in Sunni and Shiite communities. Islamism with a moderate approach exists among both Shiites and Sunnis and therefore it can be argued that extremism – the Salafi movement is an example – can be found in both the Shiite communities (such as the Akhbaris) and the Sunni communities (such as the Wahhabis).
The key fundamental distinction between the first narrative (Islamism) and the second one (extremism) lies in recognition of the power of the human intellect in the face of human miseries and problems and the search for finding solutions in religious teachings (Ijtihad), while the latter argues Islamic beliefs must be extracted from Quran and Sunnah, the same way of the era of Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. According to extremist narratives, religious authorities are not allowed to consider reasons other than those found in Quran. In this narrative, styles of reasoning (philosophy and logic) cannot be drawn on as a source to understand the Islamic beliefs.
The roots of legitimating violence and turning it into terrorist acts can be found in this interpretation. In other words, when the power of human intellect to find the truth is disqualified, violence becomes the only way to prove the truth. The fight against terrorism is the same as the fight against violent acting. We have to accept that confronting terrorism without opposing extremist ideas is impossible, that is, terrorism and extremism share the same origins.
Fighting against extremism cannot be successful unless one possesses a thorough understanding of its roots and tenets and compares the extremists’ thoughts with those of Islamists (moderate Muslims).
Disparities between Tenets of Islamism and Extremism
Iranian-Russian Cooperation against Extremism in Central Asia
|Reason behind return to Islam is to solve the problems of all the Muslim communities.
||Return to Islam leads to solve all the problems of Muslim communities.
|Islamic Communities have distinct problems. Their Muslims have the responsibility to find solutions based on Islamic doctrines through reason, expediency, and individual and collective wisdom.
||Muslims have only one problem and that is failure to carry out Divine commandments. Muslims must to unquestioningly fulfil the commandments to solve all the Islamic communities’ challenges.
|Depending on history, culture and societal structures, politics and governments might differ in the communities. In this regard, Islam does not recommend unique governance for all communities and only instructs Muslims to govern based on justice and fairness.
||The only pattern Islam recommends for governance is the one which has a caliph at the helm. Caliphate has superiority over other principles of governance.
|The responsibility of Muslims is to establish peace, justice and fairness with a mandate to observe the rights of non-Muslims in the Islamic community.
||The responsibility of Muslims is to revive caliphate for the sake of executing the religious commandments.
|Muslims have full say in governance and it is a must to modern communities.
||The Caliph and obeying his decrees is vital to the community and Muslims’ voice has nothing to do with governance.
|Regardless of its core (either secular or religious), any state establishes itself within specific boundaries.
||Islamic state has no lands and borders. Its lands and borders lie in a place where the decrees of Islamic state are enforced.
|Loyalty of citizens to their countries is identified.
||Loyalty should be aimed for the Islamic state not the country.
|Observing the rules of communities is part of everyday life in the contemporary world.
||No rules are credible except those of the Islamic state.
|Different countries have different Constitutions and each and every Muslim living there and holding citizenship rights should respect the national law.
||No law but the religious law is identified and Constitutions are not obligatory to Muslims. They should fight for Constitution change and if unsuccessful, they need to leave for another country.
|Defence of the country is the duty of every Muslims.
||The duty of Muslims is to do jihad for executing the Divine commandments and expanding the Islamic state territories.
|The responsibility of Muslims is to promulgate the Religion (the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice).
||The responsibility of Muslims is to carry out commandments in community.
|Respect of other’s opinions in the Islamic communities is identified.
||There is only one true belief and those other than the beliefs of the Caliph and his followers are considered an apostasy.
|Democracy is a human achievement for good governance in different communities.
||In Islamic governance, democracy is against the decrees of Islam.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian countries, various political and social movements emerged in this region, some of which had their roots in the history and culture of these communities and some other were influenced by regional and global trends. Islamic movements, with different names, objectives, strategies, and approaches, are among the most important socio-political movements arising from the collapse of the former Soviet Union in Central Asian countries.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) can be mentioned as the major Islamic movements in Central Asia. All these movements are currently called “extremist” and “terrorist” by regional states and there is a violent fight against them under way. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was formed following a general peace agreement signed in 1997 between the Tajik government and various opposition groups and put an end to the civil war in this country. This party, which has always had a representative in Tajikistan’s parliament, was accused of participating in the uprising of General Nazarov, the then Deputy of Defence Minister, by the government in 2015 and prosecuted as an extremist and terrorist party.
Without addressing the internal affairs and political structure of countries and the claims raised in this regard, it is merely emphasized here that extremism is definitely a serious threat to countries in this region and their neighbors. The existing experiences and results of extremist actions in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq acknowledge that regional strategies should be developed for countering extremism and all countries in this region should cooperate with each other and contribute to the furtherance of these strategies. However, this cooperation should be based on clear, precise, and measurable policies.
According to the above table, it can be stated that differentiation between Islamism and extremism, as the main assumption of the present paper, emphasizes that the first and most important step in the fight against extremism is the necessity of separating it from Islam and Islamism. As long as no distinction can be drawn between Islamists and extremists and their thoughts are not clearly separated, it is not possible to fight against extremism, because it is the strategy of extremists to introduce themselves with an Islamic appearance through fungal life and feeding on the body of Islam. Therefore, the first strategic step in the fight against extremism is to deal with their strategy and make a distinction between extremism and Islamism.
Since extremism in Central Asia is considered a threat to interests of Russia and Iran, fighting against extremism in this region is an area of common interest between these two countries. This cooperation can be started with primary and intellectual collaboration and then promoted to higher levels. The point in cooperation between Iran and Russia in the fight against extremism in Central Asia is that the hard security issues are not raised first and the security definitions of such organizations and parties provided by intelligence and security agencies in the region are not considered the criteria for action, but these movements and their organizational structures are recognized with an analytic approach and a distinction is made between extremism and Islamism. In this approach, moderate Islamism, which has been formed in the cultural and historical context of countries in Central Asia, is considered the most important element of stability and tranquility in the region and also the main power opposing extremism.
This approach indicates that politicization and securitization of political opposition and dealing with them under the title of fight against extremism not only will not be a successful strategy but also itself can exacerbate extremism. Thus, it is necessary to understand the conditions of time and, by recognizing the natural rights of people, including religious freedom, allow Muslim people of these countries enjoy their rights in performing religious practices and also isolate extremists by strengthening moderate movements.
Another important point that should be noted here is that most Muslims in Iran, Russia, and Central Asian countries follow two different branches of Islam (Sunni and Shia) and this difference in religion must be addressed in the quality of cooperation between Iran and Russia against extremism. Failure in taking this issue into account can be problematic for both sides and leads to different interpretations of the reality of the fight against extremism. For instance, it may be wrongly advertised that Shias allied with Orthodox Christians against Sunnis, which is detrimental to both sides. Hence, the purpose of this cooperation against extremism should be clearly explained to all and actions should be based on complete accuracy and enlightenment. That is why the theoretical aspects of Iran-Russia cooperation in the fight against terrorism are emphasized in the first step.
One of the noteworthy measures taken in this regard in Russia is the formation of the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group in 2006 initiated by the late Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian Prime Minister, and Mintimer Shaimiev, the then President of Tatarstan. Concurrent with Russia’s accession to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as an observer member, activities of this group began which included various meetings in Moscow, Kazan, Istanbul, Jeddah, and Kuwait attended by 30 prominent religious scholars, political figures, and journalists from various Islamic countries, namely Iran, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Started with the opening message of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, different topics related to the Muslim world and Russia have been discussed in these meetings.
Meetings of this group stopped following the events in the Arab world known as “Arab Spring”. However, in 2014, President Putin decided to revive the group and appointed Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of Tatarstan, as its head. In the new round of activities, two meetings were held by this group on extremism attended by journalists and the media professionals from Islamic countries.
As one of the participants in both meetings, in addition to acknowledging the importance and necessity of such meetings, I believe that more serious measures should be taken in the fight against terrorism. The above-mentioned meetings were mostly focused on the furtherance of general and media policy of Russia in the Muslim world, the threat of extremism is to Russia in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the fact that these areas are closer to Russia than to the Middle East. Hence, Arab countries cannot help Russia in this regard and thus the Islamic Republic of Iran could be Russia’s main strategic ally in the fight against extremism.
Extremism is a serious threat to all of Central Asia and its neighboring states, namely Iran and Russia. In this regard, the fight against the threat of extremism is of utmost importance to the security of regional states namely Iran and Russia. However, before action is taken against extremism, it is necessary to draw a distinction between extremism and Islamism, due to the fact that extremist groups assume and propagate the idea that their principles are drawn from Islam. Therefore, if we cannot distinguish extremism from Islamism, the battle against extremism would be in vain. Simultaneously, as some Central Asian authorities label the political opposition ‘extremists’, it is essential to put this controversial approach into consideration. Given Iranian-Russian common interests and understanding of threats in Central Asia, a sort of actions, and soft attempts in particular, to fight against extremism in Central Asia is recommended to both Iranian and Russian authorities.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Rasoul Mousavi, an Iranian distinguished career diplomat, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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