Pakistan's recent slide toward political instability could have important repercussions for Central Asian states. One of Pakistan's most fervent Islamic groups, Tablighi Jamaat, also happens to be among the most active in proselytizing in Central Asia.
In Islamabad, the military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf is coming under increasing pressure from Islamic political forces inside the country from one side, and the Bush administration from the other. Accordingly, the Pakistani president's room for maneuver seems to be shrinking. Domestically, a government crackdown on religious extremist groups, underscored by security force's attack on a radical mosque in Islamabad in early July, seems to have accelerated the erosion of Musharraf's support base.
On the foreign front, Musharraf is being harangued for not doing enough to contain Islamic militancy. US officials have declared that terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is alive and in hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas, near the border with Afghanistan, and have dropped strong hints that Washington is considering a military raid inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan has angrily denied that bin Laden is using the country as a safe haven.
Lost amid the deterioration of security conditions is the spreading influence of the Tablighi Jamaat in Central Asia. Shamsibek Zakirov, an advisor of the head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs under the Kyrgyz Government stated that "it is not a secret that Islamic radicals from Pakistan are actively working among the Muslims in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. The Tablighi Jamaat is the most active organization of all foreign Islamic missionaries."
The Tablighi Jamaat, which roughly translates as the Society for Spreading Faith, was founded in the late 1920's in India. It was originally intended as a vehicle for the promoting a revival of Islamic piety, and, as such, it placed a heavy emphasis on missionary activity among its membership. The group has traditionally eschewed politics and concentrated its efforts on reinforcing the faith of Muslims, not trying to win converts. Today, it is based in the Pakistani city of Raiwind, near Lahore.
The first Tablighi missionaries visited Central Asia not long after the Soviet collapse in 1991. At first they targeted what were perceived as the least pious areas of Central Asia northern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Over time, Tablighi missionaries expanded their activities to include every state in the region, except Turkmenistan. The Ferghana Valley is now a particular object of missionary attention. Virtually all of the Tablighi members active in Central Asia are locals who have undergone training in either India or Pakistan.
The composition of the Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan differs markedly from those of other Islamic organizations operating in the region, especially the underground radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Most members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Uzbeks, whereas most Tablighi members are Kyrgyz, according to Shamsibek Zakirov, an official with the State Agency for Religious Affairs.
While Zakirov admitted that all available evidence indicates that the Tablighi Jamaat continues to adhere to an apolitical stance, he nevertheless adopted a skeptical stance toward the group. "Their views are, to put it mildly, not typical to modern Kyrgyzstan," Zakirov said. "Many Tablighi members are uneducated and very fanatical. I don't think that importing the Pakistani version of Islam will promote the stabilization of Central Asia."
Ibragim Nurmuhamedov, a resident of Osh and a Tablighi missionary, said members of the group are instructed to discuss only religious topics, and are expected to do a fair amount of traveling. "In the evenings, we gather in the Al-Biruni mosque in Osh. We discuss different philosophical topics. We travel for three days every month. During these [trips], we preach Islam among the population. Each Tablighi member has to experience this sort of traveling," Nurmuhamedov said. "We avoid politics and discuss only general theological topics. "
"Members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir tried to establish contact with us. But we politely explained to them that we do not interfere in politics," Nurmuhamedov continued.
Sainbadji Kalykov, a top cleric in Osh oblast, estimated that there are about 10,000 Tablighi members in active in Kyrgyzstan today. "I don't see anything negative in their activities," Kalykov said. "The only thing that provokes misunderstandings occasionally and threatens people is the outward appearance of Tablighi members. They look very exotic to Central Asian Muslims because of their long beards and traditional Pakistani clothes with turban on their heads".
Political and religious leaders in other Central Asian states are not as tolerant toward the Tablighi Jamaat as those in Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has classified the group as an "extremist organization." Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, Tablighi members are frequently subjected to fines and other official sanctions for their illegal preaching, and authorities sometimes resort to force to break up their meetings. "Although Tablighi members claim that they converse only about God, we are not certain that they are not agitating our youth to go to Iraq and Pakistan for battle," said a Kazakhstani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Tablighi do not appear to be very active in Tajikistan. "There are very few Tablighi members in our country and they maintain a very low level of activity," said Muhiddin Kabiri, head of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistani. "Authorities are quite suspicious of their activity and try to keep them under control."
Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for EurasiaNet