Thinking Creativity About Fighting Extremism

Speech delivered at the OSCE Workshop, Almaty, Kazakhstan

July 1-2, 2004

Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

I am very glad to have the opportunity to appear before you today and I am very grateful to the organizers of the conference, both here in Kazakhstan and in Europe, for the invitation to speak.

It is always a hard decision to settle on which language to deliver a speech in when one is bilingual and is speaking before a bilingual audience. But I have decided to deliver my paper in English, but I will happily answer in Russian all questions posed to me in Russian.



As I said a moment ago, it is indeed a privilege to be here and to have the honor to be the keynote speaker at such an important and timely roundtable.

I am especially pleased that this roundtable has been organized in Kazakhstan, a country which I have spent over half my life studying, and my work on Kazakhstan has been at the center of a career that has focused on the five states of Central Asia.

I’ve titled my talk “Thinking Creatively About Fighting Extremism” and I come to this topic as an independent analyst, as someone with little hesitation to speak her own mind, regardless of who it might offend, but as someone who is well aware that no one is immune from criticism.

In the last few years, we, in the West in general and in the U.S. in particular, have had to take a good hard look at the risks and threats posed to our societies and countries by extremism, and in the case of the U.S. the risk posed to our society by Islamic extremism.

This has given us in the U.S. a new appreciation of just how complex is the task of combating extremism. It has made us sensitive to the challenge of defining threat and seeking potential perpetrators while preserving the sanctity of the law. The protection of individual rights is not a simple task and no country has been able to do this in a fashion that has not occasioned criticism.

Everyone has certainly read about the gross violations of human rights and abuse of prisoners in U.S. hands in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. These abuses were revealed by “whistleblowers” within the U.S. military itself. Included in those abused were people who had been wrongly accused of membership in now illegal organizations. These violations have led to internal investigations and to changes in the U.S. legal environment, which now directly condemns the use of torture. The existence of these abuses should sensitize us all to how easy it is for citizens in the most “civilized” of countries to cross the lines of acceptability when the security of one’s nation is directly threatened.

In the wake of September 11, the U.S. congress at the request of the Bush administration passed a number of laws, most prominent of which was the Freedom Act, which sharply curtails rights of privacy of individuals and of their property, of their homes and of their personal information.

In short the U.S. government now has legally taken extralegal powers in the case of threats to the U.S. national security. This means that the rights of innocent people can and are being violated. This is a development that I find as troubling in the context of the U.S. as I would in the context of Central Asia.

This points up the importance of looking at these problems in a collective fashion, exploring common problems and possible common solutions, rather than one nation or a group of nations lecturing another.

My own research now is on the evolution of Islamic groups in Uzbekistan and the tension within the community of believers between those who advocate peaceful means of spreading Islam and those who advocate the use of force to create an Islamic state. As my research advances the nuances of the problem that such groups present have become clearer to me. And I have become increasingly convinced that this problem has to be addressed in a regional context. Although I do recognize that Islamic extremism is but one form of extremism, a point that I’ll return to later.


The Role of Kazakhstan in Fighting Extremism

I think that it is particularly appropriate that we are discussing the problem of fighting extremism in Kazakhstan and that the OSCE has chosen to hold the first of its regional roundtables on extremism here in Kazakhstan.

I believe that Kazakhstan is a good place to begin the discussion for several reasons:

1. The state of Kazakhstan is not under threat from extremist groups

2. There is no short term and probably no medium term threat to the security of the people of Kazakhstan from extremist groups, although such groups do occasionally threaten the sensibilities of the people of Kazakhstan.

3. The Kazakh government has made the commitment to use the rule of law to try and deal with such challenges such as protecting itself and its citizens from abuses by extremist groups. And in this regard it has begun the process of judicial reform.

4. The government of Kazakhstan also has the resources to alleviate the conditions of poverty that serve to attract people to radical groups.

5. Kazakhstan has a strong role to play in the region, both through serving as a leader in a rule-by-law approach to dealing with the problem of extremism and by pushing in the region for shared resolution to improved and regularized border controls, and pressing for more common measures more generally.


A Few General Observations

In seeking to combat extremism there has been a tendency to lump together four different types of allegedly extremist threats, and this has been especially true in Central Asia. By so doing the state has reduced its moral authority to deal with the most serious of these threats.

The governments of the region have defined four kinds of extremist threats:

1. The threat posed by armed groups who threaten the existence of the state and the safety of its citizens. Such threats would include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other similar armed terrorist groups.

2. Groups that have the potential or may have the potential to develop into organizations they could threaten the security of the states and its citizens. This includes radical groups, like Hizbut Tahrir, who have as their goal the revolutionary transformation of society.

3. Groups that threaten the security of individuals. This includes hate groups, that are anti-Semitic, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, and even some satanic sects.

4. The fourth group are organizations that threaten the public sensibility, such as fundamentalist Christian groups who have begun actively proselytizing in the region.

Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to treat all four types of threats in identical ways. By lumping all four together a government loses credibility when it claims the right of the state to assert primacy over the rights of the individual.

The state does invariably make such a claim, but such claims are best tolerated by its citizens when there is a clear threat to the security of the state.

This is clearly not the case with regard to the third and fourth category of threats, and the state requires strong defense when it occurs with regard to the second category.

With regard to the third and fourth categories of threats, the public is a better regulator of extremist behavior than the state, and most frequently it is individuals who appeal to the state for the mediation of their grievance. Such grievances are best dealt with through the legal elaboration of personal protections (and good mechanisms for their successful realization), rather than through the elaboration of what constitutes extremist behavior.

This is especially true with regard to the management of non-traditional religious groups, a point that I will return to.

The human rights community is also not without flaws, and here I am talking about the community broadly, and I am not criticizing any specific group. They too often lump together all types of religious and political prisoners with little attention to the actual guilt or innocence of the accused, or the differing nature of the crimes of that they have been accused. Too often they treat identically those who were arrested on changes that were local or idiosyncratic in origin from those charged with crimes that are clearly illegal in most developed democracies.

Similarly there is a tendency among some human rights groups working in the region to offer no prioritization of the human rights abuses committed by the state. Nor is there always a realistic approach to what it would take to eliminate these abuses, especially those committed by the legal system. The expectation of the human rights community is that abuses of the accused and the convicted could be ended by an expression of will on the part of the judicial and penal authorities. Too often the human rights community demonstrate little interest in the complexity and cost of engaging in successful legal reform, and expect the state to demonstrate the capacity to both fund and to engage in such reforms.

Some Concrete Advice for Combating Extremism in Central Asia

Comment One

Religious communities in Central Asia should be permitted to become self regulating and self governing. And in return for that they should be required to fund their activities by tithing within the community and without having access to foreign funds.

The religious communities in the region should be allowed to choose their own leaders, determine their own dogmas and doctrine, and run their own schools and electrical training academies.

This is particularly important with regard to the Islamic community which comes under the close supervision of the state committee on religion in each of the five Central Asian countries. This committee chooses the head of the Islamic community -the Mufti, and licenses as well as controls the curriculum of the country’s religions schools.

Much of this control is justified by the region’s governments as necessary to advance the cause of moderate Islam. But moderate Islam cannot be spread by secular figures. The Islamic community in Central Asia is dominated by moderate elements. While these moderate elements are not always secular figures, and often seek to moderate some of the practices of their secular societies, they oppose the program and the approach taken by radical and extreme Muslim groups.

These moderate Muslims will be far more successful in the struggle against religious extremists than the secular state will be, as they will be able to introduce discipline within the community of believers even during periods of economic hardship.

A Central Asian state that loses the support of its clerics is in deep trouble, as its legitimacy is threatened.

Comment Two

If the state introduces this greater element of religious freedom, the right of religious communities to self-government the state will be in a much stronger position to defend and prosecute those groups who are seeking to use force to overthrown the state.

It would also help isolate a group like Hizbur Tahrir, and make its registration a question of less moment, as proponents of radical Islam would be freer to practice their faith as they wish, and this would limit the appeal of any particular organized group.

Comment Three

The development and enforcement of laws that protect the human and civil rights of individuals are more important than laws on extremism and the existence of the former obviates the need for the latter.

What about the need to protect the citizens of these countries from the influence of those who seek to propagate non-traditional faiths? The whole problem of “non-traditional” faiths is very difficult for those from outside the territory of the former Soviet Union to understand.

In the first years of independence the argument was commonly made that because of the years of religions repression those religions which had existed for centuries in the region (Islam, Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism and Buddhism –and to this list Kazakhstan added the Catholic church), required special conditions for their renaissance, and they shouldn’t be expected to compete on equal terms with “foreign” or “non-traditional faiths,” largely Christian fundamentalist groups, who were proselytizing their religions in these newly independent states, and spending extremely large sums of money to do this.

But now nearly fifteen years have passed and it is no longer necessary to provide special protection for the formerly persecuted traditional faiths.

The citizens of Kazakhstan and those of Central Asia more generally should be free to join whatever religious community or sect or cults, they want. But religious groups should have to fund their activities without access to foreign funds.

Instead of seeking to restrict the formation of such non-traditional faiths, sects or cults, the state should concentrate on prosecuting the excessive behavior of individual members, practices that compromise the civil rights of non-members, such as the distribution of hate literature, the forcible conversion of children or spouses etc.

Comment Four

There is a great deal of controversy in Kazakhstan, and even more so in the other countries of the region on restrictions that are placed in the registration of informal or non-governmental groups.

A lengthy discussion on this problem would be beyond the framework of this conference. But the problem of registration of radical or non-traditional groups would be obviated, if public political space was expanded. This would mean liberalizing regulations limiting the right to hold public meetings, demonstrations and rent public halls. It would also mean liberalizing laws that define who or what constitutes a “juridical person” which would allow “informal” affinity groups to have bank accounts, hold meetings etc.

Comment Five

Finally, probably the most important step to protect human rights in a period of heightened fears about risks posed by extremist groups, would be to pursue comprehensive reform of the judicial and penal systems of Kazakhstan and the other states of Central Asia.

The definition of extremism will always remain a controversial one, leading to the arrest of innocent people, those arrested in error, or for affirming values that may be in violation of current law but which are expressions of conscience and are being advanced with no desire to harm the interests of other people.

But by pursuing judicial and penal reform we will help insure that such people are fairly treated, that their arrest, trial and possible incarnation are conducted in the context of the rule of law and without use of torture or other forms of cruel or unusual punishment.