In Central Asia, Islamic State adds a new twist to a diplomatic puzzle

For Western countries which see the promotion of human rights, and religious freedom in particular, as part of their foreign policy, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia provide a perfect diplomatic dilemma. On one hand, the authoritarian regimes that hold sway over those countries are all guilty of religious persecution. On the other, the war in Afghanistan has given those states huge strategic importance as staging-posts for the international forces fighting the Taliban. The "Stans" have also become arenas for geopolitical competition between Russia and the West; why, some may ask, should we hobble ourselves by bringing human rights into the balance when Russia certainly won't?

All that is part of the background to some recent announcements by the American agencies which are mandated to monitor religious freedom. Last month, the State Department said it was adding Tajikistan to the list of egregious violators of religious freedom, defined as "countries of particular concern (CPC)". Repression in that country has taken a new twist since last year, with the ban on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and the arrest and maltreatment of hundreds of its activists, including prominent politicians and scholars who oppose restrictions on beards, pilgrimage and children attending services at mosques. The department's move means that three of the ten countries now designated as CPCs are in Central Asia. Turkmenistan was added in 2014 and Uzbekistan has been on the list for a decade. Both those countries eminently deserve the label, given the way they repress all but officially approved forms of religion, including groups which are manifestly peaceful. As many as 12,000 Muslims may be imprisoned in Uzbekistan for their religious beliefs.

But at the same time as it was calling out Tajikistan, the State Department specified that the three listed Central Asian republics, along with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, would be exempt from any sanctions under America's religious-freedom legislation. The administration can grant such a waiver on grounds of national security. All this drew a swift reaction from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an advisory body nominated by Congress and the administration. When it published its annual report on religious persecution a few days ago, the USCIRF urged the administration to use the full "tool-box" of sanctions against the Central Asian violators. In particular, the commission has suggested, America should seek a binding agreement with Uzbekistan on a programme which could get the country off the CPC list; if its steps were not followed, the waiver on sanctions should be lifted.

In cold light of day, the American administration seems unlikely to forfeit geopolitical prizes for the sake of its ideals concerning religious freedom. Late last year, when John Kerry, the secretary of state, toured the region and took high-profile meetings with his Central Asian counterparts, publicly the emphasis was entirely on economic and security partnerships (though American officials insisted that human-rights concerns were being raised behind closed doors).

But even for the most hard-headed of politicians and diplomats, a new factor has entered the calculus: the potential appeal that Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist forces might have to the Muslim citizens of Central Asia. Harsh religious repression may exacerbate that problem, because it lends credibility to the claim of IS that Muslims are not free to practise their faith. This propaganda has had some resonance, though its tone and effectiveness varies from country to country, according to some revealing research done by Noah Tucker, an analyst of Central Asia and managing director of, a news service.

Perhaps 500 citizens of Uzbekistan have gone to fight in Iraq or Syria, mostly for jihadist groups other than IS, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. By contrast IS has managed to recruit hundreds of people from Tajikistan, and their existence at the frontlines (as well as the fact that some have been killed) is well-known back home. Citizens of Kazakhstan have also appeared in IS propaganda, though not with the aim of recruiting their countrymen: Kazakh women and children have been featured in IS videos to make the point that the movement is multi-ethnic and multi-generational.

Repressive as it is, the Uzbekistani government has shown a glimmer of understanding of the notion that in such times, curbing religion can be counter-productive. Last year, it released a popular Muslim personality, Hayrullo Hamidov, after he had served five years of a six-year sentence. With his combination of sports reporting and light Islamic teaching, Mr Hamidov is probably better at warding ordinary people away from IS than any heavy-handed government spin doctor could be.

It's a fair bet that American diplomats are pondering this point too. In future, when visitors from Washington lecture their Central Asian counterparts on human rights, they won't have to rely on abstract arguments about the merits of democracy and free speech. In the age of IS, there is an extremely pragmatic argument for granting religious freedom—and denying terrorists an easy propaganda gain.