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The Arc of Moderate Islam

Update 2020: this hope has fallen flat. Today Turkey has fallen to Islamist government bent on spreading terror across central Asia. This includes the accusation of arming Muslim terrorists in China. L. Loflin

By TOM ROSE The Jerusalem Post Feb. 20, 2003

Just as many in the West seemed to be resigning themselves to the inexorable force of militant Islam, six Muslim nations convened in the Republic of Kazakhstan last week to break bread with Jewish leaders from the United States

Israelis seemed transfixed last weekend by two televised images. In Europe, millions of demonstrators choked the streets of nearly every capital to protest US threats to disarm Saddam Hussein. And in Mecca, millions of Muslim pilgrims concluded the annual Haj with repeated chants of "Murder the Jews" and "Death to America."

These taken together, the average viewer would be forgiven for thinking that militant Islam is an unstoppable force - and that the West lacks the will to confront it.

But something else happened last weekend. Far away from international media centers, in the sleepy capital of the newly independent Muslim Republic of Kazakhstan, representatives of six Muslim nations, including three presidents and three foreign ministers, convened to condemn militant Islam, showcase their moderation and encourage greater interaction with the West.

To make their point, they invited a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to take part in the summit as full participants. Just as many in the West seemed resigned to the inexorable force of militant Islam, six Muslim states were breaking bread with Jewish leaders from the United States.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev hosted an event he called "The International Conference on Peace and Accord." Seated around Nazarbaev's long horseshoe table inside the grand and gilded "Golden Hall" state room were the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Afghanistan. With them sat Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the President's Conference and publisher of the New York Daily News, US News and World Report magazine, and former US senator Rudy Boschwitz.

What happened at the conference itself, said Zuckerman, "was far less significant than that it happened at all. That we are here at all is a hugely important statement from Muslims themselves that Muslim countries need not be militant, that Islam is diverse and that we in the West must disabuse ourselves of our belief that the only face of Islam is the one of 9/11."

Making the most passionate case for combatting terror was the one delegate whose country has suffered more than any other. Maroofi Muhammad Yahya, Afghanistan's foreign minister said "terror must be rooted out at its source and sadly that source has been my country. Terrorism has destroyed Afghanistan more than any other place. We know what intolerance means. We have a ruined country to show for it."

TOGETHER WITH Turkey, the cultural and linguistic parent for all the new states of the region (except Tajikistan which is Persian) the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan occupy a huge and increasingly important geostrategic position that Zuckerman calls the "Arc of Moderate Islam."

Overstating the region's size, potential wealth and positive global influence is not an easy thing to do. With a combined area of nearly six million square kilometers, the Central Asian states contain natural riches of immense value holding out the very real prospect of prosperity for their 130 million citizens.

Even though exploration has barely begun, the Muslim states of Central Asia are already known to contain nearly 15 percent of the world's identified oil reserves and up to a third of its natural gas. The nearly six million square kilometers of the Central Asian states constitute nearly three quarters the size of the Continental United States.

"It is vital that we in the West understand," added Zuckerman, "that the real conflict is not one between civilizations, but rather a conflict within the Muslim civilization.

"Eighty percent of the Muslim world," avers Zuckerman, "are non-Arabs. They live in countries like Indonesia where militant Islam is dangerous but marginal, in India where they are a minority in a democratic country, in North Africa where they are still living at the subsistence level and of course in Turkey and the Central Asian republics where they are enjoying a large measure of freedom and are reaching out a hand of friendship to the West."

Although far from Jeffersonian in their application of democracy, by any non-Western standard, excepting the megalomaniacal dictator of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov, the regimes of the Central Asian republics are moderate, open and tolerant.

Unlike their neighboring Muslim states of the Arab world, the Central Asian states have large non-Muslim minorities, their populations are largely secular, highly educated and recently freed from the Soviet yoke.

Some scholars believe that the experiences of the Central Asian republics are so unique and their peoples so different that setting the region up as an example of moderate Islam for the comparatively monolithic and deeply religious Arab world to follow is a prelude to disaster.

"Few people in the history of the world have ever been forced to become independent nations," says historian Martha Brill Olcott, "but these states are one of those cases."

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, independence was thrust upon the five former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

"The people of these states," says Olcott, "wanted civil liberties, but not necessarily freedom as citizens of new states. The Soviets drew arbitrary borders around peoples who never really thought of themselves as nations."

The so-called "Sovereign Republics of the Soviet Union" were named after the predominant local nationality inside hastily drawn borders. But as happened in other colonial domains, the borders rarely corresponded to the ethnic contiguities extant in the area being carved up.

Fearing problems from one large Kyrgyz nation, Stalin created two "Republics," Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, now both independent, yet bound together into an increasingly close alliance that some believe may some day lead to a merger.

The region is rife with unresolved border disputes. Each republic finds itself both home to significant non-affiliated minorities living within its borders as well as having large populations of its own ethnic group outside its borders. Amazingly, all but one of these disputes are peaceably managed.

The exception is the Azeri-Armenian conflict which has raged almost continuously in the Caucasus since independence, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and creating millions of refugees.

BUT WHAT threatens to divide these new nations, all of which, except for Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, border the land-locked Caspian Sea is precisely what binds them together - oil. Central Asian republics seem to realize that exploiting these riches demands cooperation rather than conflict.

The Caspian basin is the site of the greatest oil rush in history. Combined oil and natural gas value of the finds in the Central Asian republics is estimated at up to $10 trillion.

Yet none of the untold wealth can be exploited unless it is safely and cost effectively brought to market. This requires distribution routes of which there are precious few. The Russians have long claimed the Caspian not to be a sea at all, but rather an "inland lake" requiring exploitation and management to be shared in proportion to the length of a country's shoreline.

Before 9/11, this position used to be a point of contention in Russia's relations with the United States.

"Now," says Bush administration adviser (and Jerusalem Post director) Richard Perle, "it looks downright providential."

In Kazakhstan, nearly 45% of the country 16 million citizens are non-Muslim, including about 30,000 Jews. Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States points out that "Kazakhstan is the only Muslim country strongly encouraging Jewish life.

Right now, there are 20 synagogues being built across the country, paid for by the state. The government is helping Jewish schools, providing security to Jewish institutions and working to improve relations with Israel."

True or not, Kazakh President Nazarbaev, regularly admonished by human-rights groups for cracking down on political opponents, sees the development of strong ties with Israel and American Jewry as the key to better relations with Washington and faster access to the Western capital he needs to develop his country's natural resources.

"The faster he can deliver that wealth," says Perle, "the stronger a bulwark his country can become against militant Islam. If he thinks that the road to Washington goes through Jerusalem, all the better."

Indeed, in addition to extending his offer to negotiate the return of Israeli soldiers kidnapped and held by Hizbullah, Nazarbaev announced that he would allow coalition forces to use Kazakh airspace and facilities in a campaign to disarm Iraq. He made that announcement while on a highly publicized state visit to neighboring India, the purpose of which was to better coordinate the two nations' anti-terrorist campaigns.

"That these nations remain largely unknown," says Perle, "is both a failure and an opportunity. Not only are these states not pursuing sharia [Islamic law], they are leading the fight against it. The opportunity they present is that they will soon provide the living proof that moderate Islamic societies are able to realize real social and political development.

The failure is that we have not done our job helping these countries to deliver that example already. If we wait much longer, it may be too late."

The writer is Publisher and CEO of The Jerusalem Post