How is Central Asia responding to the Israel-Hamas war? 


Israel’s counterattack on the Gaza Strip, in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack by the Islamic Resistance Movement (“Hamas”), has caused allegedly 20,000 deaths among Palestinian civilians. Every country in the Muslim world has seen popular rejection of Israel’s assault, and the Central Asian republics are no exception. 

The Central Asian people identify with their Muslim co-religionists and may also be upset to see Palestinians living under a security regime that reminds them of their experience under the Russian and Soviet empires. 

Protests in support of Palestinians were organized in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but they were peaceful and not well attended — and the authorities want to keep it that way. Also in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service found the Telegram and Instagram apps were used to provide information on boycotting Israeli products, though the effort misfired when it claimed the soap powder “Ariel” was named after former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.  

Central Asian governments are right to be alert to public disorder in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel. In Russia’s Dagestan, police had to respond when a crowd stormed an airport looking for passengers from Israel on an arriving flight. The region’s governments are speaking out in defense of the Palestinians caught between the Hamas and Israeli forces, providing financial aid and, at the United Nations (U.N.), voting in favor of support for the Palestinian people.   

The governments’ concerns are as follows: 

Public order. The administrations want to ensure citizens’ passions aren’t vented on the streets, and avoid outbreaks like the unrest in Kazakhstan in February 2022 following the de-control of prices for vehicle fuel. The violence was quelled by local police and military and Russian troops.  

Other outbreaks of violence happened in the Republic of Karakalpakstan in July 2022 in response to proposed changes to Uzbekistan’s constitution that would eliminate the republic’s secession rights; and in the Kyrgyz Republic, which experienced outbreaks of political violence in 2005, 2010 and 2020.  

Fundraising to benefit Palestinians. The governments will likely encourage monetary donations to legitimate charities that will aid Palestinians displaced by Israeli attacks. They can do this by insisting funds flow through the mosques, all government controlled, to ensure the funds are delivered to the deserving, and that the donors or intermediaries aren’t targeted by the United States or the European Union (EU) for money laundering or support to terrorism. 

Foreign fighters. Central Asian governments are sensitive to signs of radicalization because their citizens were among the foreign fighters in the Syrian Civil War and war in Iraq. Ensuring that the boys stay at home is a priority for the republics that are already concerned about identifying returning foreign fighters. Stopping the problem at the source will ensure no hiccups in relations with the U.S. and the EU, and Israel, which has embassies in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  

In addition, China would demand that local volunteers are stopped lest any eventually wind up fighting with the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement. In May 2023, the leaders of China and the republics met at the inaugural China-Central Asia summit, opening the door to increased Chinese investment in the region and giving the local governments a way to balance against the U.S., EU and Russia. If the republics can’t stop local volunteers to fight in Gaza in support of Hamas, Beijing must reevaluate its partners’ suitability as investment destinations. 

Increased influence of local Islamist groups. Local Islamist groups associated with al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took advantage of the Israeli attack on Gaza and took to social media to extol the Hamas fighters, callin for Muslims to engage in missionary activity, donate money to them (cryptocurrency preferred), and participate in jihad. Islamists were active on Telegram channels, which reach are popular in Central Asia, to spread audio and video messages, though at a cost, as local governments can easily monitor them.  

In response to the Islamists, local imams announced their support for the Palestinians but warned citizens about falling prey to propaganda. Abror Mukhtar Aliy, an outspoken member of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, encouraged youth not to go to Palestine to fight with Hamas. He declared that Uzbek Muslims should only follow fatwas of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, which previously urged Muslims not to get involved in the Russia-Ukraine war, as fighting would be against their Islamic faith as their only obligation was to defend their homeland.  

Visits to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah by Uzbeks have climbed in recent years. In the Islam Karimov era, only 5,000 Uzbeks made the annual Hajj; now the number is 15,000 to 17,000. Previously, only 2,000 performed Umrah every year; now the number is about 140,000. This trend will probably be replicated in all the republics as the Central Asian people may grow closer to their religion in response to the attack on the Palestinians.  

What is happening in Israel and Gaza is a tragedy, but there is opportunity here for many in Central Asia.  

Concerned Muslims can write, speak and donate funds to support the Palestinians.  

Governments can ensure their citizens’ donations to the Palestinians get in the right hands and that local financial institutions are not sanctioned by the West, continue to vote for Palestine at the U.N., and continue to consider Hamas as the resistance, while quietly hewing to international sanctions on the group. (Only the U.S., EU, Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom consider Hamas a terrorist organization.)  

The local Islamists will make a few bucks but hopefully will not get much accomplished, as the republics may respond with increased coordination among their security services and with their U.S. and European counterparts.   

Local imams can continue their mutually beneficial relationships with the governments as they try to regain influence lost to Soviet atheism and the hardline polities of former Uzbek president Islam Karimov. Governments will cooperate with the imams, all of whom are state officials, as the capitals are conscious of the region’s Islamic heritage but must also secure the modernizing, secular state structure. 

Source: The Hill