Islam has been the dominant religion in Central Asia for nearly 1,300 years. For about three-quarters of the last 100 years, Islam — and religion in general — was essentially outlawed in Central Asia, since the region was part of the Soviet Union.
Of course Islam never totally vanished under Soviet rule, but its influence was greatly reduced. The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded an awakening of the desire of Central Asia’s Muslim peoples to reacquaint themselves with their religion and rejoin the greater Islamic world.
This desire has been interpreted differently by those outside the region, and there are some who see Central Asia as a region at risk of becoming something of a second Afghanistan and a land where Muslims become radicalized. It’s a concern heightened by the knowledge that Central Asia is the northern frontier of the Islamic world, meaning Central Asia’s problems don’t spill over into a neighboring Muslim country, they spill into Russia and China.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service hosted a roundtable (audio below) to discuss the credibility of an Islamic threat in Central Asia, the chances of the region moving from secular governments to Islamic governments or the possible relationships between secular governments and the region’s traditional religion, and the extent to which it is possible to foster radical religious sentiment in a region still reacquainting itself with Islam after decades of separation.
Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, moderated the panel. Participating in the discussion were: Dr. John Heathershaw of Exeter University in England; Dr. Emil Juraev of the American University in Bishkek; RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service director Alisher Sidikov; and, of course, I said some things.
Sidikov recalled that when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic, it was impossible to openly include the usually obligatory Islamic rituals in family events such as births, weddings, funerals, and memorial services. Such restrictions left many Muslims in Central Asia disconnected from their religion when the Soviet Union collapsed.
But they were anxious to rediscover Islam once they had an opportunity.
However, living under communism for more than seven decades had changed Central Asia’s Muslims. Even today, they are different from other Muslims.
Heathershaw noted that after 1941, Soviet policy toward religion eased somewhat but authorities still tried to keep tight control over religion and redirect its focus. In the case of Muslims in Central Asia, this involved subordinating connections to the religion. “In the Soviet case, [it was about] attaching religious identity to national identity — so religious identity drops, secondary to national identity. To be Kyrgyz is to be Muslim. To be Tajik is to be Muslim.”
Knowledge of the religion declined over decades of Soviet rule. And while this was true for the population in general, Juraev pointed out it was most noticeable among officials, particularly heads of state. Most officials in the early years after independence had formerly worked for the Soviet-era government. Suddenly they found themselves attending mosque and meeting publicly with Islamic clerics.
In one of the most dramatic cases, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, some four months removed from being first secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, went to the eastern city of Namangan to confront tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters. Many of the demonstrators were from Islamic groups, sparked into protest by the recent dismissals of local clerics.
Sidikov said Karimov was absolutely unprepared for that meeting with Islamic leaders in December 1991. Karimov wound up receiving a lecture on good governance from protest leaders, including Tohir Yuldash, then the leader of the local Adolat Islamic group but destined to become a leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants.
Publicly, Karimov vowed to make concessions to the protesters; but he never fulfilled any of the promises he made in Namangan and afterward came to see pious Muslims as a threat to his regime.
To varying degrees, all of Central Asia’s leaders harbor this suspicion of deeply pious Muslims.
Heathershaw said such a view of Islam prejudices authorities’ perceptions of a natural process. “Islamization and radicalization…are two separate things, and it’s really important…not to confuse the two. There are forms of Islamization that can stay squarely within secularism.”
Heathershaw said Central Asia currently has a society where Islamization of the population is taking place, and at the moment that poses little, if any, threat to the secular governments of the region. “In Central Asia, if we’re talking about political articulations against the state, which is challenging the authority of the secular state, that is rare compared with other Muslim majority regions, and it’s not at all clear that radicalization drops out of, or follows directly from, Islamization.”
That is not to say there is no radical sentiment in Central Asia. Undeniably there are some 1,000 Central Asians fighting in the ranks of jihadist groups, notably the Islamic State group, in Syria and Iraq. (Central Asia’s population is around 65 million.) Reports continue to emerge of smalls groups of Central Asians arriving in Syria and Iraq.
There could also be up to several thousand Central Asians in jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but many of these have been away from their homeland for years now, forgetting, at least for now, their original goal of toppling Central Asian governments while they focus on their new jihads.
Arguably, Central Asia’s governments continue to provide the best recruiting incentives for potential Islamic radicals. Poor living standards, unemployment (remember: migrant laborers are coming home from sanctions-hit Russia), corruption, and injustice are issues any antigovernment group could tap into.
But the Central Asian governments’ often clumsy attempts to control Islam in their countries target specifically Muslims. The tactic is as old as Islam in Central Asia. Khans and emirs tried to keep a very close and very public connection to Islam, understanding it was the greatest unifier for social discontent. Of course, the khans and emirs were schooled in Islam from childhood and usually did have strong bonds to the religion, something Central Asia’s current leaders cannot claim.