Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 14

Central Asia Enters the Muslim World

by Aleksei Malashenko

The Islamic revival which began in the Soviet Union in the lastyears of perestroika, and continued even more energeticallyafter the collapse of the Soviet Union, was accompanied by a politicizationof Islam. Or, to be more precise, the restoration of a traditionalcharacteristic of Islam — its organic link with politics. InCentral Asia, there were two aspects to this phenomenon. First,the ruling circles began to use Islam as a factor of nationalconsolidation, including it as a component in the official ideology.And second, religious parties and movements began to emerge, includingthose of a fundamentalist character.

These developments promoted a rapprochement between the countriesof Central Asian and those of the Middle East, and strengthenedthe ties between the two sides’ religious and political movements.

The leaders of Central Asia, upon becoming presidents, took theiroaths on the Koran. The leaders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistanattend their mosques and observe religious rites. In meetingswith colleagues from the Middle East, they demonstrate their devotionto Islam. (This was most recently seen at the ceremonies honoringthe opening of the Tedzhen-Serakhs-Meshkhed railroad, which isstrategically significant for the whole region, in May 1996.)

Demonstrating their devotion to Islam, the Central Asian governmentssimultaneously try both to present themselves as the main guarantorsof the Islamic revival and to establish control over the activitiesof the Muslim clergy, reproducing the Soviet authorities’ attitudetoward the clergy almost verbatim.

The presidents of the Central Asian states have surrounded themselveswith "conformist" clergymen who support official policyand give it an Islamic interpretation. By doing this, the newgovernments, which emerged from deep within the Soviet communistparty apparatus, receive, as it were, the religious legitimacywhich is so important to them.

In Turkmenistan, under President Saparmurat Niyazov, a Gengeshi(Council) on religious affairs was created in 1994, headed byKazi Nasrulla Ibadella, who is loyal to the authorities. In Uzbekistan,President Islam Karimov removed the head of the local Muslim clergy,Mufti Muhammad-Sodik Muhammad-Yusef in 1993, as soon as his positiondiverged from the official line. The heads of the Muslim communitiesof Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Ratbek Nysanbaev and Kimsanbai Abdrakhmanov,cannot act without consulting with their respective presidents,Nursultan Nazarbaev and Askar Akaev.

The civil war in Tajikistan has divided Tajik Muslims. The mostauthoritative part of the clergy is in opposition with Akbar Turajonzoda,the former Kazi-Kolon (chief muslim judge) of Tajikistan, playingan influential role. But a circle of Muslim clergy has also formedaround the Tajik government, which has the respect of those whosupport the government.

Almost everywhere, the authorities have succeeded in establishingcontrol over the "half-amateurish" network of Islamiceducational institutions which were formed over the last fiveyears. At the same time, they are trying to close the religiouseducational institutions that they do not control. In Turkmenistan,they have almost succeeded. In Uzbekistan, a number of medresefounded by Mufti who were removed have been closed since the endof 1993, and just as in Soviet times, the medrese buildingshave been turned over to the use of government institutions. Decreeshave been issued prohibiting religious education unsanctionedby the government.

It is interesting that the greatest degree of freedom for independentreligious education has been preserved in Kyrgyzstan, the leastIslamized of the Central Asian republics, where the number ofIslamic schools not under the control of the government has evengrown in recent months.

Generally speaking, the attitude of Central Asia’s secular authoritiestowards Islam is distinguished by a certain dualism: on one hand,recognizing the inevitability of the religious revival, and beingMuslims themselves, Central Asian politicians strive to use itto serve the tasks of nation-building and ethnic consolidation.On the other hand, they fear that Islamic influence in societymay become excessive, which would promote the strengthening ofthe Islamic opposition — in some places, real, in other places,still potential–their most dangerous political rival and enemy.

The existence of an Islamic opposition is one of the importantfactors influencing the political situation in Central Asia. Thefirst Islamic political organizations appeared in Central Asiaat the beginning of the 1990s.

At the present time, Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party and theUzbek "Adolat" movement are the most influentialof these parties.

Much has already been written about the activities of the Tajikopposition. A significant number of experts are inclined to thinkthat economic principles and traditional inter-regional rivalriesare at the root of the Tajik conflict. Islam, according to theseexperts, is predominantly a way of expressing these contradictions.But the opposition’s appeal to Islam has a substantive dimensionas well. This is not simply a matter of inter-regional or inter-clandifferences, but an attempt to find an alternative to the formercommunist system. Of course, one must not exaggerate the influenceof the Islamic factor on the opposition movement. But it is noless important not to underestimate its significance, for Islamand the Islamic jihad are the ideological foundation ofthe Tajik armed resistance. The fact that the present CentralAsian leaders see the Tajik opposition movement as the main, ifnot the only, source of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism inthe region should serve as at least indirect evidence of this.

In Uzbekistan, in spite of its being constantly repressed by theruling circles, the "Adolat" movement, whichformally ceased to exist in 1992, has managed to preserve a highlevel of authority among the population. Over the last few years,"Adolat" and the religious leaders connectedwith it have been systematically subjected to government persecution.Moreover, beginning in 1994 repressions against clergy opposedto the government became widespread. In the summer of 1995, theimam of the Kokand mosque, Muhammad Rajab, and the imam of the"Djami" mosque in Andizhan, Abduvali Mirzoev, were arrested.Over the last two years, most of the most influential non-conformistclerical authorities in Uzbekistan were arrested. (Most of themoperated in the Fergana valley and were connected with "Adolat.")

In 1996, contrary to the predictions of the experts, the religiousopposition in Kyrgyzstan became more active. A number of Islamiccircles were formed in the cities of Jalal-abad, Batken, and Oshin the south of Kyrgyzstan, many of which began to demand to beregistered officially by the government as public movements. Inthe early 1990s, the Islamic radicals in Kyrgyzstan were predominantlyUzbeks, a people known for their piety, but now, a significantnumber of them are ethnic Kyrgyz and refugees from Tajikistan.

Even in Turkmenistan, despite the harsh totalitarian regime, asort of "parallel Islam" has been formed, and the Muslimclergy, particularly in rural areas, are beginning to expressdiscontent with the regime more and more frequently. Muslims arealso irritated with the cult of personality around Niyazov, which,in the opinion of opposition mullahs, is a manifestation of "paganism."They especially detest the government’s order to include wordsglorifying the president in the Muslim prayer.

The Islamic opposition is least conspicuous in Kazakhstan, wherethe "Alash" party has virtually ceased to exist,while the other opposition movements are purely secular. But eventhere, one cannot completely rule out the possibility of the revivalof the Islamic opposition if the general political situation getsworse.

The existence of an Islamic political opposition in the majorityof the Central Asian countries gives rise to a question: to whatextent can one say that these are Islamic fundamentalist movements?In spite of the fact that these countries previously belongedto the Soviet Union, one can call the ideology and practice ofthese local Islamic political movements fundamentalist.

In the first place, the idea of working out an alternative tothe Soviet and Western models of social development and a dissatisfactionwith the present state of things lie at the root of their theoryand practice. Second, like their brethren in the Middle East,they tend to idealize early Islam and view the rule of the ProphetMuhammad and the four righteous caliphs (7th century) as a modelfor the ideal social structure. Third, the theory and practiceof Central Asian Islamic radicals is influenced — albeit on alimited scale — by Middle Eastern fundamentalists. The figuresthey respect most are Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the MuslimBrotherhood and the leading ideologue of Islamic fundamentalism,the Egyptian Islamic activists Muhammad Kutb, Yusef al-Kardavi,the Pakistani Abu Aliyah Maududi, the Ayatollah Khomeini, etc.In any case, political Islam has occupied a definite niche inCentral Asian society, and its role will obviously increase withtime.

And one must equally admit that the significance of Islam in CentralAsian politics and society will, on the whole, tend to increase.Quite recently, this found its confirmation in connection withthe attempt of the Russian State Duma to declare the 1991 BelayaVezha agreements invalid and restore the USSR. The negative reactionof Central Asian politicians to this was accompanied, in part,by their mentioning that their countries were now part of theMuslim world.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert