Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 20

Central Asia’s political leaders struggle to control Islamic influence

by David Nissman

In early July the Kyrgyz National Security Council met to discusswhat they called the "Muslim offensive" in the southof the republic, near Osh. Members of the Council claimed to be"alarmed" by the alleged existence of mullahs with criminalrecords actively propagating Islam in the region, and argued forthe reestablishment of the Committee on Religious Affairs in orderto actively monitor Muslim actions in the Osh region. In essence,it was ultimately being suggested that Islam be placed under controlssimilar to those in Turkmenistan.

The Osh region is situated at the eastern end of the FerghanaValley and is the area where most of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks reside.The Uzbeks, who total some 13 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population,form a large majority in Osh. Tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzremain high, if not as high as in 1989-1990 when the Osh regionwas the scene of bloody ethnic clashed between these two Turkicpeoples.

Whether the Kyrgyz National Security Council–and by implicationthe government–feared a resumption of active ethnic rivalry between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the spread of a form of Islamic fundamentalismsimilar to that which contributed to the present Tajik conflict,or some other form of active Muslim political action, is unclear.The mention of mullahs with "criminal records," however,is hardly unusual. Throughout the Soviet period, the Muslim clergy,especially the unofficial mullahs — or pseudomullahs, as theywere called then– were often imprisoned on such charges as "parasitism"or other forms of anti-Soviet activity.

What is clear is that various aspects of the manipulation ofIslam for political purposes are coming under closer scrutinyby the governments of the newly independent Muslim nations ofthe former Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan: Control Over Islam

Turkmenistan’s government has declared itself to be a secularsociety, and church and state are separated, as in the other Muslimrepublics of Central Asian and the Caucasus. During the Sovietperiod, official Muslim affairs were administered by the SpiritualAdministration for Muslims of Central Asia in Tashkent. At thattime, the Spiritual Administration appointed a kazi to superviseIslam in each republic. With the collapse of the USSR, the Muslimspiritual administrations collapsed also. This left a vacuum inreligious management which the individual republics hastened tofill. On June 1, 1992, the Kazi Hajji Nasrullah ibn Ibadullaofficially registered the Kaziate of Turkmenistan with the TurkmenMinistry of Justice. The condition under which it was registeredwas that Ministry of Justice officials "maintain a workingrelationship with the religious representatives."

According to Article Six of Turkmenistan’s Constitution religiouspractices are free, but private religious instruction is forbidden.Presumably, this element of religious belief is monitored by theMinistry of Justice in collaboration with its network of religiousinformers. There are also other conditions placed on the practiceof religion. Under Article Three, which guarantees freedom ofconscience, it is stated that "exercising the freedom toprofess a religion or other convictions is subject only to thoserestrictions which are necessary to safeguard public safety andorder, life and health of the people, and morale…" Thevagueness of the wording permits the government enormous latitudein interpreting the concepts of public safety and order, morale,etc.

Turkmenistan also grappled with integrating the illegal mollasinto the religious system. Most of the so-called "pseudo-mullahs"also had "criminal records" for various forms of "parasitism"and anti-Soviet actions (i.e., preaching Islam). Turkmenistan,like Uzbekistan, decided to make them all official and let thereligious authorities decide who was able and who was not. Inthis context, Khezretguly Khan, chief Imam of Ashgabat, was interviewedby the Turkmen daily press more than a year after the passageof Turkmenistan’s religious regulations system. Citing a hadith(an illuminating moral precept attributed to the Prophet Muhammad),he said the situation of the unofficial mullahs was the same asthe distinction one could draw between good hajjis (those whohad made the pilgrimage to Mecca) and bad hajjis, whom he called"Satan-hajjis." He said that "Allah the Almightyforgives the misdeeds of the true hajjis;" but, he added,"there are also those who, making the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba,drink spirits, fornicate, change money, steal, betray others andare informers. After they return from the pilgrimage, they donot increase their evil actions from earlier, but they do notdiminish them. As for these, they are called hajji-satans or satan’shajji" and will spend their afterlife in Hell [Watan (Ashgabat),15 July 1993].

If a religious official complies with the regulations, namely,informs the Ministry of Justice about those among his flock whomay be taking private religious instruction or worse, is he notthe same as a Satan-hajji? Has the mullah not violated one ofMuhammad the Prophet’s precepts? To put it another way, are theclergy in Turkmenistan really informing on their congregationsto the authorities? If so, it would be notable because they refusedto do so under the Soviets. And if they are not, as we suspect,reporting to the authorities, then why would Kyrgyzstan want tofollow the Turkmen precedent with regard to state control overIslam?

Legacy Reinterpreted

Islam during the Soviet period did not undergo the same processesas Islam in other parts of the Muslim world. Severe restrictionshad been placed on Islam as a religion beginning in the late 1920s,and Islam as an institution of laws regulating various aspectsof social and community life ceased to exist in any officiallyrecognized manner. Yet Islam was not secularized, it was merelydriven underground and did not begin to emerge until the late1980s when the Soviet government adopted a more permissive attitudetowards its practices. In the pre-Soviet period, Islamic law ruledevery aspect of life in Central Asia and, to a lesser extent,the Muslim Caucasus.

When Islam was driven underground, it assumed many local characteristics.In some regions, this process was more intense than in others:in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, for example, illicit shrines tolocal Muslim saints abounded and a new, illegal class of religiousfunctionaries became their guardians. Religious brotherhoods (thetariqat) and orders continued their rites and traditions and oftenescaped the eyes of the various security organs whose goal itwas to stamp out these movements. In other regions, Kazakhstanand Kyrgyzstan, Islamic influences and traditions were not asstrong as in the agricultural, sedentary valleys of the Transoxus.When the Soviet Islamic establishment was dismantled and the newlyindependent states emerged on their own, the Islam they inheritedwas an amalgam of local traditions and classical Islam as practicedin the nineteenth century. New legislatures, without experiencein democratic action or in religious thought, suddenly had tograpple with the legacy of an Islam that had rarely seen the lightof day. Essentially, untried governments had to seek to understanda poorly understood system of beliefs–obscure at least to thelawmakers, many of whom are former Communists, some democrats,and almost all at least nominally secular. The lawmakers adopteda basic principle of democratic societies, namely, the separationof church and state. In Islamic thinking, of course, this separationdoes not exist.

In Central Asia, all the new republics banned the activitiesof the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) which was felt to have establishedsignificant beachheads in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,and had the potential to do so in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistanas well. In Azerbaijan, however, where the IRP was not felt tobe a threat, the laws regulating Islam were not as rigid. Thisalso led to some problems, primarily with regard to the AzerbaijanIslam Party.

The Azerbaijan Islam Party and Iran

In Azerbaijan’s Law on Religious Freedom, the freedom to worshipand believe what one wishes is emphasized strongly. This appliesto both individuals and religious organizations. With regard toreligious organizations, no restrictions are placed on them whetherthey are local in origin or international. This is an crucialpoint because two-thirds of Azerbaijan’s population are Shi’itesand the preeminent Shi’ite theological and administrative centersare in Iran. In this context, the activities of the AzerbaijanIslam Party (AIP) are extremely important.

The AIP was organized during the Soviet period and, while small,has a substantial power base in Nakhchyvan which borders Iran.Politically, Iran’s position is the AIP’s position. Accordingto persistent reports, it has been financed directly from Iran.The positions taken by the party with regard to oil and the CaspianSea question, for example, are simplistic but completely in accordwith Iran’s position. According to its chairman, Hajy ElikramAliyev: "First, our party does not recognize the agreementssigned with Western oil companies. Our position coincides withIran’s official position. Iran is our brother and our neighbor.Those signing the agreements should fear Allah. Allah deignedto give oil to our people and the issue must be resolved to thesatisfaction of our people. Our state leaders must not view thisissue for their own personal interests and profits and, aboveall, for their own pockets. In general, oil agreements must beconcluded with Muslim countries, not with the West. In any case,they will have to answer before Allah for all this."

In the opinion of experts, despite the efforts of the Islamists,the Shi’ite radicals have not struck roots in Azerbaijani society.Yet they are persisting. On Jerusalem Day (which was marked inFebruary this year) the Islam Party organized a three-hour longmeeting at the Tazepir Mosque in Baku. The Iranian spiritual leaderAli Khamnei’s special representatives in Baku, the Ayatollah SabiriHamedani and Mr. Tahiri, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s representativefor secular affairs in Azerbaijan, also took part in the meeting. The leaders of the Islam Party called on Muslims to "unitein the struggle against the Satanic forces of American imperialismand Israeli aggression." The Russian Empire, one could say,had been forgotten. Forgotten? Slogans like "We will returnJerusalem," "Death to Salman Rushdie!" and "TheMasons serve the devil" abounded. Yet, the membership ofthe AIP is quite small and it is entirely safe to say that veryfew among the population at large share the AIP’s views. It is,nonetheless, a good example of how a religious cum politicalparty can try the patience of the secular government.

The Kyrgyz, whose worries were mentioned at the beginning ofthis survey, should take note of the example of Azerbaijan which has not tried to impose draconian regulations on the activitiesof the Muslim community; or the example of Turkmenistan whichhas passed stringent rules on Islam that no one obeys. The situationin either case depends much more on public mentalities than ongovernment action or inaction. Perhaps it would be a waste ofmoney to reestablish Soviet-style State Committees on ReligiousAffairs. In any event, it seems that Kyrgyzstan’s problem inOsh is ethnic, not religious.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University

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