Religion and Politics in Central Asia Since 1991

Rafis Abazov

Popular Islam

Religious practices in everyday life in Central Asia are largely shaped by popular Islamic customs, or “low Islam,” according to Ernest Gellner’s definition (Postmodernism: Reason and Religion, 1992). To a great degree, they reflect local traditions, communal rituals, numerous superstitions, and popular perceptions; to a much lesser degree, they reflect the letter of the divine law – the Sharia. In the post-Soviet era, Islam has regained some of its position in the everyday life of Central Asian states; yet the religious landscape in Central Asia still differs markedly from that of the Middle East. In general, most people still prefer liberal Western dress and are open-minded regarding forms of socialization and behavior. Many go to local fortune tellers and bring sacrifices to local saints; and if, for example, a family finds itself on the verge of breaking up, it may very well rush to witchcraft experts in the belief that its relationships have been affected by an ill-wisher’s spell.

Official Islam

Official Islamic clergy, especially the older generation, tend to continue the Soviet era practice of non-intervention in politics, though they work actively among the general population. For example, since independence in 1991, they have mobilized local communal, foreign, and some public funds for building and restoring mosques and madrasas [Muslim schools]. Mosques have been built or reopened in practically every town and city throughout the region, at an average rate of about three mosques a day. This rate was maintained throughout the1990s, and the number of mosques skyrocketed from about 300 in 1990 to more than 10,000in 2000. New Islamic schools were opened in almost all districts of the region. The number of people performing the Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]

grew from a privileged 100 or so a year in the1970s and 1980s to several thousand a year in the1990s and early 2000s. However, there are small but rapidly growing groups of Islamic activists, usually religiously trained young people, who demand stricter observance of Islamic traditions and greater involvement of religion in political life.

 Government responses to these debates and new demands have been quite uniform in all five Central Asian republics. When Central Asian governments introduced new constitutions in the early 1990s, they all included articles stating that “Religions and all cults shall be separated from the state”; that “formation of political parties on religious . . . grounds” should not be permitted; and that “No religious organizations shall pursue political goals and objectives.”(Article 8, Sections 3 and 4, Kyrgyz Republic Constitution, Rafis Abazov, Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press,2004], 266.)

Islam in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Islamic resurgence has been relatively moderate in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Although a number of new mosques and madrasas were opened in both countries, their societies have remained highly secular. (For detailed evaluation, see U.S. Department of State reports on international religious freedom in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, http://www. Only about one percent of school children have been enrolled in madrasas, and a few hundred students have enrolled in Islamic universities at home and overseas. In the early 1990s, several activists attempted to create political groups that demanded a greater role for Islam in political and public life in both republics, but they did not get significant support and could not establish a visible presence or win seats in national parliaments.

Islam in Tajikistan

Completely the opposite development occurred in Tajikistan. In the early 1990s, Islamic activists established the Islamic Party of Renaissance of Tajikistan (IPRT) and united with some democratic groups to challenge the political domination of the Communist Party of Tajikistan (CPT). The IPRT attempted to mobilize its supporters to defeat the CPT candidate in the presidential elections in 1991. After losing the election, the IPRT and its supporters declared that the elections were fraudulent and attempted to topple the Communist Party-led government. The political confrontation, complicated by regional clan-based rivalries, escalated into a devastating full-scale civil war that continued for five years.

 During this conflict, several small religious groups were forced to flee to Afghanistan, where they found refuge among radical Islamic groups. Only in 1997 did the rivals agree to establish a Islamic parties and groups were granted up to 30percent of seats. This established a precedent, being the first time an Islamic party in the territory of the former Soviet Union had become member of a ruling parliamentary coalition.

Islam in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan also experienced an Islamic resurgence in the post-Soviet era, although the government has kept very tight control over all religious communities and has banned political participation by any Islamic groups. In fact, it harshly persecuted any attempts at public participation by or criticism from religious groups. In this environment, a radical militant organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), emerged in the eastern provinces of the country. This movement grew into one of the most radical political organizations, not only in Uzbekistan, but in Central Asia generally, with its demands for the establishment of theocratic Islamic states throughout the region. Uzbek security forces drove the IMU out of its base in Uzbekistan’s part of the Fergana Valley between 1999 and 2001.

 IMU activists first found refuge in neighboring Tajikistan and then escaped to Afghanistan, where they received support from the Taliban-led government. The Uzbek government blamed them for bombings in Tashkent in 2004 and for political unrest in Andean in 2005.

Islam in Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan the government has also implemented controversial policies towards Islamic activists. On the one hand, it uses Islamic symbols as an integral part of national ideology and national identity, sponsoring new and grander mosques, restoring old ones, and funding pilgrimages to Mecca. On the other hand, it has kept tight control over religious development and actively persecuted non-conformist representatives of the Islamic community.

 The religious environment remains very dynamic and very diverse. New, radical organizations, such as Hizb-Ut-Tahrir and others, have become more active, while influential official Islamic clergy have consistently preferred not to be involved in political life. In most large cities, religious belief and level of commitment remain a private matter. In this environment, highly devoted women in hijabs [head and body coverings] may be seen walking calmly next to girls wearing the most extravagant Western-style miniskirts.

Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox Christians represent the second largest religious community in Central Asia, maintain a relatively high profile in all the republics, and work closely with the Moscow Patriarchate. Medieval chroniclers and travelers mentioned the existence of Christian churches and monasteries in Samarqand, Balisage, and many other parts of the region throughout the medieval era. But practically all of them disappeared during the so-called Dark Ages in Central Asia between the 13th and 16th centuries.

 Russian colonization brought significant changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian settlers established Orthodox Christian communities on newly colonized land and opened dozens of churches and Christian schools in all the majorities in the region. However, Orthodox priests traditionally preached exclusively among fellow Christians and rarely conducted any large scale campaigns to convert local populations to Christianity.

 During the Soviet era, Christian communities in Central Asia experienced the same fate as Muslims. Bolsheviks punished Orthodox clergy for their support of the pro-monarchist movement and consequently either executed or exiled them to Siberia. Many priests chose to escape to other countries, including China, Turkey, and Australia. Many churches and monasteries were closed or destroyed. During World War II, the Orthodox Church was again allowed to practice under strict state control. As Soviet Communist ideology collapsed in the mid-1980s, Orthodox communities gained a new and powerful impetus. Most restrictions were removed, and many people turned to religion.

 The independence of Central Asian republics has affected the region’s Christian churches in contradictory ways. On the one hand, the Orthodox Church has been freed from strict state control and interference, and people have become free to practice their beliefs. On the other hand, Orthodox communities have begun facing a new and increasingly serious problem – out-migration of the Slavic population to Russia, Ukraine, and other countries. Between 1991 and 2007,nearly three-quarters of the Slavic population left Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and almost half left Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. To a lesser degree, Slavs also left Kazakhstan. If these emigration trends continue, many Orthodox churches in the region will probably close their doors within the next 20 to 30 years.

 Other Christian Communities

Protestant and Catholic communities appeared in Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the migration of Germans, Poles, and some others to the newly colonized areas. Their numbers increased rapidly during World War II as Volga Germans from Russia, as well as German prisoners of war, Poles, and other ethnic groups, were deported to Central Asia. In the post-World War II era, their contribution to the local population reached about 2.5 percent, with the total number exceeding between 1.1and 1.2 million people by the mid-1980s. Since1991, however, approximately one million ethnic Germans have migrated to Germany from Central Asia. Those who have remained try to keep their ministries active.

 Throughout the 20th century, other groups– Baptists, Adventists, and others – were active in the region, although they faced severe restrictions and persecution from Soviet authorities. In the1990s, many legal restrictions were lifted, and these groups began expanding their work in local Central Asian communities. There were reports that small groups of Kyrgyz’s, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks were baptized. However, local native communities and community leaders actively resist and condemn such missionary activities among their groups.


Islam in Central Asia after 9/11

The events of 9/11 caught Central Asians by surprise, as they found themselves on the frontline of the international war on terrorism and the immediate attack on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Both Central Asian governments and ordinary people of the region strongly condemned the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. Central Asian republics unanimously joined thus.-led coalition, playing a critical role in the decisive stages of the war against the Taliban in2002-2003 by granting over flight permission to coalition air forces and providing infrastructure

for logistic support of U.S. forces. (See Shahram Akbarzadeh, Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington’s New Security Agenda [New York: Zed Books,2005].) From the beginning, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan even granted access to their territories for U.S. and NATO-operated military bases, although as of 2006 the United States maintains only one large military airbase in the region, in Kyrgyzstan.

 The war in Iraq (2003-), however, has been quite a different matter. Most Central Asian officials and ordinary people were reluctant to support the U.S.-led “Coalition of the Willing, “though they refrained from public opposition. In2003, only Kyrgyzstan joined U.S.-led allies in the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime and sent troops to Iraq.

 Since the beginning of the U.S.-led war against international terrorism, Central Asian governments have toughened their positions toward the participation of Islamic organizations in political life. They have reinforced their secular policies and reconfirmed bans on participation in political activities by any religious organizations.

The governments’ stances have hardened even further against supporters of the IMU, and they have also begun to persecute the underground movement Hizb-Ut-Tahrir. This organization claims that its sole purpose is peaceful education and social programs, but government officials have accused it of preparing the ground for political change, including the establishment of an Islamic state in the region. Hizb-Ut-Tahrir has always denied such allegations. By and large, Central Asian societies remain deeply divided on the role of religion in social life. Evidence from various studies indicates that older believers who grew up and formed their views during the Soviet era largely support the status quo; they believe that religion should remain a private matter and that religious organizations should not participate in political life. In the meantime, the younger generation is divided between those who strongly support the secular nature of their countries and those who call for a return to Islamic roots and who demand life. In between there is a large segment of the younger generation that is busy searching for jobs, and that is more concerned about everyday life than about political debates on the role of religion. ♦

Rafi’s Abazov is adjunct assistant professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Harriman Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York. He has written four books, including the Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan and the Historical Dictionary ofTurkmenistan.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission fromRafis Basov, Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007).