East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Attempts to "Manage" Islam in Central Asia

Martha Brill Olcott

When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about cultural renewal in the late 1980s, people throughout the Soviet Union began to press for a new relationship between religion and society, one which allowed an individual the freedom to practice his or her traditional faith as the dictates of conscience defined it. With independence, Russians and most other Christian populations of the Soviet Union have been reasonably successful at realizing this goal.

The same has not been true in the Muslim-dominated regions and the suspicion with which most of Central Asia's rulers regard Islam has increased over time. This attitude is quite characteristic of the Central Asian elite, not just those who are in charge, but of many who are in opposition as well, and it is one that often plays well with Western audiences. The Central Asian elite, of course, is not formally against Islam, but it is very wary of revivalist or fundamentalist Islam, of people who are eager to live by "the exact teachings of the book." They want to keep these republics as secular states and to prevent devout Muslims from forcing all of their coreligionists into public observance of the faith.

It is not difficult to understand the negative feelings of the Soviet-era elite--both Muslim and non-Muslim--toward revivalist Islam, as their lifestyles would be directly threatened by the imposition of Islamic norms, and their hold on power could be as well. The post-Soviet world is a unique one, as the colonial-era elite remains in power with the right to divide up all state property and is able to limit the political access of the next generation. In these conditions, Islam can be a useful tool for the state's opponents. Islamic revivalists are keenly interested in advancing the cause of social welfare and the state has real difficulty maintaining the level of social protection in a time of economic transition.

In the absence of a civil society, there are few secular political institutions around which opposition can coalesce. Islam, especially the mosque and the medresseh, is about the only organizational center available to those in opposition to the regime and it is very difficult to restrict popular access to it. As a result, advocacy of Islamic goals can be useful for both the regimeís supporters as well as for its detractors. All depends on the rules of the game and these are still in flux.

The challenge posed by Islam remains particularly acute in Uzbekistan. Islam is particularly deeply rooted in many parts of the country and the precedent of competition among Islamic fundamentalists, modernists, and conservatives is well established. All three traditions withstood the vicissitudes of Soviet rule. Some of todayís radical groups even have their roots in an anti-Russian uprising that occurred in the Ferghana Valley in 1898 and a few of the leaders even studied with a holy man who witnessed the revolt as a young child and who, much to Soviet displeasure, survived to a very old age.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov believes that Islam can be managed, as do most of his colleagues. In fact, Central Asia's leaders all remain committed to the social engineering approach that characterized Soviet rule. They believe strongly that religion can be managed by the state, as can the development of Islam, and that governments are competent enough to influence the social evolution of society. The relationship of religion to mass belief is much more complex and interactive than the region's leaders credit it with being. Although the governments of Central Asia are in no position to regulate the religious beliefs of the masses, they may exert their influence on social processes. But in trying to do so, these governments could inadvertently trigger social explosions.

Martha Brill Olcott is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, and codirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Project on Ethnicity and Politics. She is the author of Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002).

Edited excerpt reprinted by permission from Martha Brill Olcott, "Revisiting the Twelve Myths of Central Asia," Working Paper No. 23, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russian and Eurasian Program, September 2001.

Martha Brill Olcott "Attempts to "Manage" Islam in Central Asia," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 6.

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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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