Radical Islam in Central Asia

Irina Zvyagelskaya
7 April 2009

Fergana.ru How strong is the rise of Islam in Central Asia?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: Islam has always been quite strong in Central Asia. It was under the Soviet regime too. The Fergana valley, for example, has always been fairly Islamicised, although under the Soviet regime, people often hid the fact that they were following Islamic traditions. But today, those social groups which were modernised under the Soviet regime are increasingly turning to religion too. Educated people who are Europeanised, who know about world culture, are looking for their national identity. And where else can they look but to Islam? It's quite natural.

So far, it seems to me that the Islamicisation that is taking place is fairly superficial. People are observing Islamic rituals and wearing traditional clothing, rather than becoming deeply immersed in religion. This search for identity gives people the chance to make the Haj, for example, and meet fellow believers abroad.

I hadn't been in Dushanbe for three or four years when I went there at the beginning of the year. I was surprised to see a lot more women on the streets wearing the hijabs. And  not just country women. The Islamic style is becoming fashionable for women in the capital. The markets are full of traditional dresses and hijabs, and they're doing good business.

Islam is also becoming very popular among agricultural people, as well as people who used to be nomadic, although the kind of Islam they practiced was always far from mainstream. Now that's all changing. My Kyrgyz colleagues tell me that Islam is rapidly becoming politicized there, that members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are even trying to get into parliament. But the main development in Kyrgyzstan today is the growing network of Islamic education: informal madrasahs are springing up all over the place, semi-legal centres attached to mosques. What is not clear is what they're teaching there...

Fergana.ru:  You mean not clear to you, the pundits, or not clear to the Kyrgyz authorities?

Zvyagelskaya: It may not be clear to the authorities, either. People take children to these centres without really finding out what goes on there, especially as the education's free, which is an important factor. And it is practically impossible to keep track of what they teach there, and how. This is very serious: no one can be sure that semi-literate mullahs, or even educated ones who have picked up radical ideas abroad aren't making dangerous appeals. A lot of people in Central Asia got their Islamic education in Pakistan and Arab countries in the 1990s. People were only too happy to take advantage of the grants which Islamic organisations were dishing out. I remember how surprised I was to find two Uzbeks studying at a medieval city in Yemen. Who knows what they were being taught.  And now all they're all coming back as qualified specialists. The Islamic world targeted the region.

Fergana.ru: Is that still true today?

Zvyagelskaya: I reckon so. I don't know the figures, but the Arab world is certainly still funding the publication and sales of the Koran, and the building and reconstruction of  mosques. At one time people were disappointed by this, as they'd been expecting them to invest. But the real problem is that especially in the early years of independence, it wasn't clear what kind of radical literature was coming in, and what the grants being offered by the Islamic foundations were for. It is not a lot clearer today, either.

Fergana.ru:  It is understandable that the elite should be searching for an identity. But what about the people? Why should they need an identity if, as you say, they never lost it under the Soviet regime?

Zvyagelskaya: The collapse of the USSR triggered the rise of religion and the wave of nationalism which swept through the new independent republics. It was all made much worse by the kind of market economy they have in these countries today, the total injustice of it,  the vast gap between rich and poor, the corruption, the ruling clans. It's bound to be attractive when the Islamists start talking about building a just world. It gives them hope.

The Islamists favour abolishing borders (Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, wants to see the establishment of a caliphate). This appeals to people because it is what they used to have. Unlike the previous administrative borders, the state borders have split up ethnic communities and large families, and destroyed traditional patterns of economic activity, which involved free movement across the territory depending on the season (this was important for honey producers, for example). But today some of those borders are even mined.

The Islamists do more than preach too. They also provide material assistance. Hamas, Hezbollah and others are serious social institutions, activist organizations. When the state is weak, they take on many of its functions - they start acting out the role of state.  Yes, they use terrorist tactics, but it would not be right to say that they use terror just for the sake of it. They enjoy wide popular support because they do support the poor, and create jobs...

Fergana.ru: So the Islamists in Central Asia do create jobs?

Zvyagelskaya: Take Akromia, for example - many businessmen were members. In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the men leave the country to work, and this changes the roles in the family. Women are left with a lot of responsibility. And the Islamic organizations support these women, help them to survive, and at the same time indoctrinate them.

The Islamists' growing influence reinforces those traditional structures which give people social support. But there's a high price to be paid: large families, solidarity groups and clans often deprive individuals  of freedom of choice. Personal choice is not allowed to contradict the aims and values of the group. For example, women soon learn that their main and only task in life is to do the housework and have children.

Fergana.ru:  When it comes to politics, is it possible to have an entirely secular state where the main religion is Islam? Unlike Christianity, Islam has a canon of political behavior.

Zvyagelskaya: It is a way of life.

Fergana.ru:  So a strong state in Central Asia is bound to be an Islamic state?

Zvyagelskaya: No. These states cannot, of course, be atheist, as they were when they were part of the Soviet Union. But the Soviet regime was not as aggressively atheist in Asia as it was in Russia: the Bolsheviks realized that Islam plays a crucial role in social relations, and they took a moderate approach... Yes, they limited the functions of religion: you couldn't build mosques, and so on. But after the Bolsheviks' attempts to break the traditional Muslim way of life met serious opposition the Soviet regime did not tamper with the traditional social structures. Indeed, they adapted to the regime, to its hierarchy. For these traditional structures were themselves very hierarchical...

Fergana.ru: But what if the politicians who live in a state where these traditional structures are so strong consider themselves to be true Muslims? Where does the boundary lie between secular state power and Islamic dogma for such politicians?

Zvyagelskaya:  In a secular state, religious institutions do not have a determining influence on the formation of foreign and domestic policy. The beliefs of the politician are unimportant - some of Russia's politicians are religious too. As we know, the growth of individual religiosity, which is characteristic for many post-Soviet societies, does not contradict secularisation as long as religion remains the choice of the individual, and as long as state bodies do not use religious norms as the foundation for their decisions.

Fergana.ru:  What if a politician believes that religious dogmas coincide with national interests?

Zvyagelskaya: That's an abstract question. The regimes in these countries are secular. The problem is that for various political reasons, this region was from the start labeled Muslim by much of the international community, i.e. a special, unique region with its own destiny that was not linked with Russia. They started referring to it as "Muslim Central Asia". But why? Yes, most people there are Muslims. But you don't say "Christian Europe"! The regimes are secular...

Fergana.ru:  And if the Islamists come to power?

Zvyagelskaya: People are saying that once they win the elections, they'll be there forever. It would completely change the nature of the state. And this would have a serious effect on that part of society which did not want those changes. If they come to power, the Islamists will declare an Islamic state, whatever the consequences for those who do not share their views.

Fergana.ru:  What about Tajikistan? Aren't there Islamists in the parliament there?

Zvyagelskaya:  They have two seats. Of course, if the government didn't lean on it, the Party of the Islamic Revival of Tajikistan would have more influence, but its agenda is restricted. It has to show loyalty to the regime, to prove how moderate it is, and not challenge the government on the most important social issues. It sticks to matters of Islamic ritual: whether women can go to mosques, where the hijab can be worn and so on... We are always looking for moderate Islamists to engage in dialogue. But they do not have that much influence. So voters turn to the radicals,  who do raise vital social issues...

Fergana.ru: When you say "radicals", do you mean so-called "non-canonical" Islam? Banned groups?

Zvyagelskaya: Yes. But the bans don't work. The question always arises: who are the judges? Who decides how traditional a certain Islamic group is? The problem is that it is the Interior Ministry, rather than the Islamic specialists, which deals with radical Islam in Central Asia. It should be possible to offer people sermons by educated people, real Islamic authorities, instead of these semi-legal radical Islamists. But there aren't many of them.

Fergana.ru: Is Islamicisation coming from this "non-canonical" Islam in Central Asia?

Zvyagelskaya:  Yes, they're actively involved, and this is worrying. Many experts believe that this Islamicisation is due to outside influences. But their sermons are falling on fertile ground. People want to hear about a just state. They're fed up with the clans, the corruption, the harsh social climate and the lack of prospects...

Fergana.ru:  Then the Islamists are bound to take power..

Zvyagelskaya: Why?

Fergana.ru:  Because in Central Asia you can't break the power of the clans, the corruption and the gulf between rich and poor.

Zvyagelskaya: Is it any different in Russia?

Fergana.ru: No, it's no different.

Zvyagelskaya:  Why do we think that the Islamic alternative is the only way out of the situation? Are there really no other options? One involving  a slower evolutionary development, not the simple Bolshevik-type formula - let's build an Islamic state, and everything will be wonderful? Incidentally, those Islamic states that do exist do not offer an example that is attractive to everyone. Boris Rumer has edited a book entitled "Central Asia at the End of the Transition." Its subject is the transition from a totalitarian society to a more democratic political system. The political and social institutions of the Central Asian countries being what they are, this will take a long time. But I'm not sure that the transition is likely to be that clear-cut.

Yes, Islam is on the rise, but these states also have modern aspects to them, like the scientific community. These are educated people, highly qualified and broad-minded. Look at what the NGOs are doing too. Look at the opposition parties, and the press, which is relatively free in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. There are elections too. Yes, sometimes these do just go through the motions, but things would be even worse without them. They discuss the programmes of their parties, they hold informed debate about social problems..  We can only wait and see how these elements of modernity will combine with the rise of traditionalism.

Fergana.ru: Does Russia have any role to play in the confrontation between state power and radical Islamists in Central Asia?

Zvyagelskaya: Russia doesn't, and shouldn't intervene. This doesn't mean that we don't have a position. For example, you know that Russia's position on the events in Andijan was very different than the West's. Russia is distrustful of radicals, but not of Islam. Islam is one of Russia's traditional religions. We've got a huge number of Muslims in Russia, and always have had. Russia needs to tread very carefully on these issues.

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