August 15, 2002
Uzbekistan's New Clerics
-- Eren Tasar
Islamic belief remained strong among Uzbekistan's traditionally Muslim population during the Soviet period. Thousands of "secret" places of worship appeared around a handful of official mosques tolerated by the government. At the same time, Soviet rule saw the decline of traditional Islamic morality. Observance of namaz prayer became less common; alcoholism and adultery spread dramatically, especially in urban areas. Uzbekistan's birth as a sovereign country added a new, complex dimension to the realm of religious life, namely, the end of ideological bans on Islamic practice. Although this allowed a variety of new voices to enter the forum of religious debate, many of these soon went underground. As Uzbekistan prepares to celebrate its eleventh year of nationhood, a number of the questions raised since Independence still require attention.
In the last decade, a new generation of Islamic clerics has emerged and responded constructively to this challenge. Young men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties, provide religious teaching through mosques and private classes to an increasing number of Uzbekistan's Muslims. Most of these individuals either studied theology with local teachers as children, or spent some years in post-Soviet seminaries. (In rare cases, clerics studied in the few Islamic universities allowed to operate by the Soviets.) Many of them profess to oppose religious extremism and embrace the idea of a multi-faith nation. They wish to reform society by increasing religious education and observance without promoting ideologies alien to local tradition. Their goals revolve around social and moral improvement.
Growing up in the Brezhnev and Perestroyka eras, many of these individuals led dual lives. On the one hand, they participated in the regular activities of Soviet society (e.g., the Young Pioneers), often reading texts concerning scientific atheism in school. On the other, they studied in clandestine religious classes. For Muslim youth, leading a secret, spiritual life developed personal strain. "We hid our beliefs," relates one imam at an urban shrine. "When I was a teenager, I used to take a sports bag to wrestling practice. I would hide a Koran in my gear and, after some time at the gym, sneak out the back door and pray here." Such experiences amplified feelings of insecurity, as prayer outside official mosques was often punishable by fines or imprisonment.
Perhaps because of the repressive atmosphere of their childhood years, these young clerics oppose religious extremism. Unlike some circles in Uzbekistan, which define extremism as the desire to establish theocratic states, many of these individuals understand it to mean "killing in the name of Islam." The idea of fighting and killing Muslims "for the faith" (as extremist groups have done) especially bewilders them. Such sentiments extend beyond a simple repetition of the government line, which strikes the observer as more detailed than the rather basic principle on which they base their views.
In addition to their opposition to violence, these individuals regard interfaith understanding as crucial to maintaining a peaceful society. "The Koran teaches us that God created all men," explains one imam. "If this is the case, how can I treat a Russian or a Jew any differently than I would treat my own brother?" Overwhelmingly, they do not profess any desire for Islam to dominate or regulate other religions. This may in part be a legacy of Soviet dogma, which pushed religious differences under the artificial umbrella of "nationality" and hailed ethnic diversity as a hallmark of Socialism. It also has roots in the pre-Soviet, Islamic past.
One should understand the appearance of this new generation as a response to the mounting social pressures of the past few decades. These clerics attribute the appearance of many social ills to poverty. More fundamentally, they speak of weak iman, an Arabic word meaning "belief in God" or, in a broader context, "love of God." They therefore wish to reform society by improving Muslims' iman through Islamic education. By their actions, they demonstrate a desire to fulfill this mission not by importing ideologies found in other Muslim countries, but through the prism of local Islamic traditions such as reverence for saints. Along with increased awareness of the rights of women in Islam, the obligations of Mankind to God, and other Koranic topics, they lodge in this prism tremendous hope for a social and moral renaissance. Within the community of ideas that constitutes Uzbekistan and the Muslim World, the success of their mission will depend on the extent to which they engage in healthy discussion with all segments of society.
Eren Tasar is a Fulbright Fellow living in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and studying shrine pilgrimage there.