April 7, 2005
Islam and Political Change in Central Asia
Patrick A. Hatcher
The recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has thrust Central Asia into the headlines, if only briefly. Largely inspired by Georgia's Rose and Ukraine's Orange Revolutions, Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip Revolution" could stimulate change in neighboring republics, several of which suffer under even worse economic and political conditions than Kyrgyzstan.
Although Kyrgyzstan's revolution has been largely secular, many pundits have long warned of a growing "radical" Islam in former Soviet Central Asia, using phrases such as "Islamic powder keg" or even "jihad." Such warnings are not entirely without basis. Vocal religious opposition groups have grown throughout the republics over the last decade. While analysts typically focus on the possible ties of such groups to international Islamic movements, such as Wahhabi revivalism or even al-Qa'ida (analysis welcomed by regimes eager to dub opposition as a "foreign threat"), the local contexts of religious politics is often overlooked. In fact, the Soviet legacy, administration policies, and popular religiosity will likely play as much of a role in the region's future religious and political dynamics as organized religious opposition.
The political and intellectual elites leading Kyrgyzstan's opposition were produced by the Soviet educational system, which struggled (largely in vain) to disentangle religious from ethnic identities. To undermine Islam's position in Central Asian cultures, many Soviet scholars of religion argued that Islam, especially among the traditionally nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, was only a thin veneer over a more "authentic" shamanistic religion, ignoring the strong Muslim self-understanding even among shamans. Many post-Soviet elites still feel a palpable distance between their Soviet-educated attitude toward Islam and the strong religious adherence of the general population. In the 1990s there was even a small movement among Kyrgyz intellectuals to convert to Zoroastrianism, opposing any attempt to equate "Kyrgyz-ness" with being Muslim.
Post-Soviet political leaders no longer have to espouse official atheism, and many have striven to distance themselves from Soviet ideology. However, each republic in the region has approached the re-introduction of religion into state ideology according to its specific demography and its leaders' idiosyncrasies. Kazakhstan, whose population is nearly 50 percent Russian, has envisioned itself as a religiously pluralistic, multiethnic state, actively funding Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic institutions, albeit only those with official approval. In overwhelmingly Muslim Uzbekistan, the president has advocated a "traditional" quietist Islam against the perceived threat of "political Islam." Meanwhile, Turkmenistan's leader, fostering a bizarre cult of personality, has constructed a colossal rotating statue of himself that follows (and controls?) the sun, and has composed a book of guidance praised (by him) as a literary rival to the Qur'an.
Among ordinary Central Asians, the post-Soviet era has opened more possibilities for public expressions of religion, if not exactly full religious freedom. Soviet-era religion was primarily a family affair, but now mosque attendance entails less political risk, and religious institutions have greater access to funds and donations. While the once powerful Sufi mystical orders keep a low profile, pilgrimage to the ubiquitous tombs of Sufi saints has greatly increased, even among less "observant" Muslims. Though still strictly regulated by the state, religious leaders have made institutional contacts throughout the Muslim world, and occasionally experiment with their own public, if generally apolitical, voices.
Yet there are more politically aggressive Muslim voices. With all of Uzbekistan's opposition parties banned or exiled, underground militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have fed off the popular frustration with the authoritarian regime. A string of violent IMU attacks against government targets in the late 1990s prompted a general crackdown on the "wrong kind of Muslims." Other underground, but non-violent, religious organizations have felt the regime's wrath. Human rights groups have condemned the massive imprisonment and torture of ordinary Muslims with beards, veils, or other markers of "bad" Islam, but the "war on terror" has largely removed international pressure upon the regime to distinguish among violent, peaceful, or simply pious Muslims.
Though the ideologies and methods of the IMU do not enjoy popular support in Uzbekistan, the regime's policy of indiscriminate imprisonment and torture has lent prestige to the Islamic opposition. The other Central Asian governments have adopted similarly indiscriminate policies. However, such repressive measures have not prevented several clashes between militant groups and Uzbekistan's police over the past several years. And while the existence of non-militant Muslim and secular opposition voices challenges predictions of a militantly Islamic state, the governments' fear of Islamic "radicalism" ironically strengthens the possibility that militant Islamic groups will play a prominent role in any future political developments in the region.
Patrick A. Hatcher is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Visiting Instructor in the Department of Religion at Oberlin College.