Central Asia: Region Returns To Muslim Roots (Part 1) By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics have seen a revival of Islam. The process kicked off quickly as Islam has always had deep roots in the region and missionaries and funds arrived from other Muslim countries to help rebuild schools and mosques. Nowadays, most Central Asians consider themselves Muslims. Still, many observers say that there are differences between the identity and religious practices of Muslims in Central Asia and those in other parts of the Islamic world. In the first part of a four-part series on Islam in Central Asia, RFE/RL looks at how Muslims in the region view themselves.
Prague, 4 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Are you a Muslim?
Most Central Asians, when asked this question, give one answer: "Al-hamdulillah, I am." The use of the Arabic phrase for "praise be to Allah" emphasizes the strength of their faith.
The reply comes as no surprise because most of the peoples of Central Asia have historically been Muslim. According to regional surveys, some 95 percent of the members of those historically Muslim populations consider themselves Muslim today.
"I have no special knowledge of Islam, but Al-hamdulillah, I am a Muslim," said one man in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. "Islam teaches us to avoid bad behavior, to be honest, not to be drunk, respect human beings, to have an open mind and a soft heart. If we do not follow these rules, we are not followers of his excellency Prophet Muhammad."
But if Central Asians share much with Muslims elsewhere in the world, their identity is also uniquely shaped by their own cultural and political history.
As for Muslims, everywhere, the faith in Central Asians rests on the five pillars of Islam. Those are belief in the creed of "La ilaha illallah. Muhammadun Rasul Allah" ("There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet), and fulfillment of Namaz (prayer, five times daily at prescribed times), Zakat (charitable giving), fasting during Ramadan (the month of fasting) and, for those who can afford it, the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
Yet Islam in Central Asia, which dates to the 8th century, has traditionally had a moderate cast compared to practices in Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example.
That moderation is reflected in its accommodation of originally nomadic practices like the fermentation of mare's milk into mildly intoxicating 'Qymyz' and today includes a less strict attitude toward alcohol overall than in more conservative Muslim societies.
"Islam teaches us to avoid bad behavior, to be honest, not to be drunk, respect human beings, to have an open mind and a soft heart. If we do not follow these rules, we are not followers of his excellency Prophet Muhammad."
Similarly, Islam in Central Asia accommodated the needs of nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz women to ride horses and work equally with men free of the "hijab" (Islamic dress) adopted by more sedentary peoples, like the Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Mona Siddiqui, head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, said there are other signs of moderation, too.
She noted that historically, the most widespread form of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence in the region has been the Hanafi madhab. She said that among the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, it is the one most open to new ideas.
"Hanafi madhab is one of the four madhab from the Sunni schools of law," Siddiqui said. "They come to us as Shafii, Hambali, Maliki, and Hanafi. Hanafi is widespread amongst Asia, but also amongst Southeast Asia and also Turkey near to Europe. General discourse when we compare different madhabs seems to be that in terms of actual jurisprudence the Hanafi scholars are seem to be far more discursive and willing to debate the issues of piety, devotion, and worship in contrast to some of the other schools."
But if Central Asia has long had a special Muslim identity, it also has been shaped by other powerful and sometimes competing influences -- including long domination by Russia.
The colonization of the region by Czarist Russia beginning in the 18th century ultimately led to the creation of the officially atheist Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communist authorities discouraged the practice of all religions, turned many places of worship into public buildings, and stressed secular values in place of spiritual ones.
The effects in Central Asia can be seen today. As Islam has revived in the region, some have embraced it again with a fervor akin to that of new converts.
Elvira, a 26-year-old woman from the Kazakh city of Almaty, wears hijab whenever she leaves her house. She works as a cook in a restaurant.
"I consider Islam as the purest religion in the world," Elvira said. "That is why I embraced Islam. Inshalla (God willing), it is been two years, since I started doing namaz. After I became a devout Muslim, my thoughts about life changed, they are very different from what they used to be. During my Jahiliyyah (ignorance referring to the pre-Islamic state), I used to drink alcohol, my attitude toward smoking was different as well. Now I consider all these things as wrong."
But other young people see no need to give up a secular lifestyle. "We are young, of course we go to discos, we have fun, we date girls," said one young Uzbek man. "We are still young, we'll have enough time for fasting and praying when we are old."
To some observers, that sort of dichotomy suggests a region that still torn between its Islamic and Soviet pasts.
Magda Makhloof, professor of Turkish and Persian Studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said that Central Asians' knowledge of Islam was harmed by Soviet rule.
These days, many are afraid to speak of Islam because of what's going on with Wahhabism, for example. There are those who use Islam as a mask to cover terrorism. Therefore it's scary to speak of Islam."
"There is no doubt that the people of this region connected to Islam by their historical roots and their big contributions to Islamic culture and their thoughts are well-known," Makhloof said. "However, the region was left under communist rule for a century, or about three-fourths of a century. And there is no doubt that this period affected the true knowledge of Islamic religion in the region. At present, there are Islamic sentiments and feelings, but they lack true knowledge."
As Central Asians build new mosques --sometimes with the help of Islamic missionaries from more conservative Muslim countries -- the revival of Islam does not always sit comfortably with the region's once communist, now nationalist, governments.
Government officials, used to controlling religion in the past, regard it as a force for social change that must be regulated to assure it does not pose a danger to their own authority.
In Uzbekistan, the governments has cracked down hard on any groups that operate outside the state-approved religious establishment. Police have arrested thousands of members of such groups as militants and closed down their meeting places.
The effect has been to make many Uzbek Muslims wary of being branded extremists if they speak too publicly about their faith.
This young woman in Tashkent was braver than most in speaking about Islam: "These days, many are afraid to speak of Islam because of what's going on with Wahhabism, for example. There are those who use Islam as a mask to cover terrorism. Therefore it's scary to speak of Islam."
Wahhabism is a fundamentalist Islamic movement that arose in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and has become the official form of Islam in that country. The term "Wahhabi" is often used by post-Soviet governments to denote militant Islamic groups ready to use force to achieve political-religious goals.
In the second part of our four-part series, we will look at how Islam is controlled by the state in Central Asia.
Central Asia: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam (Part 2) In most Central Asian states, governments place controls on the practice of Islam by requiring that mosques and other institutions operate only with permission from state-approved religious authorities. The governments say the controls are necessary to fight militant Islamic groups that vow to overthrow the region's presidents as dictators. It is unclear just what the militant groups would bring in the current governments' places, but the presidents are taking no chances. Nowhere is that more evident than in Turkmenistan, where the president has sought to portray himself as a messenger of Allah as well as the leader-for-life of his country. RFE/RL correspondent Allamurad Rakhimov reports in this second part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia.
Prague, 5 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking of his book "Rukhnama," (Book of the Soul), Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said: "It ['Rukhnama'] appeared by a miracle of Allah. It came from above through me and I just inscribed it on paper. Therefore, the mysterious marvel of it will be great for the Turkmen nation."
The book, whose first volume was published in 2001 and the second in 2004, is a collection of the president's thoughts on politics, nationalism, religion, culture, and the destiny of his people.
Today, quotations from Niyazov's book are inscribed alongside verses from the Koran in the largest mosque in Turkmenistan -- a mosque the president built in his own native village of Kipchak. And the government has made it obligatory to study the "Rukhnama" in kindergartens, universities, and government offices.
Analysts say Niyazov's thoughts have become part of the state-controlled religious life of the country. "Imams in Turkmenistan are forced to quote from the 'Rukhnama' and hold 'Rukhnama' classes in the mosques and have copies of the 'Rukhnama' on the shelf in the mosque, on the same shelf with the Koran," said Felix Corley, chief editor of the Norway-based news agency Forum-18, which reports on religious freedom worldwide.
Corley said religious leaders risk imprisonment if they try to resist the influence of Niyazov -- known as Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen) -- on spiritual life. The country's former chief cleric, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, reportedly refused to declare Turkmenbashi a "true messenger of God." As a result, he was sacked and sentenced last year to 22 years in prison on charges of treason.
Niyazov's efforts to co-opt Islam by elevating himself to the level of a spiritual -- as well as political -- leader is an extreme example of how some Central Asian governments battle for the hearts and minds of believers. But in all five Central Asian countries, the governments require mosques and madrasahs (religious schools) to register with the state as a condition for operation.
And throughout the region, governmental bodies with names like the Council for Religious Affairs control the selection, promotion, and dismissal of Muslim clergy -- from the mufti, who is the top religious official in the country, to the heads of mosques.
The efforts appear to reflect a conviction that Islam is too potent a social and political, as well as religious, force in Central Asia to leave it beyond the state's control.
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov regularly accuses militant Islamic groups of seeking to use religion to recruit members to overthrow his regime. He has cracked down on groups that do not register with the government by closing their meeting places and arresting thousands of their supporters. He also regularly links such groups to "international terrorism," branding them a danger to society.
"The danger of international terrorism is global. Today, none of the cities or villages of the world can be guaranteed [free] from the blows of international terrorism and we control the situation very carefully in Uzbekistan," Karimov told a cabinet meeting in December.
Tashkent has charged Islamic militants with inciting the unrest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on 13 May. But human rights groups say that in Andijon at least 500 people, mostly unarmed civilians, were killed in firing from government troops.
Radical groups in Central Asia such as Hizb ut-Tahrir say they want to remove the region's leaders as dictators and establish an Islamic state in their place.
Turkmen sociologist Farkhad Iliassov of the Moscow-based analytical center Vlast says Islam is growing into a potent political force in Central Asia because democratic alternatives for change are suppressed. "In the absence of democratic alternatives [in Central Asian countries] with mostly liquidated socialistic values, the only remaining hope and ideology for the poor, destitute, and oppressed is Islam," he told RFE/RL. "[People] can't expect help from, or appeal to, any other alternative ideology. Particularly that is the case in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan."
Among the five Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan place the tightest restrictions on political activity, forbidding any opposition parties not composed of sworn loyalists of the president.
Kazakhstan has allowed opposition parties to register, and this week permitted the country's largest opposition alliance to nominate its candidate for the next presidential election, possibly to be held in December.
Tajikistan is the only country with a registered Islamic opposition party. That party was registered after a 1997 peace agreement between the government and the then armed Islamic opposition that ended the 1992-97 civil war.
And in Kyrgyzstan, opposition parties led street revolts earlier this year that overthrew the regime. Kyrgyzstan is now in the process of trying to establish a working multiparty system following a presidential election on 10 July.
How effective have been the efforts of Central Asian leaders to control Islam as a means of suppressing political opposition?
Central Asia: Radical Islamists Challenge Governments Efforts At Control (Part 3)
Muslims who do not adhere to the government line are often accused of belonging to radical groups
Across Central Asia, governments have coped with the Islamic revival by asserting their control over the religious establishment and banning groups that refuse to cooperate. The governments are motivated by fears that uncontrolled Islam could be a potent force for political opposition. But despite these government efforts, homegrown and foreign-inspired militant Islamic groups have arisen to challenge the status quo. The most widespread is Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate to replace the region's existing governments. The group says it advocates only peaceful change but the governments accuse it of promoting violent revolution. RFE/RL correspondent Normahmad Kholov reports in this third part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia.
Prague, 8 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- People in Central Asia who sympathize with the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir will not give their names when they talk to reporters. But they will talk about their hopes for the future.
Like this woman in Tajikistan: "As for as I know, Hizb ut-Tahrir would like to convey the message of truth to the people by peaceful, bloodless, and nonviolent means and with the help of governments. The reality is this that the society is corrupt and only a peaceful Islamic government can solve this problem."
The promise to establish Islamic government in all traditionally Muslim lands is central to the Hizb ut-Tahrir's platform.
Imran Waheed, spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir's office in exile in London, stated the group's goal in a recent interview: "Hizb ut-Tahrir has a very clear objective, which is re establishment of the Islamic Caliphate and it is working toward that."
The group's supporters use the term "Islamic Caliphate" to refer to an ideal system of government they believe existed during the early years of Islam. At the time, both religious and temporal authority were in the hands of the Prophet Muhammad or his immediate successors.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is believed to have first taken root in the Uzbek-controlled part of the Ferghana Valley shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It soon spread to adjacent parts of the valley within Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, making it Central Asia's single-most-widespread Islamic political movement. It has also spread to Kazakhstan and parts of Russia.
Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned by the Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh governments, which claim it seeks to overthrow them by force.
Nabi Rahimov, the deputy prosecutor in Tajikistan's Sughd region, described the organization's activities this way: "What are the intentions of this criminal union? The documents and papers that we have confiscated from its members shows that their aim is to encourage ethnic, religious, and national animosity and regionalism. In some documents you can see that they are working in contrary to the 307th clause of the constitution. In other words, they are trying to topple the constitutional government by force and violent means."
The Uzbek government, which continues to Hizb ut-Tahrir's main target of criticism, accuses the group of involvement in a series of bombings and other unrest in Tashkent and other cities in recent years that has killed scores of people. "The enormous repression of the [Central Asian] regimes and the lack of any kind of political expression naturally forces politically oriented people to go underground and to become radicalized, and then join these Islamist groups." - analyst
Tashkent also accuses Hizb ut-Tahrir of links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and to the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Hizb ut-Tahrir denies this.
Between 1999 and 2001, using Tajikistan's remote mountainous areas as its base, the IMU carried out kidnappings, assassinations, and a series of armed raids deep into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It stated objective is to establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.
The IMU later relocated its base to Afghanistan and it is believed to have largely been destroyed in the U.S.-led operation to topple Afghanistan's Taliban regime in late 2001.
Regional governments also accuse both Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU of getting money and inspiration from extremist Islamist groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.
However, Hizb ut-Tahrir denies it advocates anything but peaceful change and says it is homegrown. It accuses the region's governments, in turn, of using charges of terrorism to suppress all opposition movements they cannot control.
Ethnic Uzbeks in the Ferghana Valley are most active in Hizb ut-Tahrir
Analysts say Hizb ut-Tahrir has never been proven to have links to violent acts but they do not rule out that the group could be willing to use violence to achieve an Islamic revolution. But Michael Hall, the Bishkek-based head of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project, says government action against the group is often so harsh that it risks turning members violent if they are not already so.
"Insulting family members of Hizb ut-Tahrir followers is one of the factors that could increase anger among party members and could force them to turn to violence," Hall told RFE/RL.
Crackdowns in Uzbekistan, where the group appears to have the most members, include mass arrests of suspected sympathizers and lengthy detentions while awaiting trial. According to independent Uzbek estimates, there may be as many as 7,000 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Uzbek prisons.
Human rights groups say suspected militants are subjected to torture during interrogation and called on the government to investigate complaints.
But as regional governments try to crack down on groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, there is no sign yet that the movements are disappearing. One member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who introduced himself as Abulkhair, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that underground cells of the party are active in different parts of that country and government pressure is not discouraging recruitment efforts.
"They are active in Kulab, they are active in Khatlon and Hisar also. We hope and pray to god that their ranks will grow more. Despite detentions, torture, and oppression, God willing, their number will increase day by day," Abulkhair said.
Experts say that Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is most active among Uzbek minorities in these countries, raising the danger that crackdowns against them will have ethnic overtones.
Some analysts caution that the governments efforts to control political Islam -- including by arresting members of Islamic organizations that refuse to join the state-approved religious establishment -- could eventually backfire. Regional security expert Ahmad Rashid, the author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," says lack of political freedoms drive people to join radical groups.
"The enormous repression of the [Central Asian] regimes and the lack of any kind of political expression naturally forces politically oriented people to go underground and to become radicalized, and then join these Islamist groups," Rashid told RFE/RL.
In the last part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia, we will look at the revival of madrasahs, or religious schools, as a central part of Muslim life in the region.