The plot of David Ignatius’s Cold War thriller Siro revolves around a group of CIA agents determined to overthrow the Soviet Union by striking at a vital weak spot: masses of restless Central Asian Muslims just waiting for the opportunity to throw off their atheist oppressors. In reality, the Soviet assault on religion in Central Asia was to a great extent successful: they eliminated the region’s entire Islamic judicial and theological infrastructure, which dated back centuries and played a central role in governing daily life.
Religion was essentially pushed into the private realm and became a part of national culture as envisioned by the Soviets. These earth-shaking changes altered the very meaning of the term “Muslim” within the Soviet space. Adeeb Khalid’s recent work Islam after Communism
During my research in the ‘Stans this past summer I, too, encountered vodka-toasting Muslims, usually of an older generation that still clearly remembers the days of the USSR. But for much of the younger generation, Islam plays an increasingly important role in daily life. For instance, only two years ago there were fifteen shops selling liquor to inhabitants of a small Ferghana town in southern Kyrgyzstan. Now drinking is shunned in the community and the sole remaining liquor store has mysteriously caught fire twice. The owner commented that if he takes any more such losses he too will be forced to close his doors.
Though extreme, this example is indicative of the direction society is heading in much of Central Asia. Even in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s comparatively cosmopolitan capital, some Western-educated Tajiks are becoming more and more cautious about where they are observed having a beer – a consideration that only became necessary in the last couple years.
What accounts for this increasingly polarized religious landscape in Central Asia? One of the most basic and important trends of Islam in the modern era is the drive to look to the original scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith, as the only true sources of religious doctrine. This form of fundamentalism is not so different from the motivations underpinning Protestant Reformation in Christianity. Though this doctrine has proven lasting and influential in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, it has not gone uncontested everywhere. Especially on the fringes of the Islamic world – in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia – Sufi missionaries brought with them a faith that was adaptable to local conditions. Hence, in the territories that make up contemporary Senegal, Indonesia, and Central Asia, Islam was historically highly particularized. In Senegal and Indonesia, not only have traditional forms of Islam persisted, they have become entrenched and politicized, sometimes morphing into political parties and often opposing fundamentalist incursions from elsewhere in the Muslim world.
You might expect to find local incarnations of Islam dominating in Central Asia. After all, the region is the birthplace of famous Sufi orders like the Naqshbandiyya
The explanation lies in the peculiarities of the Soviet experience. Although communism was philosophically opposed to religion in all forms, some varieties were worse than others. In the Soviet mindset, superstition and demagogy were among the worst manifestations of the “opiate of the masses,” and hence Sufi Ishans (leaders of mystical orders) in particular were targeted as exploitative and traditional practices – such as pilgrimages to shrines – were discouraged or banned. The Soviets even went so far as to put in place Muftis (government-appointed religious leaders) who favored sober, scriptural interpretations of Islam when the USSR was forced to cede some ground to religion during World War II. Moreover, passing on textual learning was a practice that could be performed in private; rituals were much easier for the government to regulate. Scholars like Martha Olcott have even traced the incursion of some fundamentalist ideas
The stage was set for the growth of fundamentalist Islam well in advance of the breakup of the USSR in 1991, which opened the floodgates to foreign ideas and funding. Thousands of Central Asians are traveling abroad each year, primarily to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan, often with all or most expenses paid for by Islamic charities and government-funded institutions. Turkey has a formal arrangement set up with the government of Kyrgyzstan to provide multidisciplinary training (including secular as well as religious subjects) for Kyrgyz students both in Ankara and Osh (a city located in southern Kyrgyzstan). Students from this program often return to participate in Kyrgyzstan’s religious board or to teach in the Islamic department of the Kyrgyz state university. Those who gained their education in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States (the latter of which are awash in oil money, allowing them to fully support a vast quantity of students) are more likely to teach at a private mosque or start their own study groups. As each of these foreign-educated Muslims takes on his own students (often over fifty at one time), it is hard to overemphasize the impact of international currents of Islam on discourse in Central Asia.
But, the region’s Islamic revival is not just down to foreign hands. While international connections are everywhere, the sparks have generated a phenomenon locally rooted, even if its themes have resonated from abroad. For instance, a Kyrgyz Muslim educated at Al-Azhar University in Egypt on the government of Kuwait’s dime founded an Islamic organization called Adep Bashati. The organization’s funding is one hundred percent local, drawn from pious, wealthy Kyrgyz businessmen. Founded only in 2004, the organization already boasts over 1000 members and devotes itself to educating people in the basic tenants of Islam, hosting well-attended seminars about issues at the forefront of people’s minds – like alcoholism, the role of women in society, and the acceptability of traditional practices. Adep Bashati also translates religious literature from Middle Eastern languages, but with modifications and additions to make them relevant to the Kyrgyz context in particular. Their framework and vision is clearly influenced by their founders’ education in Egypt, but is also quite local to the Kyrgyz context.
Central Asian governments find the rise in piety and alternative power structures in the mosques threatening – not to mention Russia and the United States. But so far the response of local governments has been muted. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, regimes are coming to terms with how to use Islamism to entrench their power. For the present, the governments of the ‘Stans remain nominally democratic police states where one party rule is dominant. But they may yet come to struggle with rising numbers of disaffected Islamists, as Ignatius’s thriller once predicted.