The New Political Islam in Central Asia: From Radicalism to the Ballot Box?

By Karagiannis, Emmanuel | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The New Political Islam in Central Asia: From Radicalism to the Ballot Box?


Karagiannis, Emmanuel, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the establishment of new Muslim-majority states in Central Asia has raised important questions about the role of Islam as both a force of opposition to and legitimization of the ruling regimes. This article will first describe how Central Asian leaderships have maintained a dichotomous policy vis-à-vis the Muslim faith: they have attempted to nationalize and ethnicize Islam while promoting secularism. Moreover, it will claim that political Islam in Central Asia is neither coherent nor monolithic. While radical Islamic groups have remained rather marginal, there is a new peaceful variant of political Islam on the rise that resembles the moderate Islamist movement in the greater Middle East. As opposed to Islamic radicals who want to establish an Islamic state, the new Islamists of Central Asia seek a more public role for the Muslim faith without confronting state authorities.

The natationalizatation and ethnicizatation of Islam

For 70 years (1922-1991), Central Asia was one of the most isolated Muslim-populated regions in the world. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, Central Asia opened up to the greater Muslim world and experienced an unprecedented Islamic revival. In the early 1990s, foreign imams came to Central Asia to preach their versions of Islam and Islamic literature inundated the region. Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan financed the construction of new mosques and offered scholarships for the training of new imams. This revival was as much driven by external powers as it was driven by the result of a renewed quest for religious identity among Central Asian Muslims.

The return of Islam in public life took post-Soviet leaderships by surprise. Moscow had viewed the Muslim faith with suspicion and had attempted to impose secularization on the local population. The political elites of Central Asia, largely consisting of former apparatchiks (communist bureaucrats) who turned overnight into nationalist leaders, treated Islam as both a solidifying force and a threat.

In the early to mid-1990s, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the only religious grouping of states in the world. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted a flag with a crescent moon and stars symbolizing Islam. The Kazakh authorities have celebrated the 12th-century spiritual leader and poet Ahmad Yasavi as a "Kazakh national saint" despite the fact that the ethnogenesis of Kazakhs most likely took place in the mid-15th century.1 Likewise, the Turkmen regime has endorsed Sufism as an integral part of the local Islam and financed the rehabilitation of Sufishrines. In addition, the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha-a celebration that commemorates Abraham's willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son-has been recognized as a state holiday throughout Central Asia. In other words, Islam has become an integral part of the state apparatus in Central Asia.

More importantly, the "founding fathers" of Central Asian republics have utilized Islam to cement their grip on power. In October 1991, Askar Akayev's inauguration as the first president of Kyrgyzstan was accompanied by a blessing from the country's Mufti-Islamic scholar. President Karimov held the Quran in one hand and the country's constitution in the other on the day of his inauguration as the first president of independent Uzbekistan in December 1991. In 1992, Karimov wrote, "Islam is the religion of our forefathers, the substance and essence of the Muslims' daily existence."2 Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1995 and President Rahmonov of Tajikistan followed him in 1997. Obviously, personal devotion to Islam was seen by Central Asian leaders as a necessary prerequisite for political survival.

Following the breakup of the Soviet-approved Muslim religious bureaucracy, Central Asian regimes pursued the nationalization of Islam. …

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