Magazine article World Affairs

Islam and Democratic Politics in Central Asia

Magazine article World Affairs

Islam and Democratic Politics in Central Asia

Article excerpt

The year 1991 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Central Asian republics (CAR) where the dream of national independence was quickly transformed into political reality. Interestingly enough, the CAR's population as a whole played a marginal or, at best, an indirect role in the realization of that dream. Rather, it was the breakdown of the Soviet central authority that provided an almost effortless opportunity for independence. Unfortunately, the rapidity with which political freedom was brought to bear left the CAR ill-prepared to fill the ideological void created by the collapse of Marxism, leading to the proliferation of a variety of ideological trends, the roots of which were inadvertently nurtured by Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. Of these, only the Islamic trends seem to have become the main source of preoccupation for the West.

Clearly, there is legitimate room for concern given the twentieth century radical and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and the practical implications of such interpretations that have, among other things, given rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran and other forms of extremism elsewhere in the world. It is the availability of such Islamic doctrines to the CAR that has greatly contributed to the overall uncertainty with regard to the future political development of these newly-emerging states. But, in conjunction with Islam, the democratic forces have established viable organizational structures, presenting a powerful alternative with popular political objectives. Unfortunately, not only the Islamic, but also the democratic forces have been vigorously contained by the present governments of the CAR whose leaders, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, have been ex-Communists turned democrat. This study is an attempt to put into perspective the dynamics of Islamic and democratic politics in post-independence Central Asia.


In retrospect, the Islamic revival in Central Asia was triggered by Gorbachev's well-advertised policy of glasnost in the late 1980s.[1] Designed to address a completely different set of political problems in the Soviet Union, glasnost became an officially endorsed policy instrument for expression of religious grievances that eventually brought about a qualitative shift in the orientation of the Soviet government toward religion. Quite expectedly, it was the Christian faith that became the early beneficiary of Gorbachev's glasnost, as exemplified by the government-assisted celebrations of the Millennium of Christianity in June 1988. It was not until a year later that Islam was granted similar concessions, and only after public protests made it clear to the authorities that the Central Asian Muslims demanded their fair share of religious freedom.

The first series of Islamic protests in the CAR occurred in December 1988 when spontaneous demonstrations by Uzbek students broke out in Tashkent. Although the focus of the demonstrations was the restoration of the Uzbek language and culture, some participants were reported to have raised green banners - a symbol of the Islamic faith - and read Koranic verses during the demonstration.[2] Two months later, a second public protest was carried out by Muslims in Tashkent to demand the resignation of the head mufti of the Religious Board of Central Asia and Kazakhstan,[3] Shamsidin Babakhanov ibn Zeyudin. Accused of gross violations of Islamic codes of conduct, he was forced to resign, putting an end to nearly four decades of an almost hereditary rule of the board by the Babakhanov family.

The Babakhanov affair caused serious concern among the local party leaders as well as members of the Council for Religious Affairs. This was perhaps the first and only direct public attack on the legitimacy of the official clerical establishment controlled by the Communist authorities in Central Asia. To prevent further chaos and disorder, the chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, Konstantin Karachev, decided to attend the Fourth Kurultay of the board in March 1989 and formally announce the new Soviet religious policy as it related to Islam. …

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