The Middle East's Relations with Asia and Russia

By Hannah Carter; Anoushiravan Ehteshami | Go to book overview

5

The contestation of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia

A nascent security threat

Shirin Akiner

During the Soviet era, links between Central Asia and the Middle East, in so far as they existed at all, dated from the 1960s and were mostly related to the use of Islam as a tool of Soviet foreign policy. Contacts in this period included the participation of Central Asian clerics in international Islamic conferences and exchange visits of high level delegations. A small number of graduates, nominated by the official Soviet Muslim administration, were sent to countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Libya to perfect their Arabic and to further their religious studies at approved Islamic universities. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the newly independent Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) established formal diplomatic relations with these and other countries of the Middle East. There were some, mostly ephemeral, attempts to promote economic ties, but only Turkey and Israel succeeded in developing a significant commercial presence in the region. 1 The main area of interaction between the Arab world and Central Asia remained that of the shared religion, Islam. Contacts, still very largely regulated by official channels, were mostly restricted to specific activities. However, informal links developed outside the purview of the authorities, leading to the dissemination of new ideas, new interpretations of the faith.

Throughout the seventy-odd years of Soviet rule, Central Asian Muslims were almost entirely isolated from the wider Islamic community. During this period they experienced complex cultural and social transformations. In some ways their history is unique and sets them apart from the rest of the Muslim world. Yet increasingly, as they become more integrated into the international community, so their responses to Islam are beginning to resemble those that are found elsewhere. In particular there are striking parallels with the situation in some Middle Eastern states. Thus there is cooptation of Islam by ruling elites, underpinned by close government control over Islamic institutions. Likewise, leaders draw on Islamic rhetoric and symbolism to validate their regimes. The fiercest opposition to such regimes comes from radical Islamists; 2 in most cases the latter are subjected to brutal repression, thereby creating a powerful dynamic of action and reaction. A similar model is being created in Central Asia today, where competition between these

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