Religion's Gap

By Akiner, Shirin | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Religion's Gap


Akiner, Shirin, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the Islamic factor in Central Asian politics and society has become the object of lively, and at times lurid, speculation. The outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 seemed to be proof that a wave of rampant Islamic fundamentalism had been unleashed in the region. A closer examination of the situation soon revealed that Islam was only an aggravating feature in a struggle for national supremacy among the regions within Tajikistan. There are huge regional disparities in the historical experience of Islam, as well as in contemporary socioeconomic indicators. It is nevertheless possible to identify several common trends which, though they vary significantly in scope and intensity by region, can be separated into 3 general categories: 1. traditional Islam, 2. government-sponsored Islam, and 3. purist Islam.

Text:

Islam and Central Asia in the 1990S

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the "Islamic factor" in Central Asian politics and society has become the object of lively, and at times lurid, speculation. The outbreak of civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 seemed to be proof that a wave of rampant Islamic fundamentalism had been unleashed in the region. A closer examination Of the situation soon revealed that Islam was only an aggravating feature in a struggle for national supremacy among the regions within Tajikistan. The peace treaty signed by the warring Tajik factions in June 1997 helped restore order to the country, but the situation remains fragile and a lasting settlement has yet to be reached. Despite the strong evidence that a complex web of tensions were responsible for Tajkistan's civil war, the theory that the "Islamic factor" is key to the politics of Central Asia is still widely maintained.

The few instances of field research in Central Asia have been hampered by small sample sizes and regional variations of Islam. There are huge regional disparities in the historical experience of Islam, as well as in contemporary socioeconomic indicators such as level of urbanization, rate of demographic increase, educational standards, geographic mobility, and ethnic heterogeneity.

It is nevertheless possible to identify several common trends which, though they vary significantly in scope and intensity by region, can be separated into three general categories: traditional Islam, government-sponsored Islam, and purist Islam.

Traditional Islam

"Traditional" Islam is used to describe the conservative, generally passive attitude to religion that continues to characterize the outlook of the great majority of Central Asian Muslims. As most observers would agree, Islam is still perceived as more of an ethnic definition than as a religious allegiance. A strong sense of obligation "to maintain the traditions of our forefathers" manifests itself in varying degrees of religious observance. For a few, it involves a strict performance of the prescribed rituals. Most, however, tend to affirm their Islamic identity in a more cursory, symbolic fashion. Whatever the level of active participation in religion, the emphasis tends to be on preserving formal continuity rather than searching for enlightenment or for a deeper understanding of the faith.

In the immediate aftermath of Central Asian independence there was a great upsurge of enthusiasm for mosque construction. In Turkmenistan, for example, there were only four mosques open for worship in the 1980s, but over 180 had sprung up by 1994; in Uzbekistan, in a similar period, the number rose from 300 to 5,000. This dramatic rise occurred throughout Central Asia. Moreover, many Muslim schools and madrassah (colleges) were opened, and courses were provided for children and adults in the study of Arabic, the Qu'ran, and related religious topics.

The physical proximity of places of worship encouraged people to attend services on a regular basis, and in the early 1990s mosque congregations grew rapidly. …

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