Sunday, November 2, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Central Asian Gastarbeiters in Russia Turning to Islam

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 2 – Many Russians fear that gastarbeiters from Central Asia are bringing Islam into Russia, but a new study shows something that may disturb residents of Russian cities even more: Many Central Asian gastarbeiters who had little or no interest in Islam in their homelands are turning to the faith precisely because of their experience with migration.


            Sophie Rochet, a Heidelburg University researcher, says that there are many reasons for this: a protest by Central Asians against being surrounded by people who consume too much alcohol, increasing consciousness of their identities and a search for their roots, and an effort to provide defense mechanisms against the changing situation in Russia itself ( and


            Because of Soviet anti-religious efforts, many Central Asians do not have much knowledge about Islam even now, and they do not turn to Islam while they are living in their home areas. But the experience of migration to Russia or elsewhere often leads them to the faith, she says on the basis of interviews with Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Russian capital.


            Immigrants in Russia become believers, Rochet says, primarily as a result of contacts with compatriots who have been there longer and also as a result of the use of the Internet.  But the main site where this process is taking place are the markets, often dominated by Central Asians, in the Russian capital.


            “The markets are like a state within a state. They have their own mission and their own rules,” she says.  Various trends of Islam are represented, including radical Salafis and the Jamaat Tablig. But in most cases, young Central Asians are less interested in their message than in more mainstream Muslim beliefs, and they do not become radicals at least at first.


            Despite Rochet’s conclusion, the Islamization of young Central Asians is certainly going to disturb not only the Russians among whom they live who will view this as a challenge to the Russian way of life but also and perhaps more seriously among Central Asian elites who will fear that this migrant-driven shift to Islam may become a threat to their rule.


            The five Central Asian governments have been worried about the impact of Muslims from their populations who have studied at medrassahs and Muslim universities in the Middle East and South Asia and become radicalized. Now, they may have reason to fear yet another source of radicalism: the experience of immigration in the Russian Federation.


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