Thursday, September 14, 2017

Potential for Protest in Central Asia on the Rise and is Increasingly Channeled via Islam, Scholars from Region Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 14 – The growing influence of Islam across Central Asia now threatens secularism there, scholars from that region said at a recent meeting in Almaty; and if the regimes don’t find a way to generate support for secular values among the Muslim community, they predict that troubled times” are ahead for the region.

            The session was extremely unusual not only because it took place at all – such events have become increasingly rare in the last decade -- but also because speakers felt free to sharply criticize the views about Islam now current in both East and West and the policies of their own governments (іledі_ili_mutnye_perspektivy_islamizacii_czentralnoi_azii; for additional details, see

            Elmira Nogoybayeva, a Kyrgyz expert, told the group that one of the problems of talking about Islam in Central Asia is that there is no clear definition of what political Islam really is. Most outside groups and many politicians and commentators simply “demonize” the religion rather than consider what it is really about.

            If people go outside the major cities, she said, they will find that across Central Asia, “the mosque is the main method of socializing the population regardless of age or gender.”  And despite what officials say, protest attitudes are growing from their already “high” position. Consequently, more demonstrations of various kinds can be expected.

            One reason many don’t see that is that they fail to understand that Islamic protest does not fit “in the traditional definition of political opposition but rather within religion.” Muslims vote with their feet as it were separating themselves from government functions rather than challenging them.

            This is quite a worrisome signal, Nogoybayeva continued, because it means that protest in Central Asia is already “being channeled through religion” rather than through any secular or civic institutions.

            Sardor Salimov, an Uzbek political analyst, said that in his country “the rebirth of Islamic identity has occurred,” with “ever more people not simply conducting the rituals of the religion” but trying to bring their society into correspondence with Islam and using Arabic to appeal to the Most High.”

            Today, he added, “a critical mass of mature and educated Muslims” has arisen and is ready for action in the public sphere including in politics.  “Ever more activists from among Muslims are ready to demand that state policy be conducted in correspondence with Islamic values.” This isn’t the end of secularism, of course; but it is a threat to its current state.

            Abdugani Mamadazimov, a Tajik scholar, reported that in his country Islamic identity not only competes with but often is stronger than the Tajik one. “Perhaps we do not have VVP [a reference to Putin] but on  the other hand we do have our traditions,” of which Islam is one of the most important.

            Sanat Kushkumbayev, the deputy director of Kazakhstan’s Institute for Strategic Research, noted that the statistics about the number of mosques and mullahs show that Islam has been growing in his country but “for a lengthy period, [it] was on the periphery of social progress.” But now “it is rapidly returning to the arena.”

            The authorities are compounding the problem because they are approach Islam the way the Soviets did through the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system, but that system which was all about control rather than cooperation retains its “birthmarks” and does little or nothing to promote cooperation or even conversation between Muslims and the state.

            Other speakers made equally intriguing interventions. One said that “today no one is surprised when white Nazis become Islamists. This is a global alternative as in the time of fascism, liberalism or communism. One is thus speaking not about the politicization of Islam or the Islamization of politics but about protest.”

            A second pointed out that in Central Asia, “people are going into religion because there is no civil society or political parties. The authorities at one period though that worked to their benefit.” But no longer, given that “the limits of secularism and Islam are very fluid,” as Turkey has shown recently.

            And a third said bluntly that in Central Asia today, “secularism is in fact under threat. If governmental policies continue without change, then sooner or later Islam will take the place” of their authors. “Put simply, if the political base of secularism … continues to contract and does not receive support from the umma, then Central Asia faces troubled times ahead.”

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