Staunton, May 9 – When the Soviet Union disintegrated, many in Central Asia identified as Muslims even though they often had little experience with or knowledge of Islam. They were described as “ethnic Muslims,” people who accepted the idea that their nations were historically Islamic and therefore they were Muslims.
That situation opened the door to the rise of Islamist radicalism because missionaries and local activists promoted their visions of Islam among the peoples of the region, and the targets of this propaganda effort quite often lacked the knowledge necessary to distinguish between what was truly Islamic and what was the political program of those promoting particular messages.
Now, a generation later, the situation has changed, limiting the possibilities for the rise of Islamist radicalism on the one hand and giving it new possibilities for growth on the other. The peoples of Central Asia now have far greater opportunities to acquire information about their faith and thus have a template against which they can compare it to Islamist messages.
But at the same time, the political leaderships of the countries in the region, many of whom remain more affected by the Soviet past than even their populations are promoting a kind of political Islam, one in which the provisions of Islam are used selectively to promote their agendas rather than to promote the faith as such.
These leaders may be trying to domesticate and thus deracinate the religion in order to protect their own power, but in so doing, they too affect the religion as such and thus make it easier, not harder for others to manipulate Islam for alternative political ends, including the most radical ones.
How the countries of Central Asia should move confront and overcome these dangers is an increasing focus of discussion. And a particularly useful example of this comes in the comments of two scholars, Emil Nastritdinov of Kyrgyzstan and Galip Zhusipbek of Kazakhstan (caa-network.org/archives/21792/sezon-4-tradiczii-i-modern-epizod-2-ot-etnicheskogo-islama-k-politicheskomu).
In detailed comments, Nastritdinov, a practicing Muslim, and Zhusipbek, who is more an ethnic one than otherwise, discuss the changing relationship among populations which are increasingly Islamic, governments that fear being left out or challenged by an Islam they don’t control, and others who play up fears of Islam or antagonism to Islam for their own benefit.
Nastridinov says that in his country, Islam is playing an increasingly dominant role. Kyrgyzstan has about 100 medressahs, more than twice as many as exist in all the rest of Central Asia combined. These are producing people with varying understandings of Islam but also people committed to promoting these understandings of the population.
And they have reason for confidence, he suggests. According to a local saying, “when the caravan turns back, the lame camel remains ahead.” What that means in this case is that the Muslim community was always behind the curve before 1991 but not suddenly finds itself in the new position of leading the pack. No one is quite sure how this will work out.
Zhusipbek says that things have changed radically since the 1990s. Then, young people led the way in showing interest in Islam. They were often radical more because of their age than because of the faith as such. Now, things have changed. Islam has come to dominate older groups and governments as well.
Young Central Asians today, he continues, often say that they are “believers but do not follow any specific religion.” Only later in life do Central Asians begin to focus on one faith. That too complicates the relationship between ethnic and real Islam and between the people and the government.
“Traditional Islam exists as semi-officially sanctioned Islam; that is all those groups which are considered non-traditional are viewed with suspicion.” The problem, however, is that traditional Islam cannot solve many of the problems of the day, especially the problems of inclusiveness, of who is a Muslim and who is not.
As a result, “in all the countries of Central Asia, there exists a certain confusion about certain social concepts,” including the state, nationality, and the relationship of language to identity. To overcome this, many want to make Islam “a national religion,” but that in and of itself distorts Islam, Zhusipbek says.
And that in turn opens a new door for a new radicalization.