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State Islam, Outsiders Compete For Influence In Central Asia

  • Bruce Pannier

Muslim men pray during Friday Prayers at a mosque in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Some Central Asians question whether their local clerics are influenced by politics and state doctrine.

Muslim men pray during Friday Prayers at a mosque in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Some Central Asians question whether their local clerics are influenced by politics and state doctrine.

“Islam is a religion of knowledge," the cleric told a television audience. "Unfortunately, some people attempt to use Islam -- the religion of knowledge, goodness, and development -- wrongly or for their own selfish ends."

It's a message that might not appear extraordinary -- the virtues and peaceful nature of Islam have long been espoused -- until you consider the source. As imam-khatib at Tashkent's Kukeldash Mosque, Anvar Qori Tursunov enjoys the backing of the Uzbek authorities, making it apparent that his words address not only Islamic adversaries, but perceived enemies of the state itself.

In the ideological vacuum left by the demise of communism, religion reentered the scene in Central Asia. And with officially sanctioned Islam pitted against outside interpretations that authorities do not want to take root, the region's regimes have deployed clerics like Tursunov in an ongoing battle for influence.

Central Asia's Islamic history dates back more than a millennium, but for most of the 20th century, the region was part of the Soviet Union, cut off from the rest of the Islamic world. With the fall of the USSR, the newly independent states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan quickly re-embraced their Islamic heritage.

Islamic groups saw fertile recruiting ground in the region, with its 50 million primarily Sunni Muslims. Since making their entrance to the region, they have posed an immense challenge to clerics like Tursunov in thousands of officially registered mosques.

Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow and director for the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., says that the governments of Central Asia were unprepared for the arrival of widely divergent religious groups from outside the region.

"Central Asia was perfect ground and many of the governments in Central Asia at the time, including Uzbekistan, did not understand that not all Islamic groups are the same,” Baran says.” They did not know and they did not understand that some of them are radical, some of them have political ideologies."

Over time, the states of Central Asia tried to strengthen the voice of their official interpretations of Islam by silencing the outsiders. Hizb-ut Tahrir from the Middle East, Tablighi Jama'at from Pakistan, Salafiya from the Arab world, and Nurchilar from Turkey were banned, among other groups.

But despite these bans, continued reports of arrests of various prohibited groups' followers in Central Asia suggest that they enjoy significant support, and that their appeal may even be on the rise.

Competing Sects


The chief mufti of Kyrgyzstan's Spiritual Directorate, Murataaly-Hajji Jumanov, the highest Islamic official in his country, explains the need to combat outside Islamic groups. "Their brainwashing of some of our citizens is a big problem," Jumanov tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "We can't hide our heads in the sand and ignore them, we have to prevent this and maintain order. Otherwise we will have problems later."

The preferred alternative preached by Jumanov and other state clerics is the region's traditional Hanafi School of Islamic Law -- considered by some to be the most liberal of the four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali) -- mixed with Naqshbandi Sufism, a mystic order whose founder, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, came from Central Asia.

This form of Islam, its official adherents believe, best reflects the values of Central Asia's mostly Turkic and Persian peoples, and the region's rich Islamic history is often invoked by clerics and Islamic scholars as they exhort people to resist forms of Islam arriving from other countries.

But another element of the region's history works against state Islam. Sultans, emirs, khans, and others tried for centuries to bend Islamic clerics to their will, knowing that Islam was the greatest unifying force in their regions, and therefore both the biggest potential threat to their regimes and the best way of legitimizing their rule.

Today's regimes, in this respect, are no different than their predecessors.

Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda of Tajikistan has a unique perspective on the modern role of Islam and the state in Central Asia. He was the Qazi Qalon of Tajikistan, the country's highest Islamic imam, in the last years of the Soviet Union and first years after Tajikistan became independent.

He joined the Islamic opposition that was fighting government forces during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war and was forced to flee the country. But he and other opposition figures were amnestied as part of the agreement that ended the war, and he has been back in Tajikistan for more than a decade.

Turajonzoda, who since his return has held state positions not related to religion, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service there is a clear connection between the state and the imams preaching in mosques.

"Some 90 percent of imams are appointed by the government, by local government [officials] and offices of the security agency,” Turajonzoda says. “Even the law says that imams are supposed to be appointed by worshippers at the mosques with the approval of the government. But it is actually the government that selects who the imams will be, and when they appoint imams it is clear [the government] controls the mosque through these protégés."

Clerics Under Pressure


The influence of the state is apparent in mosques throughout Central Asia. As Kudrat, who spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on condition that his full name not be used, explains, official clerics are not entirely free to say what they wish.

Kudrat prays five times daily and goes to mosque when he can -- "Fridays for sure," he says -- but laments that "our clerics are very restricted and talk only about the way to behave. We need to learn about politics also."

Qosimi Bekmuhammad, a Tajik expert on politics and religion, supports Kudrat's impression. State clerics, he says, “avoid speaking about important topics, the problems of today and tomorrow, and concentrate on topics from 500 years ago."

Adding to the problem, according to the Hudson Institute's Baran, is that some state-trained clerics are simply unable to answer all the questions youths have regarding social justice or identity issues. Seeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, they get conflicting messages about whether the West is at war with Islam, and what they should be doing, because state-trained imams focus "primarily on Islamic ethics and [are] purely sticking to religious areas."

"They are not able to always answer the questions that the youths have, and then the youth goes to the charismatic and self-appointed religious leaders or imams who do then provide them often with black-and-white answers that seem satisfactory," Baran says.

This failure to address contemporary issues exposes a significant vulnerability of state Islam in Central Asia, according to Bekmuhammad.

While he does not think that a large number of young people have been attracted to outside Islamic groups, he recognizes that the social conditions in Central Asia have led some to join up with outside, and potentially violent, forms of Islam.

"Never say all youth do this, but some do,” Bekmuhammad says. “There are several reasons. First, there are socioeconomic conditions. There are no jobs. These problems have been in the country for 15 years and have led to disappointment among young people."

The youth of Central Asia, Bekmuhammad says, are looking for advice and spiritual instruction on how to be good Muslims and still survive in the modern world. And this is where state imams are not delivering an adequate message.

In their effort to recruit new followers, outside Islamic groups also seize on state Islam's connection to secular authorities to discredit its message.

Separation Of Mosque And State

Ayubkhan is a member of Hizb-ut Tahrir, a group formed by Palestinians in the 1950s that is officially banned throughout Central Asia. Ayubkhan currently lives in Kyrgyzstan's section of the Ferghana Valley. He spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, on condition that his full name not be used, about why he has no faith in state Islam.

"The mufti and his people -- in a democratic country they don't have to do what the government says. There is a law on religion and the government being separate,” Ayubkhan says. “Politicians should not be involved in the mufti's affairs and the mufti should not follow government orders. The Koran says the mufti should follow Shari'a. I don't see the mufti doing this."

Tajik expert Bekmuhammad notes that young people who join outside Islamic groups "often do so because they feel governments in their countries have too much influence in Islam, whereas they would rather Islam had a dominant influence in government."

Hizb-ut Tahrir member Ayubkhan backs Bekmuhammad's assessment.

"I study Shari'a and study Hizb-ut Tahrir. I found out that Hizb-ut Tahrir teaches exactly what the Prophet Muhammad wanted us to know,” Ayubkhan says. “The Holy Koran is the ideology of Hizb-ut Tahrir -- not just how a person should live in society but how a person should serve other people."

Body And Soul

State clerics themselves portray the relationship between official Islam and secular authorities in Central Asia as inevitable.

Omurbek, the press secretary for Kazakhstan's Muslim Religious Directorate, speaks of a symbiosis between Islam in his country and the state.

"According to our constitution the state and religion are separate. But, in fact, we can't divide the body from the soul of a human being,” Omurbek says. “A human being has reason, a body, and a soul, and we can't separate them. It's not possible."

And Omurbek is insistent that it is not the state that is influencing Islam, but Islam that is influencing politicians.

"God forbid there would be such a thing! To the contrary, our president himself built a huge mosque in the town where he was born,” he says. “Following his example, many rich people, governors, mayors, and others are building many mosques."

Kyrgyzstan's chief mufti Jumanov says there is no reason for conflict between Islam and secular authorities in his country.

"First of all, of course, in a secular country sometimes there are different opinions on religion, but during my time as mufti I haven't seen any problem or conflict,” Jumanov says. “On the other hand, our state is following the correct policy toward Islam. From our side we are trying to work on a path where religion doesn't have any conflict with state policy."

There are, of course, the examples to the contrary. One notable conflict between state Islam and the secular authorities happened in the most authoritarian of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan.

In 2002, Turkmenistan's chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, objected to having passages from authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov's "Rukhnama," his lengthy spiritual guide, inscribed on the walls of a new mosque alongside passages from the Koran. The mufti was sacked, convicted of plotting to kill the president, and jailed for 22 years.

So state imams do have limitations on what they can say, and authorities expect those imams to support the state.

‘Connections To Terrorism’

For many Central Asians dissatisfied with their governments, Islamic opposition groups represent the best and sometimes seemingly only hope for changing the system.

This may explain why Central Asian governments often portray these outside Islamic groups as having links to terrorism.

There is no question that some members of these groups clearly are violent. In one recent example, Imam Anvar Qori Tursunov of Tashkent's official Kukeldash Mosque was stabbed outside his home on July 31, 2009. Several Islamic militants killed in a security operation in the Uzbek capital in August were blamed for the attack.

In neighboring Tajikistan, the small extremist group Bayat has for years been tied to sometimes deadly attacks against non-Muslims and state-approved Islamic clergy.

But while Central Asian states often resort to describing adherents of alternative forms of Islam as "terrorists," the label is sometimes false.

Former high imam Turajonzoda rejects charges that all the foreign Islamic groups have connections to terrorism.

"I'm not really sure they are terrorists,” Turajonzoda says. “I'm against terrorism myself, against forcibly propagating ideas, against extremism. But most of these organizations are terrorists in name only."

Turajonzoda says that by trying to paint all these Islamic groups with the same brush, Central Asia's governments and state imams only discredit themselves. Central Asians see how some groups behave and perceive them as pious, not violent. This leads people to question the motives of authorities and state imams in branding all groups as terrorists.

Others suggest alternative methods of dealing with the outside Islamic groups.

Tursunbai Bakir Uluu, a former Kyrgyz ombudsman, has called for legalizing Hizb-ut Tahrir in his country. This, he believes, would allow the group to publicly demonstrate what it has to offer, while removing the element of mystery that may attract some to the Islamic sect.

His appeal was rejected and Hizb-ut Tahrir remains banned in Kyrgyzstan and throughout Central Asia.

"I think the region in general still suffers from knowing too little about Islamic history and their own history, because Central Asia once upon a time used to be the center of Islamic civilization,” says the Hudson Institute’s Baran. “Across the Silk Road there were great centers of Islamic learning where scientific thinking and spirituality and rationality and knowledge spread from Central Asia to the rest of the Islamic world and brought great civilization."

It's a message that official clerics like Tursunov of Tashkent's Kukeldash Mosque might incorporate in future sermons. Confidence in traditional belief systems, combined with the ability to communicate those beliefs today, might prove to be the most effective way of countering the influence of outside Islam.

Saida Kalkulova and Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Iskander Aliev and Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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