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Central Asia: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam (Part 2)

Turkmenistan's President Niyazov (file photo) In most Central Asian states, governments place controls on the practice of Islam by requiring that mosques and other institutions operate only with permission from state-approved religious authorities. The governments say the controls are necessary to fight militant Islamic groups that vow to overthrow the region’s presidents as dictators. It is unclear just what the militant groups would bring in the current governments’ places, but the presidents are taking no chances. Nowhere is that more evident than in Turkmenistan, where the president has sought to portray himself as a messenger of Allah as well as the leader-for-life of his country. RFE/RL correspondent Allamurad Rakhimov reports in this second part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia.

Prague, 5 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking of his book "Rukhnama," (Book of the Soul), Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said: “It ['Rukhnama'] appeared by a miracle of Allah. It came from above through me and I just inscribed it on paper. Therefore, the mysterious marvel of it will be great for the Turkmen nation.”

The book, whose first volume was published in 2001 and the second in 2004, is a collection of the president’s thoughts on politics, nationalism, religion, culture, and the destiny of his people.

Today, quotations from Niyazov’s book are inscribed alongside verses from the Koran in the largest mosque in Turkmenistan -- a mosque the president built in his own native village of Kipchak. And the government has made it obligatory to study the "Rukhnama" in kindergartens, universities, and government offices.

Analysts say Niyazov’s thoughts have become part of the state-controlled religious life of the country. “Imams in Turkmenistan are forced to quote from the 'Rukhnama' and hold 'Rukhnama' classes in the mosques and have copies of the 'Rukhnama' on the shelf in the mosque, on the same shelf with the Koran,” said Felix Corley, chief editor of the Norway-based news agency Forum-18, which reports on religious freedom worldwide.

Corley said religious leaders risk imprisonment if they try to resist the influence of Niyazov -- known as Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen) -- on spiritual life. The country’s former chief cleric, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, reportedly refused to declare Turkmenbashi a “true messenger of God.” As a result, he was sacked and sentenced last year to 22 years in prison on charges of treason.

Niyazov’s efforts to co-opt Islam by elevating himself to the level of a spiritual -- as well as political -- leader is an extreme example of how some Central Asian governments battle for the hearts and minds of believers. But in all five Central Asian countries, the governments require mosques and madrasahs (religious schools) to register with the state as a condition for operation.

And throughout the region, governmental bodies with names like the Council for Religious Affairs control the selection, promotion, and dismissal of Muslim clergy -- from the mufti, who is the top religious official in the country, to the heads of mosques.

The efforts appear to reflect a conviction that Islam is too potent a social and political, as well as religious, force in Central Asia to leave it beyond the state’s control.

Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov regularly accuses militant Islamic groups of seeking to use religion to recruit members to overthrow his regime. He has cracked down on groups that do not register with the government by closing their meeting places and arresting thousands of their supporters. He also regularly links such groups to “international terrorism,” branding them a danger to society.

“The danger of international terrorism is global. Today, none of the cities or villages of the world can be guaranteed [free] from the blows of international terrorism and we control the situation very carefully in Uzbekistan,” Karimov told a cabinet meeting in December.

Tashkent has charged Islamic militants with inciting the unrest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on 13 May. But human rights groups say that in Andijon at least 500 people, mostly unarmed civilians, were killed in firing from government troops.

Radical groups in Central Asia such as Hizb ut-Tahrir say they want to remove the region’s leaders as dictators and establish an Islamic state in their place.

Turkmen sociologist Farkhad Iliassov of the Moscow-based analytical center Vlast says Islam is growing into a potent political force in Central Asia because democratic alternatives for change are suppressed. “In the absence of democratic alternatives [in Central Asian countries] with mostly liquidated socialistic values, the only remaining hope and ideology for the poor, destitute, and oppressed is Islam," he told RFE/RL. "[People] can’t expect help from, or appeal to, any other alternative ideology. Particularly that is the case in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.”

Among the five Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan place the tightest restrictions on political activity, forbidding any opposition parties not composed of sworn loyalists of the president.

Kazakhstan has allowed opposition parties to register, and this week permitted the country’s largest opposition alliance to nominate its candidate for the next presidential election, possibly to be held in December.

Tajikistan is the only country with a registered Islamic opposition party. That party was registered after a 1997 peace agreement between the government and the then armed Islamic opposition that ended the 1992-97 civil war.

And in Kyrgyzstan, opposition parties led street revolts earlier this year that overthrew the regime. Kyrgyzstan is now in the process of trying to establish a working multiparty system following a presidential election on 10 July.

How effective have been the efforts of Central Asian leaders to control Islam as a means of suppressing political opposition?

We will look at that question in the third part of our four-part series on Islam in Central Asia.

See Part 1: Central Asia Returns To Muslim Roots