Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- 'Official' Religion And 'Unofficial' Faith

Washington, 14 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An official at Turkmenistan's Council for Religious Affairs has acknowledged that his government agency controls the selection, promotion, and dismissal of all Sunni Muslim mullahs and Russian Orthodox clergy in that republic.

Mered Chariyarov, a longtime official at the Turkmenistan Council, this week told a representative of the Keston Institute, an Oxford-based religious rights watchdog organization, that his state body has registered only the Sunni Islam community and Russian Orthodox Church and actively controls the assignment of Muslim mullahs and Christian priests and hierarchs.

That policy leaves Turkmenistan in violation of the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Indeed, it could become the basis for Ashgabat's expulsion from the OSCE. But what is more significant, it also threatens to recreate the Soviet-era division between tightly controlled "official" churches and often radicalized "unofficial" religious activities.

The reemergence of such underground religious groups, particularly among Muslims who had significant experience with them in Soviet times, could contribute to the rise of precisely the kind of fundamentalist challenge to political stability in Central Asia that both regional leaders and many outside powers say they most fear.

As was the case during the Soviet period, both the requirement for registration and the ability to assign religious leaders appear to give the government enormous power over those believers who do register by allowing the regime to pressure religious leaders into cooperating with the state by informing on their congregations or even to place secret police agents in place of genuinely religious people.

But this Soviet approach also had the effect of depriving the mullahs and Christian clergy who participated in such "official" churches of their authority and of driving many of the religious leaders and their followers underground into "unofficial" congregations far beyond the control of the state and often in clear opposition to it.

For no other faith was that trend greater than Islam. On the one hand, Islam does not have a clergy as such. Any believer who can read the Koran can serve as a leader. And on the other, the communist authorities were contemptuous of Islam, an attitude that appears to have made them particularly clumsy in promoting their own "official" version.

Indeed, across Central Asia, followers of what was sometimes called "underground" or the "non-state" version of Islam simultaneously subverted efforts by the communist party authorities to maintain control and provided a popular foundation for the small, pro-independence parties which emerged at the end of the Soviet period.

With the collapse of Soviet power, many expected that this system of official registration and government intervention in the lives of religious groups would end. Some did so because they thought that an end to government interference would be a hallmark of the expected democratic transformations of their countries. Many others had that expectation because they believed the authorities would recognize how counterproductive such involvement was.

But nowhere has the state entirely withdrawn from its involvement with religion. Virtually all post-Soviet governments have retained the Soviet practice of requiring religious groups to register with the authorities in order to operate legally, and most have kept the Soviet-style councils for religious affairs to monitor the situation -- often as in Turkmenistan with the same officials in the same positions.

Until now, however, none of these regimes has admitted to using these councils to control the assignment of religious leaders. It is possible that Turkmenistan is the only one that is now doing so, but both the existence of similar councils in other post-Soviet states and the continuity in structures and personnel in these bodies in many of them suggest that the Turkmenistan admission points to a far larger problem.

Nowhere is this problem likely to be greater than across the predominantly Islamic countries of Central Asia. To the extent that governments there are following Ashgabat's lead, they seem certain to produce precisely what they say they most fear: a religious population increasingly alienated from governments that appear, as did the Soviet regime until the very end, far more powerful and stable than they in fact are.