Religion in a Vacuum: How Central Asian Islam was Radicalized

This latest post written by Christopher Buttner for the course Religion and Politics in a Global Context Fall 2014. Please take the time to read this post. Chris is an excellent student and has a very promising future.

Chris Buttner is currently a Junior at King University where he majors in Security and Intelligence Studies.  He hopes to continue his studies into graduate school and then transition into a career with the intelligence community where he plans to become an intelligence analyst.

 

Christopher Buttner
Christopher Buttner

Central Asia’s historical narrative is one of political turbulence and volatility. The region’s rich history has been formed, in part, because of several geological factors that make Central Asia a unique landscape to attempt to rule. Being landlocked in the center of the Eurasian continent set the region up to be the crossroads of civilizations. Trade routes that would take caravans through Central Asia made the region attractive to civilizations from the East and West alike, presenting an economic prize to whoever could hold on to the territory. The extreme topography and harsh deserts that exist in this region keep Central Asia sparsely populated with its inhabitants clinging to the lush mountain valleys. All of these features are fit neatly between two rivers that separate the region from the rest of the world, offering a final warning to any potential conquerors who may be too shortsighted to not recognize that they too would see many similar attempts at this land if they were to be successful.

Indeed, these factors have made Central Asia a region that has been traditionally “ripe for conquest but difficult to rule”. (Rashid 17) These traditions of trade and conquest exposed the Central Asian people to a myriad of cultures, creating a unique melting pot dynamic. A significant characteristic of this melting pot of cultures has been its religious tolerance, which accepted Islam that came with Arab people around the year 650. (Rashid 21) The region would go on to become a beacon of Islamic intellectualism and produce several widely recognized religious leaders and monuments of religious importance. Bukhara, between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, was the largest theological center for Islam. Takht-I Sulaiman, “throne of Solomon”, has long been a sight of pilgrimage for Muslims in the region for its historical status and association with the ancient prophet from which its name is derived. (Crews 252) Islam, since its introduction to the region, has been a significant part of Central Asian identity. It is only recently, since the Russian overtaking of the region, that Central Asian Islam has become marginalized in the global context.

Russian attempts at colonizing Central Asia, as part of the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain, were successful in a limited sense and also the first steps towards a collapse of Central Asian Islam. The Russians sought to civilize the Central Asian people who they considered to be backwards. An Orthodox-Christian state, Russia feared that a failure to civilize the Central Asians “would bring the seeds of pan-Islamic fanaticism to fruition and compromise the security of the region.” (Thrasher 13) These efforts to destroy the Central Asian identity and force them to force them to accept their subordinate nature would create tensions that would build up to the Basmachi revolts. These largely Islamic revolts would occur alongside the Bolshevik revolution.

The Bolshevik revolution would divide the people of Central Asia about which side to support. While the Russians had been oppressing the Central Asian people, they had no interest in becoming Soviet either. One notable supporter of the Bolsheviks were the Jadids, who believed that they could obtain more freedom from the Bolsheviks. (Rashid 31) These supporters of the Bolsheviks would prove to be wrong and would go on to be wiped out in the massacres of 1937. (Rashid 31) The Soviet Union would prove to be militantly anti-religion. The Soviet Union would denounce religion as the “opium of toiling masses, distracting them from the social struggle against the exploiting parasites”. (Ersahin 9) Islam in Central Asia would be harshly cracked down upon by the Soviet Union. That which remained would become politicized and used as a tool by the Soviets. (Ersahin 20) This oppression of Central Asian Islam would create a void in the Central Asian identity. This essential characteristic of the identity would be missing until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Once the fall of the Soviet Union occurred, the creation of five new states in the region marked the beginning of a new chapter for the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were all given a choice between their old identities and communism. To the surprise of many, the transition from communism to an autonomous identity lasted well into the independence period. (Cooley 19) The patrimonial system of governance adopted by the Central Asian regimes set these states up to be characteristically oppressive and power-hungry. (Cooley 16) This system of governance is a relic of Central Asia’s Soviet history. Ironic that it has left these regimes in such a weak state that they are forced to resort to quasi-colony behavior just to survive. The regimes of Central Asia have been particularly oppressive of their people in an attempt to maintain their control of the power structures in the region. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Central Asian states have always ranked towards the bottom with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan being particularly horrible.

The oppressive nature of the last 150 years for the region of Central Asia has perverted its cultural identity and, with it, its ideas of Islam. Islam in Central Asia was once a proud theological culture that preached religious toleration and acceptance of other cultures. It is now represented by a militant interpretation of the Quran and propped up by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It is difficult to fault the general population for this shift in ideology. Extreme issues call for extreme solutions. There is a reason Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a major player among those who seek a caliphate. There is no basis for believing that these oppressive regimes will suddenly begin to listen and accept the ideology they have worked so hard to quell over the years through peaceful means. This does not condone the methods through which terrorist organizations operate. It only attempts to understand the thought processes that drive people to these murderous organizations.

With only the Kyrgyz Republic being a bastion of hope for legitimate change in the region, progress in this conflict should not be expected. Barring another revolution in the region, oppressive regimes will remain in power in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan and continue to push people to seek a solution through any means possible. Ideology can only be defeated by a better ideology. As long as the reality presented by state officials is worth suffering to get out of, people will flock to these terrorist organizations, whether they adopt the perverted ideology or not. It is also worthy to note that two of the region’s neighbors to the south are some of the most active states in the world when it comes terrorist activity. In 2013, Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked second and third respectively in the world in terms of terrorist activity according to Vision of Humanity’s Terrorism Index. Central Asia is a known transit region for opiates grown in Afghanistan. (Cooley 158) It logical to believe that if drug traffickers can enter and exit through Central Asian state borders easily then so too can terrorists. If the problem is not domestic, it could become foreign.

Of course, terrorism is only a symptom of the perversion. That being said, it is a good measuring tool considering that terrorist organization are only able to operate effectively on a large scale with the support of the public. The fact that these organizations are able to thrive is an indicator of the broader issue. Central Asian Islam has been radicalized.

Works Cited

Cooley, Alexander. Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Crews, Robert D. For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

Ersahin, Seyfettin. “The Official Interpretation of Islam Under the Soviet Regime: A Base for Understanding Central Asian Islam.” Hamdard Islamicus 28.4 (2005): 7-20. ATLA Religion Database. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Rashid, Ahmed. Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Thrasher, Matthew J., “How to Make a Colony: Reform and Resistance in Russian Turkestan, 1865-1917” (2010). Honors Projects