THE ISLAMIC REVIVAL IN CENTRAL ASIA

The active role of Islamist movements in this complex geo-strategic area

by Glauco D’Agostino

Central Asian Islamism plays a special connecting role between religion and society, confirming the socio-political dimension Islam also covers, and refuting the claims of its exclusion from public participation processes.

The legacy of the Soviet Union, which had compressed religious freedoms in the name of State atheism, has not compromised mass adhesion to Islamic values, while it’s true that Central Asian Muslims are distributed today according to the following national rates: 97% in Tadzhikistan, 89% in Turkmenistan, 88% in Uzbekistan, 80% in Kyrgyzstan, 70% in Kazakhstan. But, beyond the faith acceptance, the involvement in political life next to the Islamist movements strengthens the perception of Islam as an “integral system” serving the build of a marked political framework and not merely a sectarian witness in a vague society. Obviously, each movement brings its own solution for establishing order and justice according to the Islamic precepts, by ranging from democratic reformism to the attempt of subverting running institutions.

Meanwhile, Islamic political actions are dependent on the geo-political relations established in an area in touch with military and economic giants such as Russia and China, or affected by sensitive internal situations such as in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; or even in a political environment with geo-strategic pressures exerted by non-Asian powers such as U.S. and E.U. This is the backdrop in a nutshell:

  • Kazakhstan. Constantly growing economy, this country is rich in energy resources and business and investment friendly. China is paying attention to its gas sector;
  • Uzbekistan. Currently the most populous country in Central Asia with over 30 million inhabitants, it’s historically the political driving force and the focal point of Central Asian civilizations, but today is also home to a context of inequalities, corruption and authoritarianism. It hosts the German airbase of Termez and the USA military base of Karshi-Khanabad, the latter being a logistics centre for non-military supplies and part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), connecting the ports of the Baltic and Caspian Seas to Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. It will serve easing the 2014 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan over the coming months;
  • Turkmenistan. A secular republic with strong autocratic tendencies, it has chosen a foreign policy neutrality and freedom in international business, by opposing foreign interference into its economy. This has prevented neither the construction of a pipeline connecting to China nor the Chinese interest in the Southern Yoloten-Osman gas field, the one with the largest reserves in the world. It could be the source of the proposed $ 7.6 billion Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAPI), funded by the Asian Development Bank to deliver the Caspian natural gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan;
  • Tadzhikistan. Plagued by a civil war between 1992 and 1997, it has gone through a period of political instability and dependence on Russia, which still keeps a considerable military presence in. Such as Kyrgyzstan, it should be a transit area of the proposed Chinese gas pipeline from Iran, while is a matter of Chinese concern for projects in the transport and development sectors;
  • Kyrgyzstan. Following two institutional upheavals, now it houses both Russian and U.S. military bases. The American military presence in Manas is part of the aforementioned logistics Northern Distribution Network.

So far, as Chinese and Russians are interested in trade and energy investments (China is a major importer of consumer goods in the region), even Americans are moving in this direction, for instance by encouraging the CASA-1000 Project (Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade) for energy supply from Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but mainly functional to approach the Central Asian countries to South Asia, moving them away from Russian influence.

In terms of military alliances, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the expansion of the Shanghai Five -Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan, with a subsequent participation of Uzbekistan), a basically anti-NATO group aimed at fighting terrorism, and in practice strongly supported by Chinese for the stability of the Uyghur Muslim-inhabited Xīnjiāng Province, is flanked by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, promoted by Russia in alliance with all the Central Asian Republics.

Of course, as long as social problems common to each Central Asian republics are numerous (including insurgencies and terrorism of Afghan origin, weapons proliferation, drug and human trafficking, environmental issues), there are also troubles among states, such as:

  • deadly ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan (the most important ones in 1990 and 2010), with the former being disgruntled towards the Uzbekistan leadership to not receive any tangible help supporting them;
  • regional tensions in Tadzhikistan;
  • scramble for water resources between Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan, due to the expected effects of the Rogun Dam, in the early stages of construction in southern Tadzhikistan;
  • ethnic instability around the States external borders, as the Pakistani populations from Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province were spilled into the neighbouring countries of Iran and Afghanistan.

The Islamic revival in Central Asia is part of this context, by arising mainly from the FerghanaValley, a densely populated and ethnically composite area straddling Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan. This Valley, a traditional hotbed of the pan-Turanic Basmači rebellion against the Bolsheviks in 1918-34, is still the engine of several Islamist movements, especially those operating in Uzbekistan.

Hanafi official Islam, tolerated and administered by the Soviet State and survived in the region after attempts to suppress mosques, was able to keep open the Bukhara Mir-i Arab Madrasa, the only Koranic school active throughout USSR, and the Taškent Imām al-Bukhari Islamic Institute. Another Islam, the unofficial and “parallel” one, strengthened by Sufi orders such as Naqshbandiyya and Qādiriyya, was operating by the help of female staff for basic Islamic training and by underground schools. Neo-Wahhābism, perhaps covertly encouraged by the authorities for bounding the influence of the local traditionalist trends, emerged in the 80’s by the itinerant preaching of Rahmatullāh ‘Allama and Abduwali Mirzaev, who were influenced by the ideas of Aḥmad ibn Taymiyya, Ḥasan al-Bannā, Sayyid Quṭb e Abū ‘l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī. They founded their own small underground religious schools and began secretly printing Islamic books and disseminating publications by ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb e Sayyid Quṭb and a vein of smuggled literature illegally imported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In particular, they spread their teachings throughout the Ferghana Valley, where Abduwali directed a mosque in Andijon. Abduwali has vanished mysteriously in 1995, but his sermons are still listening through internet. Also, some of their students have formed a mosques and madāris network in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan.

Furthermore, a recovery of connections between Basmači descendants who fled to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and their original Central Asian families arose. The Afghan war, in particular, has had the effect to link Central Asian Muslims to the jihādi fighters abroad, by opposing them, however, to the military Muslims recruited by the Red Army: among them, several defected and eventually fought beside their co-religionists against the Soviets. This relationship and the very notion of ​​a jihād in Afghanistan, which has become mass consciousness of local people, have provided, as a result, a cooperative connection among some Afghan Islamic fringe groups and the new Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan independent States.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, local branches of transnational Islamic movements have developed under foreign influence:

  • izb ut-Tarir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) (or Khalifatchilar), born in Uzbekistan in 1996 and especially prevalent in the Ferghana Valley and Taškent, is a non-violent opposition movement that is inspired by the eponymous transnational political party in order of uniting the Muslim countries in an Islamic Caliphate ruled by Sharī’a and elective. It’s well known for its strong message of justice and anti-corruption emphasis, but also for its attempts to alleviate poverty through charity and small businesses projects. Despite harsh repression, especially in Uzbekistan, izb ut-Tarir al-Islami keeps growing, since it’s perceived as motivated by deep-rooted values ​​and religious beliefs, rather than a mere special interest. However, it enjoys financial connections and support from Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan;
  • Akromiyya (or Akromiylar), a izb ut-Tarir al-Islami splinter group, such as the latter mainly widespread in the FerghanaValley and Taškent;
  • the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, born in Kabul in 1998, is influenced by the Afghan Tālibān and is acknowledged as one of the earliest fundamentalist organizations in the region. Led by Mullāh Tohir Abduhalilovič Yuldešev and Jumaboi Ahmadzhanovič Xojaev (called Juma Namangani), both neo-Wahhābi Abduwali’s disciples, this movement is aimed to overthrow the regime of Uzbek President Islom Abdug‘anievič Karimov and establish an Islamic State. Because of its Afghan origins, its recruiting base and operation have gained an international nature. Since the 2001 fall of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it would have merged with other Uzbek groups (e.g. the Islamic Renaissance Party of Uzbekistan) and Central Asian ones, to form the Afghan-based Islamic Movement of Central Asia and the Waziri-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement, but also undergoing spin-offs, such as that one by the Islamic Jihād Union;
  • the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tadzhikistan, as well influenced by the Afghan Tālibān, has sought and obtained legal recognition through the agreements to stop the 1992-97 civil war, then winning Parliament representation as an opposition party. It has connections with the Jamā‘at-e-Islami of the deceased Afghan hero Aḥmad Shāh Mas‘ūd, which is inspired by the Mawdūdī’s thought, the most important Islamist thinker of the sub-continent. It receives financial support through the Jamā‘at-e-Islami Sunni network in Pakistan, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi-sponsored telematic networks, and even an ideological support from the Uzbek diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, that is from the descendants of the exiled Basmači. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has helped by the construction of mosques and madāris in Central Asia;
  • the pacifist Sufi Movement of the Turkish philosopher and writer Fethullah Gülen, banned in Uzbekistan and Russia and closely monitored in other countries, but especially active in educational projects;
  • the Muslim Brotherhood, active mainly in Tadzhikistan;
  • the Āgā Khān’s Ismaili Shiites, acting by the Aga Khan Development Network social activities;
  • the Deobandi Tablighi Jamā‘at (Society for Spreading Faith), active mainly in Kyrgyzstan;
  • the Jund al-Khilāfa (Soldiers of the Caliphate), widespread in Kazakhstan, but also active in Afghanistan and Pakistan through associated movements.
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