Foreign Policy Blogs

‘Getting Religion’ in Central Asia (Part 2 – National Debates)

Islamic prayers at a square in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek

Islamic prayers at a square in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, 2013 (Photo credit: Reuters, via

Denied an Uzbekistan visa, I instead visited the second and third most religious nations in the region. Current debates show increased interest in Islam, but very different approaches.

One of the biggest questions among analysts in 1991 was whether the five republics of Central Asia, after 70 years of Communism, would re-claim their historical faith and become a region of political Islam. Almost 25 years on, secular autocrats still rule and recognize Muslim traditions but keep faith out of governance. Trends in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are challenging this.

Have some faith

A handful of recent reports in Kyrgyzstan’s national media recount increased numbers of youth attending mosque and headscarves worn by young women. While perusing the capital, Bishkek, in April I noticed signs for “halal” food (acceptable for Muslims) dotting storefronts. Olessia, an ethnic Russian and lifelong resident, told me “that is something very recent.”

In Osh, the largest city in the south, Boumairam, an English teacher, asked me, “Do you see those girls walking around with their face covered? That wasn’t happening five years ago.”

There are also reports of increasing numbers of Central Asians going to Syria to fight alongside Islamic rebels. A quick conduit to the Middle East is a direct Turkish Airlines flight from Osh (adjacent to the religiously conservative Ferghana Valley) to Istanbul, offered at cut rates this past spring.

In southern neighbor Tajikistan, with a more religious populace, the government manages worship on its own terms. In 2009 it required the registration of religious organizations, and since 2011, no one under 18 can attend mosque.

Whence the rediscovery of faith? In certain areas of Central Asia Islam never subsided. In Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley some communities attended mosque throughout the Soviet era. Top-down nationalism has meant accommodating and even celebrating Islamic values. And, in one of the more worrying developments, foreign proselytizers bring newer, sometimes more radical, ideas about Islam to a rural, relatively uneducated faithful.

Foreign groups known for radicalism and militancy have predictably been outlawed. Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), or Party of Justice, a movement with roots in the Middle East that has made inroads in Central Asia, is banned in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), or Society of Preachers, which began in nearby India in the 1920s, is banned in all the republics but (curiously) Kyrgyzstan.Periodic arrests of suspected members of these groups highlight both government fear of their influence and continuing general interest.

mosque courtyard in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, May 2014

Mosque courtyard in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, May 2014 (Photo credit: Jason Anderson)

While all these developments describe increased religious interest, there is no evidence of widespread political buy-in. Whether through adept state management or simple disinterest in combining courts and the Koran, no meaningful group has come forward backing political Islam as seen in the Middle East or South Asia. The rough exception to this is Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), official recognition of which was a gesture after talks resolving the 1990s civil war, whose influence is limited due to domestic regional differences and many Tajiks questioning compatibility of Islam with a secular state.

The point is, few in the region are calling for a Caliphate. In a Pew Research Center 2013 poll, when asked to support governance by Islamic law or shari’a, the median in favor in Central Asia was 12 percent, the lowest of any region surveyed, including south-eastern Europe (18 percent).

Whether or not they regard Islamists as a threat, autocrats that have successfully sidelined political oppositions in past years would have more difficulty countering a religious party that draws from across the political spectrum. In such a way do national debates about religion take on increasing importance.

Kyrgyzstan: Poor teaching, with tacit approval of Tablighi Jamaat

Compared to its regional neighbors, Kyrgyz authorities are behind when it comes to state policy on Islamic worship. After heads of state were forcibly ousted in 2005 and 2010, and a change from a presidential to a parliamentary system, higher-ups have presumably had other priorities. Yet if there are increasing numbers of youth in mosques today, will there be a swell of Islamist political pressure 10 or 20 years down the road?

An incident near Osh last March illustrates an unfortunate but periodic reactionary interest in Islam. Several men in their 20s and 30s were arrested (Russian, p. 21) at a house where police found weapons and ammunition. The men were planning to rob “unbelievers” and send the money to Syria, and attack fortune-tellers and astrologists, which they believe is sanctioned by Koranic law. A trend of uneducated ideas has been leading to radical plans, per Kadyr Malikov, Head of the Religion, Law, and Politics Center in Bishkek. As he lamented, “Their leader’s top credentials were that he had studied Arabic in Syria.”

Kadyr Malikov enlightens the Arab-language student [credit: Delo Nomer]

Kadyr Malikov enlightens the Arab-language student
(Photo credit: Delo Nomer)

 While politicians refuse to legalize an Islamic political party, the private lives of some in the government and security structures tell a different story: many are members of Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). This group, which stresses a simple lifestyle similar to that of the Prophet Mohammed, is spread through proselytization and claimed by members to be non-political. Per Esen, an analyst in Bishkek, there is widespread influence of TJ among the militia and security sevices, especially in rural areas. Other research shows members to also be among higher education and civil servants. Moreover, the Grand Mufti, head of the government’s religious affairs agency, installed last February, is the former Emir of Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan. (By contrast, Esen says, the influence of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the banned organization, has greatly waned.)

Maksat Hajji Toktomushev on the mic - credit

Toktomushev, Grand Mufti and former head of Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan (Photo credit:

Could Tablighi Jamaat one day reform the state through Islamic principles? Or is it just a community for people who wish to privately express faith, as exists in dozens of other countries, many with secular democracies. Growing interest in Islam, if not necessarily political, continues to be on people’s lips, so much so that President Atambaev in February spoke out against what he termed “Arab culture,” observing that “there are many people with long beards on our streets now. They force our girls to dress in black instead of light and colorful clothing. This is what widows usually wear.”

Tajikistan: Top-down and locked down

With a religious revival dating from the 1970s, strong cultural ties to Uzbekistan, and an Islamic group that vied for national power during the 1990s civil war, Tajikistan is much more religiously conservative. Such is the awareness that an Islamic group could pose a political threat to the secular government that President Rahmon has prevented the organization of any non-traditional, faith-based group. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), legalized in 1997, has been gradually weakened and sidelined in a public fashion. Security services routinely detain and question foreigners or journalists who meet with IRP managers.

There is no doubt who manages organized worship: The government’s Committee on Religious Affairs, which mandates registration of mosques, appoints imam-khatibs at central (“Friday”) mosques across the country, and distributes Friday sermon topics. In a further step at control this past February, the government began paying the salaries of imam-khatibs and requiring a uniform. When communities try to go their own on worship, unregistered mosques are simply closed down or destroyed.

Dushanbe cranes and cupolas: investing for growth, and faith [credit: Jason Anderson]

Dushanbe cranes and cupolas: investing for growth, and faith (Photo credit: Jason Anderson)

A central character in the drama over the country’s religious identity is Hoji Akbar Turajonzada, a leader of the IRP in the 1990s, who then served as Vice Prime Minister and Senator. Turajonzada is one of the few with both religious and bureaucratic credentials who holds considerable sway; he and his brothers officiate at a mosque just east of the capital, where sermons have such appeal that they are recorded and later sold at bazars. As such, he is a threat to state direction of Islamic principles. Turajonzoda has particularly been controversial with his support of women praying in mosques, which the Committee on Religious Affairs opposes. In 2010 one such mosque was destroyed by fire, which the IRP refuses to believe was accidental.

While the authorities have a firm grip on worship, they have a fragile grasp on low-flame separatist sentiment in the east and southeast of the country. As holdover groups from the civil war, some communities in the Rasht Valley (just east of the capital Dushanbe) and in the vast Mountainous Badakhshan region are dismissive of the government exerting control over their regions. In conflicts in 2010, 2012, and this past May, armed locals and devolving demonstrations challenged Dushanbe’s assertion of power, whereby the government labelled resistance as Islamist or terrorist activity.

A shared legacy

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share the post-Soviet legacy of reduced funding for health and education. Both countries’ economies depend on a trickle of revenues from mineral resources and remittances from migrant brethren in Russia.

Poor state funding for education, and related corruption, has affected college-age students. The purchasing of grades and diplomas has resulted in widespread apathy about pursuing degrees by following the rules. As Shairbek Juraev, Deputy Director of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, told me in April, when well-funded groups give young people a path to follow – in the form of more conservative Islam – and coat it with encouragement, that system becomes more meaningful than the decrepit, rigged system. “Religion provides hope, and the government does not,” Juraev said.

Both countries are also looking for a happy medium between religious groups that meet away from mosques and the current, state-mandated system of mosque management. The faithful, however, have difficulty accepting state officials as divine representatives. Being instructed how to worship by a secular autocrat usually pushes people away from the government, and out of view.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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