ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM IN CENTRAL ASIA: WHY IT APPEARED AND WHAT TO EXPECT

Sergei ABASHIN


Sergei Abashin, Ph.D. (Hist.), senior researcher, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russian Federation)


In Central Asia Islam fought back to the political and ideological scene and created the dominant of the regions developments in the last decade. This is a paradox: it was nearly for 70 years that Soviet power was driving religion away from social life. In the 1980s-1990s Central Asia lived through an outburst of religious feelings described as Islamic renaissance that was, in fact, societys re-Islamization. The situation demands answers to the questions: What made renaissance possible? What are its causes? What can we expect from it?

Russian analysts have formed two opinions about this phenomenon. Some associate Islamic renaissance with so-called traditionalism. It was formulated back in 1989 by Professor of Moscow University S. Polyakov.1 He believes that throughout the last century social order in Central Asia remained the same and practically unaffected by superficial modernization. The basic social structures and institutions also remained the same. He argues that under Soviet power Islam that was part of the traditional structures and institutions while preserving its positions retired to the background. When the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Central Asian republics found themselves in an economic, political, and ideological crisis Islam moved to the foreground and claimed the leading role in the regions political and social life. In fact it was the form of Islam that had predominated in the nineteenth and early twentieth century before Russians came and religion was subjected to massive pressure.

This opinion is quite popular in Russia.2 Formulated to criticize the local Central Asian regimes it is now exploited by them in official rhetoric. (In one of his interviews President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov described Uzbek society as a traditionalist one.3 Recently, the thesis about a certain traditionalist Islam in Central Asia has gained popularity.) The term traditionalism was not accepted by the authors writing about the Islamic movement in Central Asia: a very narrow circle of experts, pupils of S. Polyakov, are insisting on it.4

The conception of the so-called fundamentalism is even more popular. Those who accept it argue that it was a different Islam that resurrected in Central Asia in the 1980s-1990s, not the form that had existed there at the turn of the twentieth century. They say that Central Asia was invaded by a different form that appeals not so much to the century-old tradition but to the times of the Prophet Muhammad and four righteous Caliphs. The following are the typical features of the most radical variant of fundamentalism: the demand to erase all later additions (including many popular rituals) such as Sufism and worshipping of saints (pilgrimages to their burials, certain rites, etc.); the Koran and Sunna should be regarded as the only regulatory instrument of life for the faithful, the maddhabs are denied any role; jihad acquires a special role, it can be waged against those of the Muslims who retreated from the true faith; the Muslims have to wear beards, to shorten their trousers, etc.5 This means that fundamentalism is not mere a form of Islam that has little in common with traditionalismthe two forms are contradictory.

As distinct from the conception of traditionalism that tries to demonstrate how old Islam survived under Soviet power as a semi-legal religion, the conception of fundamentalism is very much concerned with the question of how new Islam has stricken root in the semi-traditionalist and semi-modernized Central Asian society.

Many Russian academics, political scientists, and journalists, as well as special services and politicians are convinced that all sorts of foreign political forces had an important role to play in the process. According to the experts of the Center for Strategic Development the weak statehoods in the Muslim CIS republics, an absence of democratic traditions of political struggle were exploited by international Islamic organizations On the whole, Islamic fundamentalists do not have a wide social basis and are not popular among various population groups there, the elite managers and the intelligentsia in the first place.6 Those who support the idea cannot agree about which of the foreign states are trying to plant a wrong Islam. Some point at Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan; others suspect the West.

One thing is clearthere is outside influence. Obviously, the Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran in 1979 and the ideology of the third (neither capitalist nor socialist) way of development affected the situation in Central Asia. Influence of Afghanistan is more and more strongly felt there.

Yet outside influence and the above states perfidious expansionist aims alone cannot be held responsible for Central Asian Islamic renaissance. There is no doubt that fundamentalism in the interpretation described above has been ripening in Central Asia for several centuries.

Islam lacks orthodoxy, the symbol of faith that is generally accepted and sanctified by divine authority that can help distinguish between true and false Islam. It has no internal instruments of coordinating the symbols of faith (like the Church in Christianity). This explains why for many centuries varied Islamic trends have been claiming the right to be regarded as the most exact expression of true Islam. At different times different trends dominated and declined or even disappeared. One can describe this competition as a struggle between those who wanted to adapt Islam to changes in material life and thinking and those who tried to put up a dam to novelties and remain loyal to the very much idealized and varnished past.

Fundamentalism in the Muslim East was represented, in different periods, by such vivid personalities as Ibn Jauzy (late twelfth-early thirteenth century), Ibn Taymiyya (late thirteenth-early fourteenth century) and other theologians of the conservative Hanbali School. Wahhabism, one of the most vivid examples of fundamentalism, goes back to the teaching of el-Wahhab, Arabian Hanbali prophet who lived in the eighteenth century. He sided with those who supported radical interpretation of the conservative ideas up to a ban to worship Kaaba and the Prophet Muhammad. This teaching indirectly affected fundamentalism in other parts of the Muslim world. In the nineteenth century the term was used first by English and then Russian students of Islam to denote any fundamentalist Islamic trend.

The controversy between the two trends in Islamic thought and politics was not as acute in Central Asia as in the Middle East. They coexisted within the Hanafi School that shows a lot of flexibility in treating theological questions and everyday practices. Still, in certain periods the teachers of the Sufi brotherhood of Naqshbandiya tended to fundamentalism. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they elaborated a doctrine that imposed on the Sufis a responsibility to influence the rulers so that to overcome the remnants of paganism and strengthen the norms of the Sharia.7

In the eighteenth century fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia was very much supported by the Sufi brotherhood Naqshbandiya Mujaddidiya, the teaching of which goes back to the philosophical and political views of Shaykh Ahmad al-Faruqi as-Sirhindi known as Mujaddidi Alf-i Thani (Reformer of the Second Millennium). He lived at the turn of the seventeenth century in India of the Mogols, belonged to the Naqshbandiya brotherhood, and tried to revive certain conservative ideas to fight the liberal reforms of Great Mogol Akbar. Those who supported the teaching objected to speculative philosophy and Sufi excesses. They wanted to see more unity in the Muslim world, stricter adherence to the Sharia, etc. Shah Waliallah, who lived in the eighteenth century, was one of the better-known followers of Ahmad Sirhindi. He moved much closer to Wahhabism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the teaching spread far and wide in the Near and Middle East. In many respects, it supplied an ideology of the anti-colonial movement in India, formed the ideology of Shamils Imamate in the Northern Caucasus, and was hoisted as a banner by the ethnic movements in Kurdistan and Afghanistan (the Taliban was rooted in it). Many of the precursors of the Jadid movement in the Volga area also belonged to this branch of Naqshbandiya, etc.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Mujaddidiya became very popular in Central Asia, the home country of the Sufi Naqshbandiya brotherhood.8 What is now called fundamentalism and comprises the struggle against popular cults and a very cautious treatment of the Sufi practices, sumptuous rites, etc. was an important part of domestic policies in Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand at the turn of the nineteenth century.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century when Russia conquered the regions larger part the fundamentalist traits of Islam became even more evident. The Dukchi Ishan revolt in Ferghana in 1898 is one of the best examples. His ideology was a mêlée of varied ideas. This Sufi movement (its leader Ishan claimed descension from prominent Central Asian Sufis) preserved the faith in miracles worked by saints. At the same time it was an anti-colonial movement. Its leader proclaimed himself pupil of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and called for restoration of an Islamic state in the region, his ideal being the Ottoman Caliphate. This was a fundamentalist movement: according to one of the spiritual genealogies Dukchi Ishan claimed ideological descension from Ahmad Sirhindi. In particular, he invited to fight excesses, to adhere to the Sharia, etc. Some of the Russian researchers called him a supporter of Wahhabism in line with the English tradition.9

All this means that the form of Islam that had existed in Central Asia before Russians came there and survived until public religious activities were openly persecuted in 1920s and 1930s was fundamentalist in many respects. This fact, first, disproves the ideas of those who support the conception of traditionalism and who tend to underestimate the degree to which fundamentalism was present in the region, and who prefer a varnished image of traditional Islam. Second, the fact disproves the ideas of those who, while supporting the conception of fundamentalism, are looking for its roots outside, rather than inside, the region.

The above corrects our ideas about the state of Islam under Soviet power. Strange as it may seem atheism added more fundamentalism to the minds of the Central Asian Muslims. Soviet power looked at the remnants (Sufism, Ishanism, popular cults) as its enemies. It was fighting them thus vacating social space for the future triumph of fundamentalism. B. Babadzhanov from Uzbekistan even insists that Soviet power concluded a peaceful agreement with the fundamentalists so that to fight their common enemy (traditionalist religious leaders seen as serious opponents by both sides).10 It is interesting to note that one of the muftis of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan when opposing novelties referred to Ibn Taymiyya (a medieval fundamentalist) and was branded as the first Wahhabi in Central Asia.11 (I have to remind here that any reference to this theologian is taken for a sign of Wahhabism.) It should be added that communist ideology supplied Islam with certain specific features: anti-imperialist sentiments, authoritarianism, the faith in equality and bright future, etc. This somewhat strengthened fundamentalism Soviet style and made it even more dogmatic.

One has to say here that social modernization of Central Asia that proceeded in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century under Russian influence indirectly contributed to the growth of fundamentalisms social basis.

In an effort to explain why fundamentalism is thriving in Central Asia Russian academics and political scientists normally refer to the social and economic crisis that hit the former Soviet republics in 1980-1990 and the resultant disastrous situation in which people found themselves.12 They are convinced that society will actively protest against all sorts of ideologies, will need simple solutions, and will believe in all sorts of idealistic religious projects as the standard of living declines, more and more people become outcasts while society itself tends to archaic patterns. A. Ignatenko who specializes in radical Islamic movements, says, for example, that these trends explain the present bias toward fundamentalist Islam that offers simple solutions of all problem: a return to the times of the righteous Caliphs.13

To my mind, the roots of fundamentalism should not be limited to the crisis caused by the attempt at modernizing social and economic life in Central Asia. It is a product of both failures and successes in this sphere. Modernization destroyed societys closed nature, inertia and illiteracy, and brought instead mass migrations, general education, developed communication and transport, openness, etc. This could not but affect the local peoples Muslim world outlook.

In the past village dwellers looked at Islam as a socially limited phenomenon: they were Muslims because they belonged to a certain family or a group of relatives, a clan or a community. Being superimposed on the local communitys social structure the religious structure faithfully followed it. One can say that Islam was the religion not of individuals but of a group of neighbors or relatives. Islam was present at social events, family and economic rituals in which everybody were expected to participate. Each person had his or her special role to play that depended on sex and age. While young men were allowed to skip praying sessions and fastingthis was not considered to be a great faultit was the duty of the elderly to pray and fast and take part in all religious procedures. Social life of women was separated from the social life of men.

People were born as Muslimsas a Muslim by birth man could violate religious rules for good reason and was not condemned. A clear conception about the faith and the finer points of the religious dogmas was not requiredthis bred in peoples minds strange ideas about the history of Islam and its outstanding figures.

The clergy consisted of literate persons, mullahs; their children normally followed in their footsteps thus breeding nearly closed dynasties. Each of the mullahs was independent in many respects and was not accountable to any religious person or institute. Their main duty was to sanctify the family and economic rituals, their knowledge was often limited by several prayers. In this sense the mullah was a sort of a pagan priest responsible for rituals and having no social duties. In all other respects he was a common member of a kindred or village community.

An ishan, or pir played a much more important social role: he was a religious leader with the status of a saint, that is, a man possessing certain inner features including an ability to work miracles. For his followers he was the only authority, the only spiritual power that, according to the Sufi doctrine, was absolute.14 Every Muslim had a pir of his own, normally inherited from one of the parents. B. Karmysheva, well-known ethnographer, wrote that according to a more or less commonly accepted conviction in the past there was not a single man without a pirotherwise common people would have looked at him as an apostate.15

In the last decades, modernization, industrialization, migration and social mobility, higher educational level, and the media and communication means considerably changed the social structure of Islam in Central Asia. Islam stopped being a means of local communicationpeople who knew little of each other met in the prayer house to discuss politics, latest news supplied by TV and the press. Today, participation in family rituals is not enough to be recognized as a Muslim. The role of rites and rituals is being reconsidered: they become unified, some of them become shorter, others are totally removed. Today, it is not enough for a common Muslim to perform the ritehe should be aware of its meaning. A more conscious attitude to Islam dictates a new nature of performing rituals: today skipping a prayer or fasting is a serious failure. Each person has become more responsible for his personal observation of the religious rules. In the past people were Muslims on the strength of their belonging to a definite grouptoday, Islam is a personal choice. At the same time each individual can associate his religious affiliation with different elements of the Islamic teachinghence an inevitable division in the Muslim society into numerous Muslim parties each insisting on its own idea of Islam.

The new social structure of Islam is marked by an attempt to overcome sex-and-age differences. Not infrequently young people pray together with the older generation and participate in the religious life of their communities. There are even attempts to bring together men and women. They are invited to take part in common rituals, including those performed in mosquessomething that was absent from Central Asia for several centuries.

The countryside acquired new types of religious leaders: by its persecution of the so-called saints Soviet power created a social niche for the mullahs. Today they play even a more important role. The requirements placed on the mullah changed together with the changes in Islam. On the one hand, the demands are much stricter. Today, a mullah needs official confirmation of his knowledge of Islam supplied by the state religious structures. On the other, the traditional age and social origin limitations have been removed.

The nature of their activities in the countryside has also changed. Today, they cannot claim spiritual authority as saintsthey stopped being sort of pagan priests and became preachers. The rituals are no longer their only concernthey have to spread the ideology of Islam and observe that it is strictly obeyed. Today, mullahs frequently communicate among themselves and are organized into a hierarchical structure. In fact, they are developing from a closed caste into a party.

It is necessary to say here once more that, as distinct from the old times when affiliation with Islam stemmed from an affiliation with a group, today Islam is personal choice. Modernization has opened a wide range of preferences: atheism, liberalism, communism, nationalism, etc. From this it follows that even if Islamic fundamentalism is inevitable it is supported only by a section of society.

Extremism and Islamic Fundamentalism (by Way of Conclusion)

By the late twentieth century Central Asian society had already caught the virus of fundamentalism. Outside forces did not introduce this form of Islamthey activated the virus. One can even say that any ideology imported to the region (be it Shia from Iran or secular-national from Turkey) would have acquired fundamentalist traits. By the logic of its internal development the local society had been prepared to embrace fundamentalism.

By way of forecast one can say with a great share of certainty that societys re-Islamization will go hand in hand with its fundamentalization. This does not mean that Wahhabism is imminent and that there will be a fight against the popular rites and Sufism. Wahhabism has an alternative in various forms of fundamentalist Islam that do not irritate the local people with petty limitations imposed on the rites, dress styles, prayers, etc. These fundamentalist forms concentrate on criticism of the social and political order of the Central Asian states. Fundamentalist elements can be detected in official Islamic rhetoric, the circumstance that affects the minds of the local Muslims.

Should this be taken to mean that because of popularity of the fundamentalist ideas among part of the Central Asian population the regions countries are doomed to political instability in the nearest future, stepped up terrorism and armed struggle, or even Islamic fundamentalists at their helm? The latest events in the region have already provided a positive answer (with certain reservations) to this question. Blasts in Tashkent, inroads of the armed detachments of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in other republics, and a fast growth of popularity of a new (not Wahhabi) Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir16 leave no doubt about the medium-term perspective. Military actions in Afghanistan may destabilize the situation. Fighting intensified in autumn 2001 in connection with the American antiterrorist operation there and the accompanying radicalization of the Islamic movement in Pakistan.

The forecast should be specified: Is this true that the mounting political instability in Central Asia is directly connected with the spread of Islamic fundamentalism? The majority of serious experts usually answer in the negative. Evgeni Primakov, former foreign minister of Russia and an Orientalist, wrote: We should not identify Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic extremism.17 In other words, one cannot say that re-Islamization brings political upheavals together with it.

Fundamentalism per se does not breed conflicts. At the same time one cannot ignore the obvious facts that fundamentalism and extremism in Central Asia are connected. Fundamentalism and Islamic extremism have common social roots in the region: they are directly connected with social modernization. Fundamentalism is, to a great extent, a result of positive social transformations while extremism emerged amid the deep-cutting social, economic, political, and ideological crisis that shook Central Asia as the old social order was hastily removed. In other words, these are two synchronous phenomena that may partly intertwine.

This blend is inevitable for reasons far removed from objective processes. In the post-Soviet period political elites in many former Soviet republics experienced considerable changes: at first, there appeared legal opposition that later either came to power (legally, semi-legally or illegally) or joined the old elite. In any case state power acquired new sources of its legitimacy thanks to symbolic revolutions and formed its own attractive image, etc. through elections. Nothing of that sort happened in Central Asia: the old elite retained power and remained legitimate. This was especially obvious in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where authorities cut short all attempts at setting up legal opposition.

Today, Uzbekistan, the largest among its Central Asian neighbors, is living through a period of difficulties. Local opposition went underground, part of it emigrated, became even more radical and armed itself. To justify repressions the authorities attached a tag of fundamentalism to it. The word became a bogey term evoked every time Islamic rebirth is discussed.18 The use of it is designed to deal with two tasks: to mobilize those who do not want to live in an Islamic state and, the main task, to enlist support of Russia and the West, in which anti-fundamentalism is part of the already existing ideology. This produced an unexpected effect: the extremists have grown fond of the fundamentalists Muslim slogans and exploit them to extend their social basis. On the other hand, fundamentalism has acquired new reasons for further radicalization and for confronting the authorities with political claims.

One can say that many Russian experts are convinced that Uzbekistan and probably other Central Asian countries have an alternative to upheavals. Tajikistan demonstrated this alternative in the 1990s when the events had been developing in an approximately the same direction as they are developing in Uzbekistan but at a much faster pace. The authorities had tried to quench the opposition created by the wave of quasi-revolutionary changes of the turn of the nineties. They scared the nation, Russia, and the rest of the world with an onslaught of Wahhabis. As a result the opposition armed itself, discarded its former slogans that passed for democratic or national-democratic ones, and replaced them with fundamentalist aims. A civil war flared up. The turn came in 1998: through the efforts of several countries and international organizations the fighting sides signed a peace agreement, the official authorities transferred 30 percent of all state posts to the opposition that, in its turn, abandoned its radical slogans and plans of revenge. In this way former Wahhabis became common bureaucrats, the fundamentalist ideas faded while Islamic extremism nearly completely disappeared.

Yet there are still prerequisites for a new outburst of radicalism: the social and economic crisis, a high level of crime, political instability created by the fact that not all opposition groups were included in the peace process, etc. New opposition (Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example) may become stronger and try to change the political balance of forces. Still the only way toward peaceful fundamentalism in Central Asia, struggle against extremism, and toward stable peace in the region lies through talks, coordination of interests, sharing of power, involvement of international organizations, and investments (no matter how risky) in economy.


1 See: S.P. Polyakov, Traditsionalizm v sredneaziatskom obshchestve, Moscow, 1989; see also: S. Polyakov, Everyday Islam: Religion and Tradition in Soviet Central Asia, M.E. Sharpe, London, 1992.

2 See: A.V. Malashenko, Ob islame v Srednei Azii, ili Zametki na poliakh odnoi knigi, Vostok, No. 2, 1991, pp. 188-190; S.V. Cheshko, Sredniaia Azia i Kazakhstan: sovremennoe sostoianie i perspektivy natsionalnogo razvitia, Rasy i narody, No. 20, 1990, p. 113.

3 See: I. Karimov, Uzbekistan ne aisberg, chtoby dreifovat, Izvestia, 11 November, 1997.

4 See: D. Mikulskiy, Musulmanskiy fundamentalizm v SNGpravomerna li postanovka voprosa? Segodnia, 11 November, 1993.

5 See: A.A. Iarlykapov, Kredo Wahhabista, Vestnik Evrazii, No. 3 (10), 2000.

6 Ugrozhaet li Rossii panislamizm i islamskiy fundamentalizm? Azia i Afrika segodnia, No. 2, 1996, p. 6.

7 See: B.M. Babadzhanov, Politicheskaia deiatelnost shaikhov Naqshbandiya in Mawerannahr (1-ia pol. XVI v.), Candidate thesis, Tashkent, 1996.

8 See: B.M. Babadzhanov, On the History of the Naqshbandiya Mujaddidiya in Central Mawarannahr in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries, in: Muslim Culture in Russia and Central Asia from the 18th to the Early 20th Centuries, ed. by M. Kemper, A. von Kugelgen, D. Yermakov, Klaus Schwazz Verlag, Berlin, 1996.

9 See: V.A. Gordlevskiy, Baha-ud-din Naqshbend Bukharskiy (K voprosu o nasloeniiakh v islame), in: S.F. Oldenburgu. K 50-letiu nauchno-obshchestvennoi deiatelnosti (1882-1932), Collection of articles, Leningrad, 1934, p. 166.

10 See: B. Babadzhanov, Ferganskaia dolina: istochnik ili zhertva islamskogo fundamentalizma, Tsentralnaia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 4 (5), 1999, p. 126.

11 See: B. Babadzhanov, Sredneaziatskoe dukhovnoe upravlenie musulman: predistoria i posledstvia raspada, in: Mnogomernye granitsy Tsentralnoi Azii, Moscow, 2000; idem, O fetwah SADUM protiv neislamskikh obychaev, in: Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutri, Moscow, 2001.

12 For one of the latest statements, see: I. Alexandrov, Realna li islamskaia ugroza Uzbekistanu? Prisoedinenie etoi strany k antitalibskoi koalitsii sposobno vyzvat rezkiy vsplesk antipravitelstvennykh nastroeniy, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 10 October, 2001.

13 See: A. Ignatenko, Ugrozhaet li islamskiy fundamentalizm postsovetskoi Tsentralnoi Azii? in: Mezhnatsionalnye otnoshenia v Rossii i SNG, Issue 2, Moscow, 1995.

14 O.A. Sukhareva, Islam v Uzbekistane, Tashkent, 1960, p. 52.

15 B.Kh. Karmysheva, Ocherki etnicheskoi istorii iuzhnykh rayonov Tadzhikistana i Uzbekistana (po etnograficheskim dannym), Moscow, 1976, pp. 152-153.

16 See: B. Babadzhanov, O deiatelnosti Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami v Uzbekistane and U. Botobekov, Vnedrenie idey partii Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami na iuge Kirgizii, in: Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutry.

17 E. Primakov, Rossia ne protivodeystvuet islamu: my ne stavim znak ravenstva mezhdu islamskim fundamentalizmom i islamskim ekstremizmom, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 18 September, 1996.

18 See: M. Atkin, The Rhetoric of Islamophobia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 1, 2000, pp. 123-132.


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