A Eurasian Islam?

(A vision on the position and evolution of Islam and Islamism in former Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian)


Bruno De Gordier, Researcher, Conflict Research Group of Ghent University (Ghent, Belgium)

Scenarios of balkanization, talibanization and revolutionary contamination from Iran of the southern Soviet rim were popular in the early 1990s. These concerns were understandable since they came at times when the world was simultaneously confronted with nationalist wars in the Balkans, the appearance of several newly independent states with Muslim majorities in the former Soviet space and the outbreak of a number of armed conflicts in this part of the world (Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh), the first Gulf war as well as Islamist movements turning seriously wrong in Afghanistan and Algeria. Reality turned out to be more complex. The purpose of this article is to tackle a number of conventional truths about Islam in the region and to point out certain sociological factors which, in my opinion, will determine the evolution of Islam and Islamism in former Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian.

A Disconnected Part of the Ummah Or Not?

In this analysis, I define the region as a space with six states that emerged from the U.S.S.R. and where the majority of the population is, at least nominally or traditionally, of the Islamic faith: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and, on the other side of the Caspian, Azerbaijan. In average, in 2004, 80 percent of the population in this region was or is at least considered to be Muslim. The large majority of the 52.3 million Muslims in the region, historically known as Turkistan, are of Hanafi Sunni tradition. Certains micro-regions and communities are of Chafii Sunni tradition (in some parts of Tajikistan and Azerbaijan notably) while there are Twelver Shiites (a two-thirds majority in Azerbaijan, a substantial minority in Uzbekistan) as well as Ismaili Shiites (in the eastern part of Tajikistan).

The earlier use of the expression nominally or traditionally of the Islamic faith is not at random. This is a part of the Islamic world where the position and practice of Islam developed along different lines than those in classical Islamic countries. So what are the main characteristics of Islam in this space?

First, for several decades, the region was cut off from the Islamic world, the main currents there as well as its intellectual centers by means of a geopolitical and administrative frontier. This, as well as the anti-religious polices and Russification attempts that were part of Soviet Communism, resulted in a rather rudimentary religious conscience and a very local and tribal practice of the Islamic faith. The fact that if not clear majorities then at least substantial portions of the regions inhabitants identify themselves as Muslims is not matched by a strong practice or observation of the main precepts of Islam nor by the presence of..

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