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#11 - JRL 7228
Kennan Institute
June 11, 2003
event summary
The Islamization of Central Asia: Politics, Economics and Society

Islam is by no means a new phenomenon in Central Asia. The degree to which Islam has played a role in the region, however, has changed along with those in power. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Central Asian populations have begun to reclaim more traditional forms of the religion after decades of scientific atheism promulgated by ruling communists. Alongside this embrace of a more traditional variety of the religion has been the increasing radicalization of Islam. An outgrowth of growing political oppression and economic marginalization in the countries of Central Asia, this new brand of Islam shows few signs of abating. The discontent that has driven the rebirth of Islam generally, and its radicalized form specifically, is caused also by inequality in education throughout Central Asian societies. Surprisingly, women are embracing Islam as one of the few alternatives to the existing power structure that has resulted in poverty and oppression. This meeting at the Wilson Center, co-sponsored by the Asia Program, the Kennan Institute and the Middle East Project examined the several factors that have shaped the current Islamization of Central Asia.

Central Asia’s introduction to Islam came early in the ninth century when the region’s leaders imported the religion from the Middle East, turning this foreign ideology into their own religion of power. Nazif Shahrani contended that Islam flourished uninterrupted until the Bolsheviks took control of the region and replaced traditional religions with their own brand of scientific atheism. Years of Soviet occupation created resentment among many Central Asians, and Islam came to personify all that was not Russian. Islam, in effect, became the new nationalism in Central Asia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, rulers of newly independent states adopted select parts of Islam as a means to legitimize their power, but the essence of the religion was discarded. The population is now beginning to reject the current corrupt leadership in Central Asia like the Soviets leaders before them—and Islam is growing.

The religion’s growing popularity is characterized as a response to social problems. John Schoeberlein suggested that the failure of governments to reform, in addition to the lack of legal means to express dissent and affect change, has resulted in more people embracing Islam and some resorting to radical expressions of the religion. Pauline Jones Luong noted that the rise of radical political Islam in Central Asia is one of several mutually reinforcing trends such as increased militarism, the convergence of authoritarian regimes, and closed economies. Increased poverty and class stratification—the growing gap between societal elites and ordinary citizens—are developments that Schoeberlein suggested were at the root of radicalized Islam. Diminished economic reforms and trade barriers, according to Luong, contribute to discontent.

The unjust political and economic situations that have given rise to Islam throughout Central Asia can be felt in the education sector as well. Stephen Heyneman contended that pervasive corruption has led to a rather functionless education system. Notably, the education system is unjust—an ability to pay determines access to education. Moreover, the education system in Central Asia works against social cohesion—children are segregated by language and students are not taught about ethnic groups other than their own. Clearly, the current system breeds feelings of distrust, offering a further example as to why many embrace radicalized Islam.

While it is difficult to offer a homogenous view of the Islamization of women in Central Asia, Kathleen Kuehnast noted that all women in the region are at the center of a discussion on what role females should play in society—the rise of Islam, certainly, nation building and globalization are all factors in the debate. Although Islam has been used to justify reduced freedom for women in some parts of the world, the threat of poverty has led many women in Central Asia to embrace Islam.

The United States, and other international players, share some responsibility in the rise of corruption and thus increased radicalized Islam. According to Luong, U.S. policy ignores the underlying political and economic problems in Central Asia, promoting stability above all and preventing the emergence of any political Islam.

Central Asia is beset with a sad cycle of violence and oppression. Shireen Hunter noted that power elites are using the threat of radicalism to justify repressive policies. Yet, in reality, it was preexisting repressive policies that bred radicalism in the first place. It is the growing secular authoritarianism, and institutional “de-Islamization” over past 6 to 7 years that have caused radical forms of Islam to gain a following in Central Asia.

Islam has, in a sense, come to embrace the lost causes of Central Asia. Islamization is not the cause, but the symptom, of problems throughout the region. Shahrani noted that “If Islam was taken out of Central Asia, they would still have the same problems.” John Schoeberlein agreed, suggesting that radicalized Islam will not go away as long as there is an impulse driving people to radicalism.

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