Murad Esenov: Nobody knows the Central Asian situation better than we.

November 20. 1997

By Yekaterina Luzanova

Murad Esenov, 35, was born in Turkmenistan. In 1993 he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation's Foreign Ministry. In 1994 he was arrested by Russia's counterintelligence service on suspicion of preparing a coup d'etat in Turkmenistan. Later on the Moscow Attorney's Office closed the case in the absence of an actual crime. Supported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Esenov emigrated to Sweden and acquired citizenship there. He is a doctor of political science. He is the director of the information and analytical center on Central Asian issues and editor-in-chief of "Central Asia" magazine.

Murad Esenov participated in an international seminar, "Central Asia: Religion And Society," which was held in Osh in late October, sponsored by the Soros-Kyrgyzstan Foundation. This issue was the focus of an interview Esenov gave to the CAP correspondent in Bishkek.

The imitative model of democracy

Q. Murad, what were the topics discussed in the seminar?

A. First of all, I would say that the seminar's organization and program were at a high level. That is why it drew the attention of participants from many countries who, in their turn, were interested in listening to their Kyrgyzstani colleagues on the exceedingly urgent issues related to the new religious realities in Central Asia. The seminar was held in Osh, which is one of the world's oldest towns. Very vivacious discussions took place there. I believe one of the most relevant themes is "The Christian and Muslim Democracies."

Just a few years ago it seemed to us, the citizens of the newly independent Central Asian states, that a step toward Western democracy would be enough to soon have a full-fledged democratic society built here. However, when we embarked on these transformations, we came across very serious issues: a resistance to liberal-democratic values has appeared in society.

This is not because society is "good" or "bad." One should keep in mind that the democracy we are speaking of is purely a Western phenomenon. It is based on principles which to some extent run counter to the principles of the Oriental, so-called traditional society.

I can cite the former. These are: the equality of rights and duties of all citizens before the law, state-protected private ownership and the socially-accepted personal inner freedom (the primacy of the individual).

These principles are quite different in traditional society. They have existed and they will exist forever because they trace back to the citizens' subconscious, despite the democratic foundation provided by legislation. The first principle is the identification of power and property. One who has actual power has significant property. The second one is the strict corporation principle: a person first thinks about his or her clan and then about himself (primacy of the communal).

So, it comes out that if the principles of North American and European democracy are mechanically transferred to Asiatic ground, our traditional society resists for quite understandable reasons.

However, this doesn't mean that democracy is impossible here. We can build democracy through imitating somewhat the Western model.

For instance, the same thing has happened in Japan: democracy there radically differs from the Western one but still it is nothing but democracy. The challenge is to work out a democratic model corresponding to our values. In my view, Kyrgyzstan has already chosen this model.

Q. Could you say now what should and will democracy look like in Central Asia?

A. It is quite impossible to say this yet, because all the region's countries are now looking for democratic models. Furthermore, they follow the trial-and-error method, including Kyrgyzstan. This quest will be efficient provided that as many experts, state and independent structures and mass media as possible are involved.

Q. There are many viewpoints regarding the assistance from abroad, both economic and politological. Do we need to listen to foreign experts?

A. An interesting question. Assistance differs. If it is rendered on some particular conditions it is unacceptable. If it promotes development, then that is quite different. Indeed, nobody knows the situation here better than we do. However, cooperation with Western political scientists is relevant. It is necessary to discuss, to enrich ourselves with others' experiences and knowledge. Nevertheless, I believe it unreasonable to strictly follow all their recommendations. The Central Asian presidents invited some well-known scientists as advisers during the first stage of independence but then step by step they abandoned their assistance.

Q. Probably, the best expert is a domestic one after a good period of probation in the West?

A. Absolutely correct.

Islam politicization or policy Islamisation?

Q. What is, in the Osh seminar participants' view, the future of the religions in Central Asia?

A. Prognostication is a purely subjective affair. Some of them said that there will be theocratic states here but the others negated this. Remember, it seemed to many people during the first years of independence that a religious renaissance was beginning in Central Asia. After five years passed, it is obvious that nothing of the sort has happened and, to my mind, will not happen. Statistics were presented at the seminar saying that the number of believers has increased by 30%, that is, insignificantly. As for the fashion for religion which appeared in early '90s, this cannot be actually called a religious renaissance. Well, the number of mosques has increased and religious literature has left the Soviet time's underground; but still society remains secular.

In this connection, an interesting dilemma emerges: what is happening in Central Asia, the politicization of Islam or Islamisation of politics? The difference is rather significant. It is possible to speak of Islamizing politics when the society is becoming theocratic. However, quite a different thing is observed in Central Asia: the leaders use Islam to serve their own political ends as well as to sustain their influence on the population, which reveres sacred religious things. Former Communists visit the mosques and make pilgrimage to Mecca although only a few, if any, of them really believe in God. Islam is under the strict control of the secular power, not vice versa. This is the politization of Islam; and this is the guarantee that there will be no theocratic states in Central Asia in the foreseeable future.

Q. Nevertheless, the Islamic countries such as secular Turkey and theocratic Iran are seeking to spread their influence to the region.

A. Yes, they are trying to consolidate their development model here. Nevertheless, I believe that neither of these two have a good chance of doing this. Religious streams in Central Asia differ from this in Iran: while there is Shii in Iran, they are Sunnites in Central Asia. Besides, the language families are different: Persian and Turkic.

Neither will the Turkish model take root. I'll explain why. A society seeking to influence another society must have a level of civilization two or three times higher than the latter's. By the way, that is why some values of the Western civilization are so fast to penetrate local society. However, the level of education and technology in Turkey is no higher than ours.

Q. So, what is the form of Islam's emergence in Central Asia?

A. Popular or folk Islam, through which people perceive religious norms in the light of their own traditions. The overwhelming majority of people who regard themselves as believers do not know and read prayers, neither do they perform rites regularly. Strict religious norms mixed with traditions are strongly simplified and ignored altogether. The same is true with alcohol use: this is prohibited for the faithful Muslims; and the same thing is true regarding the observation of Ramadan (or Ramazan), or the Muslims' fast.

Another thing is worth mentioning. In order to have a differentiated assessment of the religious situation in Central Asia, this shouldn't be divided into five areas according to its state borders. Settled peoples are more religious and sensitive to an orthodox faith. On the contrary, religious traditions have always been weaker with nomadic peoples. The latter are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens and some Uzbeks.

All these things suggest that there is no threat of theocracy here. Certainly, part of the population, especially the poor, are more subject to the influence of Islam. This fact needs attention but it does not mean a struggle against religion.

The gods' competition?

Q. What is view on the various religious preachers penetrating Central Asia?

A. There are more than 100 religious communities in Sweden. When I came to this country, some Evangelists, Mormons, Moonies and others had taken to visiting me; the Jehova's Witnesses were the most insistent. All of them used to bring literature, picture the advantages of their faith compared with the others and invite me to their mass actions. When their visits became too obtrusive, I had to tell them that I was not going to change my Muslim faith.

Later on I asked Swedish theologists about their opinion of this situation. They see it as quite a normal competition: if a religious mission can convince people of its attractiveness, then it will be a leader of part of society. Equal conditions must be legally established for religious communities but, certainly, their advocacy activities should not be aggressive. This issue has been solved in Europe.

Q. In Kyrgyzstan, both the state and the society are rather tolerant of the activities of religious communities'. However, the most significant -- the Orthodox Church and the Muslim Muftiat -- have united their efforts in order to oust religious sects from the country.

A. I regard this way of struggle as incorrect. There is a proverb: forbidden fruit is sweetest. This to be correct is confirmed by the USSR's 70-year history: total control of mass consciousness caused the current heightened interest in the "forbidden," including religion. None of these issues can be solved through prohibition.

Q. In your opinion, is there a possibility that various religious communities will cooperate in the country?

A. Each community seeks to make the number of its parishioners higher. Proceeding from this alone, their cooperation is impossible. None of them could waive their principles and interests. What is needed in society is tolerance.

"An island of democracy"

A. I'm in your country for the first time. I've learned much about it prior to this. On coming here I made sure: Kyrgyzstan is really an island of democracy. Certainly, this doesn't mean there are no problems here, but people discuss them in an open and free way. Society can only benefit from this. Here we see an active transition to private ownership. Indeed, this is associated with family and clan patterns yet, but in due course, it will produce a socially active type of citizen. What is more, there are many people of this type in Kyrgyzstan already. You can see yourself: the youth is absolutely new; they study, work and implement their interests. This is what the country really needs: competent, active and clever people. Certainly, such people cannot be produced in a totalitarian society. With such potential, Kyrgyzstan has more of a chance to build a democracy than the other Central Asian countries rich in the natural resources -- if you don't fall in "dizziness with success."

Q. Is this really he only thing that imperils progressive development?

A. I see your humor. Indeed, this is not the only thing. There should be developed a restraining mechanism, a sort of counterweight to (state) power in the form of the mass media, non-governmental organizations, parties and intelligentsia that will never allow any backtracking even in the case of changing the government, president and parliament. In this regard, I would remind you of the grade of socially active citizens which I've spoken about. The socially active type of citizen is democracy's object and subject. This guarantees that the country's democratic pulse will not change regardless of the party or personality in power. If the tempo of social and political development in Kyrgyzstan is preserved at least for the next three or four years, then one say for sure there will be no regress. By there way, this year's fifth issue of Central Asia magazine, which I publish and edit, contains much analytical material on democracy and human rights issues in Kyrgyzstan.

Q. Can you please say more of this magazine?

A. My first journalistic experience took place in Turkmenistan: I criticized the authoritarian system for managing the media, and published pamphlets. Since 1992, I published a magazine called Turkmen Ili (The Turkmen Land). Central Asia was registered in Sweden in 1995. We publish one issue every two months. About 140 pages are for the reader interested in the political and economic issues of the region. We try to give an unbiased picture of what is happening and prompt, if possible, ways to solve the challenges. Also we give the floor to the representatives of opposing political forces, and leading scientists and experts from the East and West.

We have offices in Washington D.C., Jerusalem and Moscow as well as in Central Asia: in Tashkent, Dushanbe, Almaty and Bishkek. The magazine is published in Russian and distributed in about 40 countries. Soon an increased number of copies will come to Central Asia.

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