RELIGION IN PRESENT-DAY UZBEKISTAN

Asal ABBASOVA


Asal Abbasova, leading specialist, International Imam al-Bukhari Foundation (Uzbekistan).


The last decade has demonstrated that the Islamic factor in Central Asia is anything but passive. In the seventies and eighties religion that seemed to be safely shelved by Soviet power as a throwback from the past got a second wind. Another decade brought religious revival to the fore in all post-Soviet republics. This was especially evident in the so-called Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union. Early in the nineties Islam started a vigorous comeback, partly but not solely thanks to the warmer official attitudes to religion. Every day 10 new mosques were opened across Central Asia; in Tajikistan alone their number grew from 17 in 1990 to 2,870 in 1992. In 1990, 2 thous Central Asian Muslims performed hajjin the past no more than 30 people a year were allowed to do this. By early 1992 Uzbekistan got about 3 thous restored or newly built mosques. In the past there were only two madrassahs in the entire Soviet Union. In 1992 nine new madrassahs were opened; enrollment increased ten times over in Uzbekistan alone. Central Asian Islamic organizations got considerable aid from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other Muslim countries that wanted closer cultural and religious ties with the new independent states to give them an idea of genuine, undistorted and pure Islam.1 This indirectly confirmed the Central Asian nations huge cultural, intellectual and spiritual contribution to Islamic civilization. The region was given a chance to create a new image and to restore its cultural and spiritual symbols. On the other hand, those in the Muslim world who believed that only Muslims can be friends of Muslims2 treated the developments in Central Asia with a great deal of mistrust.

Ideological pressure and persecutions which were the context of Islam in Central Asia for many decades did not destroy the traditions of religious rites and, to a lesser degree, of Muslim learning. Today, freedom of consciousness and other rights have given a push to religious revival all over Central Asia. Uzbekistan with its large population (60 percent of which lives in the countryside more religious than the urban areas) is witnessing a religious upsurge. In Uzbekistan the state shouldered the task of reviving the nations religious and cultural values and traditions as part of the worldwide spiritual heritage tapped to preserve respect for law and order, create a consensus and teach patriotism.

Uzbekistans is a very specific religious context in which the youth and the older generations regard their religious affiliation as part of their ethnicity. In the recent past religion was invisible, that is, it survived due to numerous psychological, social, demographic and other factors (large families, authority of older people, religious socialization and observation of religious Sharia-connected rituals passed for ethnic traditions). Today Islam has emerged as one of the key components of ethnic identity and leans on the historic tradition that looked at Islam as a consolidating force (which is true to a certain extent). At the same time religion may bring to life negative phenomena such as religious obscurantism.

It should be noted that the terms renaissance and revival as applied to religion, and Islam, are treated very broadly. President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov has aptly noted: The phenomena that we are observing now and that are taking place under the banner of reviving Islamic values are varied, multisided, contradictory and sometimes even mutually exclusive.3 Indeed, those promoting economic and cultural changes are striving to revive the republic. Those who represent extreme religious phenomena and reactionary trends are also talking of a revival (of medieval order, in their case). Those who want to revive the past reject the need to modernize society. A clear understanding of these trends and their possible negative consequences forced the republic to give a deeper thought to a set of political, economic, and cultural programs designed to increase the positive and creative potential of spiritual revival and to exercise a differentiated approach to the heritage that is being restored, to select the most important and ethically significant traditions that would enrich human values and meet the needs of society that is moving toward democracy.4

Cultural symbols were restored in order to adapt to and survive within a new geopolitical context.5 This proved to be an important step. In the early twentieth century the Jadidist movement in Uzbekistan made a great contribution to the development of sociopolitical thought and tied together Islamic and secular culture and democratic values. The movement united progressively-minded intellectuals, mainly Uzbek, throughout Central Asia who were out to bring about cultural and social changes in Turkestan (namely, in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara). In their quest they did not look back at traditional Bukhara but were seeking a new world.6 They created a great impetus for secular thought in Central Asia and for adjusting Islam to new social requirements. K. Peterson has written that it was independence that allowed researchers to look deeper into the sources and meaning of the Jadidist thought which pushed forward the process of acquiring national identity.

There are certain researchers abroad who have chosen to describe the states differentiated approach to the spiritual heritage and control over religious and other traditional institutions as an attempt to privatize Islam to prevent its use for political purposes.

In fact, certain foreign forces seeking a greater influence in the region when the Soviet Union ceased to exist used Islam for their own aims. With time, the hidden dangers of exploiting Islam for political ends have become absolutely clear.

Back in the seventies when the first extremist Islamic groups were formed, the threat became obvious. Sociologists point to two different sources of Central Asian radical Islam: the people squeezed out from their rural milieu and failed to fit into their new urban contexts and the clandestine groups that taught Islam (maktabs).7 Foreign researchers pointed out that Uzbekistan was a fertile soil for foreign religious influences and was probably subjected to strong Islamic pressure aimed at restoring its positions. They all agree that the process will hardly take on a militant form it took up in Tajikistan.8 Part of the Muslims would like to see Islam restored to repair the moral damage it suffered under Russias rule in the nineteenth century.

In Soviet times nearly all the 300 mosques in Bukhara and 382 mosques in Kokand were brutally destroyed. It turned out, however, that militant atheism did nothing to avert people from their religious convictions. Some of the influential religious figures went underground and formed secret religious structures called parallel or alternative Islam in the West.9 Rigid confrontation between the official state-controlled religious structures and alternative Islam created among its followers a negative attitude to the Soviet state and secular power in general. The preachers were full of latent religious and social protests and stroke a chord in the hearts of many people who regarded atheistic campaigns as a triumph of immorality and lack of spirituality. The religious infrastructure was destroyed, which negatively affected the entire society. The vacuum was filled with all sorts of clandestine Islamic circles mostly attended by young people and unable to educate another generation of imams, preachers and theologians. Despite the fact that the circles preached the norms of justice and Islamic morals, many of them were sowing radical ideas. The radicals wanted to return to the purity of early Islam and insisted that the religion could not be adapted to the new conditions. They were called Wahhabis by analogy with the ideological movement born in the eighteenth century on the Arabian Peninsula. It seems that the contemporary use of the term reached the West through Turkey, yet even in Soviet times it had been allowed to describe Wahhabism as a teaching that went back to the Hanbali mazhab.10

Those who want to restore pure Islam in Central Asia seem to have filled the vacant niche. They are convinced that the region is ignorant of true Islamthe local variant being diluted with local traditions and rites. Indeed, the earlier traditions of numerous local confessions and the syncretic culture did introduce numerous local religious ethic ideas into Islam together with the local legal norms and customs. From the very beginning of its dissemination in Maverannahr Islam has imbibed very specific features11 such as tolerance of other religions and closeness to everyday life. The Hanafi mazhab has a wide following in the world (nearly half of the Muslims) and Central Asia (90 percent of the Muslims). It is more tolerant than other Sunni mazhabs, it cherishes meaning more than the letter and instructs to take local conditions into account. The conservative ideas that denied any need to adapt Islam to local conditions were borrowed from foreign theological works studied by the first Islamic groups in Central Asia in the early seventies.

The idea of restoring true Islam came together with a huge wave of propaganda of the Islamic state that engulfed all post-Soviet Muslim states. These ideas go hand in hand with the ideas of religious intolerance and alienation from the rest of the world and the need to integrate within the Muslim world. They get financial support from all sorts of illegal Muslim organizations and NGOs out to consolidate the radical Islamic forces, to undermine Central Asian stability and to avert Western and Russian influence in the post-Soviet Muslim republics.

In the context of uncertainty and pessimism due to the social and economic problems that are piling up higher and higher, people fell easy prey to these radical sentiments. President Karimov has said: Religious fanaticism flares up not only and not so much because of religious contradictions proper but because many social, political and economic problems remain unresolved A religious system per se cannot provide answers to socioeconomic problems.12 One can hardly regard the calls to return to the original conditions in which Islam was born as constructive and realistic.

The revived Islamic values stirred up external forms of religiosity: people tend to dress accordingly, follow injunctions and perform rituals, yet they have so far failed to create deep-cutting and mass religious awareness in a deeply secular society. No outward Islamic features can alter the countrys secular nature and curb its socioeconomic development, yet the restored Islamic traditions raised a wave of radicalism and the desire to channel Muslims to politics. The radicals exploited widespread ignorance of Islam and tried to set up an organization of their own. It was how the branch of the Islamic Revival Party (founded in Russia) and the so-called Islamic Party of Turkestan came to Uzbekistan. The latter went as far as usurping the right to speak for all Turkic-speaking nations. The all-Union Islamic Revival Party and its branch in Uzbekistan guided themselves with the ideological prescriptions of such organizations as the Association of Muslim Brothers that worked toward a theocratic Muslim state. In the early nineties militarized organizations Adolat [Justice], Islom Lashkarlari [Warriors of Islam], Odamiilik wa insoniilik [Humanity] appeared in Namangan and Kokand. They claimed to work together with the law-enforcement structures, organized Islamic self-education structures, supervised how the Islamic norms of behavior were observed, patrolled streets and even lynched people. Very soon, however, they moved into politics and put forwards their demands to the official powers, yet none of them managed to push any of the Islamists into politics in Uzbekistan.13

There is an opinion that the Uzbek factor was instrumental in disseminating radical religious ideas among the ethnic Uzbeks living in the neighboring Central Asian states in numerous and often influential communities. About a quarter of Tajikistans population are Uzbeks; there are 33 percent of them in the economically most developed Leninabad Region with nearly two-million strong population. During the civil war in Tajikistan the Tajik leaders accused Tashkent of allying with the Khojent political elite, supporting the Kulob-Leninabad coalition and reviving an old rivalry between Uzbeks and Tajiks. Indeed, at all times the Khojent group has had close ties with Tashkent. There was talk about Tashkents efforts to build up Islamic pressure in the south of Kyrgyzstan through the Uzbek community in Osh.14 Everybody knows that the Islamic extremists who invaded southern Kyrgyzstan plagued with poverty and social exclusion were nothing more than the remnants of Islamic political organizations, such as Islom Lashkarlari, left out in the cold in their own country. In any case radical Islam and the armed groups that proliferate it present a danger to interstate relations in the region.

It is often asked: Can this reborn Islam [become] a unifying forcea supra-national bondand forge cohesiveness within and between the Central Asian countries or will it promote radical Islamic action?15 Muslim ideologists and radical Islamic leaders are convinced that universalist integrating Islam alone can provide answers to all socioeconomic problems, settle ethnic and clan conflicts, overcome contradictions, and protect society against the vices coming from the West. Recent events have confirmed, however, that a common faith cannot prevent conflicts and overcome barriers between national, ethnic, political and other groups. In the age of nationalism, the ideology behind governments and sovereignties,16 a supra-national Islam-inspired bond is doubtful. In the past Islam was repeatedly used to inspire people to a fight against czarist Russia, the communist regime and its socioeconomic innovations, yet its integrating potential is limited. The ethnic factor is much stronger. This was what the parties of Islamic revival in Central Asia learned from their experience in the early nineties. The Tajik Islamic leaders, for example, did not want to join Turkic nations in a regional structure; they set up an independent party when their republic had become independent. The efforts to settle the domestic conflict in Tajikistan demonstrated that despite all calls for ethnic unity that said that members of territorial groups in Tajikistan, from Piandj, Karategin, Kulob, Khojent, represented the Tajik nation and that regional unity had been artificially maintained by the communists and could be overcome through Islam,17 the disunity turned out to be insurmountable even on the level of national consolidation in the process of Tajik settlement. Later events have demonstrated that Islam could not outweigh varied political, economic and ethnic contradictions.

In the late nineteenth century the Pan-Islamic movement had been facing a similar problem. The initial designs were to set up an alliance between Afghanistan, Baluchsitan, Kashgar, Yarkand, Bukhara and Kokand under Turkeys aegis. It proved, however, that it was impossible to marry the idea of Islams universal nature and the interests of the states at varied development levels. Today, Pan-Islamism promoted by Islamic ideologists and developed by theologians in the leading Muslim universities has pushed aside the ethnically significant components such as the language, ethnic affiliation, territory, culture, and economy. They offer instead the idea of religious unity and an inflated role of Islam as an integration factor. Pan-Islamism is seeking a unified Muslim theocratic state to replace all nation-states. It is promoting a doubtful idea of a new Islamic order that would embrace the Muslim regions on the post-Soviet territory. In fact, back in the nineteenth century the ideologists of Pan-Islamism (al-Afghani) doubted a possibility of uniting all Muslims into one state or even into a Muslim confederation: Pan-Islamism and nationalism were unlikely bed-fellows. Nationalist ideology regards the nation as the supreme type of historical community and national unity as the cornerstone of statehood. Religion, together with the language, culture, territory and economy, is a factor of secondary importance. Many of the Muslim religious figures and the clergy regard nationalism as a Western product and a cause of warring states dominated by national rather than humane interests.18

Conflicting trends are in evidence in the religious situation of Uzbekistan. There is lingering conviction that Islam, as an important component of national self-awareness, can imbibe spiritual, moral and cultural values, therefore people stick to rites and rituals. At the same time Islamic ideologists are unable to eradicate the secular ideas about life and stem deeply-rooted secular social developments in the republic. Secularism remains the dominant factor in Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, the vacuum that Soviet ideology had created in the Muslim theological studies in Central Asia and the non-existent religious infrastructure served the fertile soil for all sorts of radical Muslim trends flourishing on religious and cultural traditions alien to the Central Asian nations. Certain foreign forces are out to use Islam to achieve their aims that go contrary to the principle of peaceful coexistence of religions and cultures. These efforts undermine stability, and national and ethnic agreement in individual countries and the region.

The dangers of radical Islam can be defused by extending democracy and addressing the most urgent social, economic, ecological, demographic and other problems. Uzbekistan needs social, political and economic conditions conducive to more harmonious material and spiritual life in the republic.


1 Egypts Relations with the CIS Countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania, Center for Asian Studies, Department of Economics and Political Sciences, Cairo University, ARE, Cairo, 2000, p. 4 (in Arabic).

2 Inamulla Khan, Rabita al-Alam al-Islami, No. 6, 1978. Quoted from: A. Akhmedov, Sotsialnaia doktrina Islama, Moscow, 1982, p. 250.

3 I. Karimov, Uzbekistan na poroge XXI v. Ugrozy bezopasnosti, uslovia i garantii progressa, Uzbekiston, Tashkent, 1997, p. 33.

4 Ibid., p. 133.

5 K. Peterson, History in the Remaking: Jadidist Thought in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Central Asia Monitor, No. 4, 1996, p. 24.

6 Kh. Vakhidov, Prosvetitelnaia ideologia v Turkestane, Tashkent, 1979, p. 7.

7 See: B.I. Bushkov, D.V. Mikulskiy, Anatomia grazhdanskoi voiny v Tajikistane, 2nd ed., Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, RAS, Institute of Practical Oriental Studies, 1997, Moscow, pp. 113-114.

8 See: Nadia H. Youssef, The Demographics of Ethnicity. Implications for Project Support in Central Asia. Prepared for the World Bank ECA Technical Department (EMT), Washington, D.C., pp. 65-66.

9 Z.I. Munavvarov, Islam v Uzbekistane: proshloe, nastoiashchee, budushchee, Wostok (Berlin), No. 1, 1999, pp. 68-72.

10 See: M. Stepaniants, Musulmanskie kontseptsii v filosofii i politike XIX-XX vv., Nauka Publishers, Moscow, 1982, p. 30.

11 Z.I. Munavvarov, op. cit.

12 I. Karimov, op. cit., p. 38.

13 Z.I. Munavvarov, op. cit.

14 See: Nadia H. Youssef, op. cit, p. 62.

15 Ibidem. See also: M. Atkin, Tajikistan: Ancient Heritage, New Politics, in: Nation and Politics in the Soviet Successor States, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 373.

16 See: G. Gleason, in: Nationalism in Our Times. Feature Articles, Vol. 34, No. 2, 1996.

17 S.A. Nuri; quoted from: V.I. Bushkov, D. Mikulskiy, op. cit., p. 110.

18 See: M. Stepaniants, op. cit., p. 116.


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