I initially started off with looking at how Western countries viewed the restoration of religion when Soviet power failed in Central Asia. Researching the concerns that surrounded Islam in post-Soviet countries during the past three decades raised my blood pressure. Any topic relating to Islam is personal and dear to me due to my independent decision to practice Islam, and seeing that there are “fears” associated with a discussion about Islam in this region hurts me to my core. “Islamist” should not be a title for one that assigns extremism to the Islamic religion, just as the word “extreme” should never be used to describe Islam. Instead of focusing on how Western countries fear of radical movements, I will discuss the evolution and revival of Islam in the former Soviet region and what are the concerns it brings for populations within the area.
During the time of Communist rule, Islam and other religions were suppressed due to the official Soviet ideology of atheism and its view that their practices and beliefs are obstacles to revolutionary change (Pulsipher & Pulsipher, 2009, p. 200). Prior to this suppression, “The December 4, 1917 declaration jointly signed by Lenin and Stalin said, ‘To the Muslims in Russia, be they Tartars of Volga, the inhabitants of Cremia, the Kaukaz of Siberia or Turkistan, the Turks of Kaukaz, the Charks, the dwellers of Kaukaz mountains, to all those whose mosques and worship places and whose faith and traditions were trampled upon by the Tsars of Russia or the other tyrants; Be assured that your traditions and faith and your national and cultural institutions shall be free from this day and nobody will object to these in future. You are free to organize your national life without any interference and obstacles from outside’” (Devlet, 1986). The fact that the government took back its promise highlights that the Soviet Union soon realized that Islam is an obstacle to gaining popularity. Anti-Islamic, atheistic propaganda and measures were taken by the state, and lasted more than 70 years. This made “the observance and expansion of Islam impossible and the number of believers, or more correctly, of practicing Muslims has decreased” (Devlet, 1986). The Muslim population of the Soviet Union in 1980 was between 45 and 50 million, making it the sixth largest in the world after Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Turkey. It has, therefore, a national and cultural significance beyond the purely religious one. (Devlet, 1986) A total of 80 million are now present in the former Soviet Union region (Kalaam, 1991). Of the 28,000 mosques from the Russian Empire period only about 400 mosques remain today (Devlet, 1986).
Until the 1970s, Islam in the Soviet Union had been largely depoliticized. After the fall of Communism, Islam revived. Muslims practiced openly and Islamic movements became politically important (Pulsipher, 2009). The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 1978 civil war in Afghanistan that resulted of the mujahidin’s counteroffensive against the Marxist regime reinforced Soviet fears that Islam might be an ideological, socioeconomic, and political competitor. (Cummings, 2003, p. 70) Today’s regimes have the same worry, fearing Islam might be used as a platform to voice the population’s social criticism. This fear has led to a wholesale condemnation of anti-establishment Islamic movements, and has often been used as an excuse to repress opposition or religious movements more generally. By the mid 1990s,Chechnya and Tajikistan had a significant presence of Islam playing a political role with the government, whereas it was in opposition with the Uzbekistani government. (Cummings, 2003, p. 70) Despite the majority of Muslims in this region, they were unable to unite, typically prevented by controversy over arising militant groups that claimed association with Islam.Tajikistanlost its Islamic political dominance after its civil war when peace settlements were signed in 1997, becoming a secular state by 2001. Dominantly popular inCentral Asia, despite its Middle Eastern roots, is Hizb Ut-Tahrir (The Islamic Freedom Organization). This is because of the Hizb’s alluring call for peace through nonviolence, organization, and criticisms of the region’s governments who were unable to deliver socioeconomic stability and welfare. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on the other hand called for violence. As agreed by scholars, neither group has respect for Islam, culture, or fear of the current regime. Despite the presence of these groups, many Muslims tried to be active in politics and prevent radicalism based on baseless religious claims. Countries with military rise in Central Asia lack such true Islamic regulation. (Cummings, 2003, p. 71) Practicing Muslim activists know that Islam can be used as a force towards the common wealth of independent states, rather than an obstacle or threat. Despite regime fears of opposition, scholars are advising them to allow pluralism to take place in their countries, for an example: countries are advised to legalize Hizb Ut-Tahrir to prevent it from allying with radical militant groups to achieve their social goals. (Cummings, 2003, p. 72)
Within Muslim populated countries of Central Asia is the common fear of which “sect” of Islam will gain the majority—Sunnism or Shiism. In Azerbaijan, both sects had united prior to Soveit rule. Islam thrived under Communist rule in Azerbaijan as it did in the other countries, but largely became Shia afterIran’s influence on the newly independent state. However, this influence was opposed by the secular Turkish ideologies, andIran’s Shia revolution failed to establish popularity inAzerbaijan’s government. Abdukadir Sezgin, a Turkish Sunni cleric wrote a book distinguishing Sunniism and Shiism in Azerbaijan which was able to establish clearer differences of the two sects and unfortunately reinforce separation between the population. The government repeatedly attempted to control religious life, but failed to do so. Mass protests for social improvement (not religious demands) in the early 2000s by Shias gave the sect political support, leading to successful presidential elections. However, since 2006, this movement has been taken over by the government’s propaganda. Religious schools, literature, and any other Islamic resources, either Sunni or Shia, have been shut down. (Goyushov, 2008)
It is difficult to conclude where the Islamic movement will move from here for Central Asia due to the governments’ strong hold of secularism. Islam has yet to be accepted by the populations as inward spirituality, before it can be used for political or social promotions. The primary goal of governments in the region is to establish stable secular states, and so they see religion as an obstacle, as did the Soviets. Also, Western powers have their own fears of religious revival, because they believe they inflame radical organizations.
NOTE: I didn’t go into the issues surrounding Afghanistan, because I believe that it needed a whole post to itself. An excellent article to read for background information about the country and its current affairs is “Afghanistan, Another Untold Story” by Michael Parenti.
Maps of Muslim in the Soviet Union:
Cummings, S. (2003). Islam in the Former Soviet Union. The Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 3(2). p. 67-72. Retrieved from http://www.ethnopolitics.org/ethnopolitics/archive/volume_III/issue_2/cummings. pdf
Develet, N. (1986). The Present Situation of the Soviet Muslims: The Example of Kazan Tatars (Web Version). Muslim Reader. Retrieved from http://www.everymuslim.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=56&Itemid=30
Goyushov, A. (2008) Islamic Revival in Azerbaijan. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 7. Retrieved from http://www.currenttrends.org/research/detail/islamic-revival-in-azerbaijan
Kalaam, A. (1991). Muslims in the U.S.S.R: A New Dawn—This is a summary of the article developed by Dr. A. Zahoor. Message International. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/ussrmuslims.htm.
Pulsipher, M. & Pulsipher, A. (2009). World Regional Geography Concepts. W. H. Freeman & Co.: New York, NY.
(sinseriously.wordpress.com / 01.11.2012)