By Dr. Mohamed Chtatou
August 7, 2017
Part 2: Islam in Action
Islam In Post-Soviet Central Asia:
Growth And Repression
In stark contrast to the popular “clash of
civilizations” theory that sees Islam inevitably in conflict with the West,
Russia remarkably and aptly constructed an empire with broad Muslim support and
succeeded in creating a fascinating relationship between an empire and its subjects.
As America and Western Europe debated then and still debate today, to no avail,
how best to secure the allegiances of their Muslim populations. i
Central Asia has been unimaginably transformed by the long and arduous
Soviet presence in the region and communist austere indoctrination that not
only destroyed the local culture and belief but created subservient and docile
elites believing strongly, and, almost blindly, in the utopian Bolshevik
project of remaking the world. This absurd project featured a sustained assault
on Islam that destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly
de-Islamized public life.
Islam became synonymous with tradition and
was subordinated to powerful ethno-national identities that crystallized during
the Soviet period. This legacy endures today and for the vast majority of the
population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under
Communism. The secularization of Islam
in Central Asia compares greatly to experiences in Turkey, the former Yugoslavia,
and other secular Muslim states.
Islam is by far the dominant religion in
Uzbekistan, as Muslims constitute 90% of the population while 5% of the
population follows Russian Orthodox Christianity according to a 2009 US State
Department release. ii
However, a 2009 Pew Research Centre report
stated that Uzbekistan’s population is 96.3% Muslim.iii An estimated 93,000
Jews were once present. Despite its predominance, the practice of Islam is far
from monolithic. Many versions of the faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan.
The conflict of Islamic tradition with various agendas of reform or
secularization throughout the 20th century has left the outside world with a
confused notion of Islamic practices in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan the end of
Soviet power did not bring an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism, as many had
predicted, but rather a gradual re-acquaintance with the precepts of the faith.
However after 2000, there seems to be a rise of support in favour of the
Islamists, which is whipped up by the repressive measures of the authoritarian
For the most part, however, in the first
years of independence, Uzbekistan is seeing a resurgence of a more secular
Islam, and even that movement is in its very early stages. According to a
public opinion survey conducted in 1994, interest in Islam is growing rapidly,
but personal understanding of Islam by Uzbeks remains limited or distorted. For
example, about half of ethnic Uzbek respondents professed belief in Islam when
asked to identify their religious faith. Among that number, however, knowledge
or practice of the main precepts of Islam was weak. Despite a reported spread
of Islam among Uzbekistan’s younger population.
In post-Soviet Central Asia, ordinary
Muslims in the region, focusing in particular on Uzbekistan, negotiate
understandings of Islam as an important marker for identity, grounding for
morality and as a tool for everyday problem-solving in the economically harsh,
socially insecure and politically tense atmosphere of present-day Uzbekistan. In
the historical Islamic city of Bukhara the local forms of Sufism and saint
veneration facilitate the pursuit of more modest goals of agency and belonging,
as opposed to the utopian illusions of fundamentalist Muslim doctrines. iv
In recent years, the Uzbekistan government
has been criticized for its brutal suppression of its Muslim population.
However, Muslims in this part of the world negotiate their religious practices
despite the restraints of a stifling authoritarian regime. Fascinatingly, the
restrictive atmosphere has actually helped shape the moral context of peoples’
lives, and understandings of what it means to be a Muslim emerge creatively out
of lived experience. v
An estimated 6,500 people are in jail in
Uzbekistan because of their religious or political beliefs. More than half are
accused of being Hizbu Tahrir (HT) members, while most of the others are
branded as Wahhabis, who practice the Saudi brand of Sunni Islamic extremism.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a great revival
of religious activity in Central Asia. Mosques mushroomed, partly supported by
Pakistani and Saudi money. A brand of radical, internationalist Islam gave
birth to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and HT. In 1999 and 2000,
fighters of the IMU in Tajikistan attempted incursions into Uzbekistan.
Terrorist attacks in Tashkent in 1999 were attributed by the authorities to
Islamic radicals, and were dealt with ruthlessly.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
was formed in 1998 with the objective to create an Islamist state in
Uzbekistan. In the following years, this organization expanded its goals, and
now aims to create an Islamist state across Central Asia, in an area sometimes
referred to as Turkistan. The theoretical Islamist state would encompass
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Xinxiang
province of China. With this enlarged goal in mind, some members of the group
began to refer to themselves as the Islamic Party of Turkistan.
IMU is comprised of Islamic militants from
Uzbekistan and its Central Asian neighbors. The group was co-founded by a
mullah in the Islamic underground and a former Soviet soldier who served in the
Soviet-Afghan war. It was the co-founders experience in fighting against the
mujahidin in Afghanistan that eventually led him to radical Islam and an
alliance with Osama bin Laden. As the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan grew
increasingly close to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the group began to subscribe to
the al-Qaeda ideology and objectives. Therefore, IMU’s attacks against
Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance on behalf of al-Qaeda and Taliban, as well as
their increasingly broad objectives to create a regional Islamic state, can be
traced to its involvement with bin Laden. In return, IMU received money from
bin Laden, safe haven from the Taliban, and a hand in the drug trafficking
trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia.
With IMU’s increased interest in a regional
Islamic state, this entity shifted from attacking strictly Uzbek targets to
attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan and U.S. diplomatic facilities in
Central Asia. However, IMU’s repeated defeats in these anti-Coalition
engagements have all but completely destroyed the group.
The TTP and the Islamic Movement of
Uzbekistan (IMU) have a long history of collaboration. At one point prior to
his appointment as TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud lived with Tohir Yo’ldosh, the
IMU’s former leader, who became an ideological inspiration and offered the
services of his 2,500 fighters to Mehsud.
As a counterbalance to militant Islam in Uzbekistan and Central Asia,
there is an interesting revival of Sufi Islam that preaches integral piety,
love of the other, internal peace and fusion with the creator.
Sufism—a mystical form of Islam that has
flourished in the Muslim world for centuries—has enjoyed a strong revival in
Central Asia. In a Carnegie Paper
entitled: Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of
Politicization?, Martha Brill Olcott explores Sufism’s potential to become a
political movement in Central Asia by analyzing the movement’s history and
current leaders in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. The future role
Sufism will play in Central Asia is dependent on both secular and religious
circumstances. Olcott contends that political leaders will require a political
subtlety that has been lacking in recent decades in order to construct a
reasonable balance between Sufis and fundamentalists. Olcott also argues that
while Sufism currently poses little threat to the secular ideology of Central
Asian states, there is potential for a dangerous backlash if governments openly
try to use Sufi ideology as a way to gain support.vi
Islam in Southeast Asia: Openness and
Malaysia is a multi-confessional country
with Islam being the largest practiced religion, comprising approximately 61.4%
Muslim adherents, or around 17 million people, as of 2010. vii Article 3 of the
Constitution of Malaysia establishes Islam as the “religion of the Federation”.
However, Malaysia’s law and jurisprudence
is based on the English common law. Shari’a law is applicable only to Muslims,
and is restricted to family law and religious observances. Therefore, there has
been much debate on whether Malaysia is a secular state or an Islamic state.
Nine of the Malaysian states, namely
Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Kedah, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, Johor and Negeri
Sembilan have constitutional Malay monarchs (most of them styled as sultans).
These Malay rulers still maintain authority
over religious affairs in states. The states of Penang, Malacca, Sarawak and
Sabah do not have any sultan, but the king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) plays the
role of head of Islam in each of those states as well as in each of the Federal
Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya.
The Malay ethnic group has been divided
politically, and therefore they require the support of either Chinese or
Indians in order to gain political dominance.
This situation leads to a central fact in the country’s political life:
Malay-Muslim dominance has always been negotiated amongst various forces. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious coalition
parties, whether in opposition or ruling parties, have dominated the country’s
electoral politics in post-independence politics.
One complication is that the increased
emphasis on Malay and Islamic identity in economic and public life has
exacerbated the problematic of relations between Malay-Muslims and non-Malay
non-Muslims. The idea of Malaysia as a
united nation-state, or Bangsa Malaysia, has been challenged. Still, most religious and ethnic minorities
have decided to remain Malaysian and enjoy the benefits of the relatively
strong economy of the country. It is
noteworthy, for example, that the recent economic crisis did not lead to an
out-migration of Chinese and Indians as witnessed in some of the other
countries hit by the financial crisis.
In fact, these minorities have at times openly supported the troubled
Mahathir government. The main reason for
this support may be a desire to assure a stable political system that will
ensure the safety of their economic interests.
Indonesia, where nearly 90% of the populace
is Muslim, is the world’s largest Islamic country. However, Islam has never played a central
role in the country’s politics. Nevertheless,
there has been a persistent tension between those advocates of a more prominent
and formal role for Islam in the country, and those who resist making Islam an
organized political actor.
In the late 1980s, under the now defunct
New Order era of former President Suharto, there was an effort to reach out to
Muslims and Islam in a more explicit way.
The main reason for this was President Suharto’s desire to widen his
power base beyond the military and the secular ruling political party,
Golkar. A symbolic indication of this
effort was President Suharto’s decision in 1990 to make his first trip or Hajj
to Mecca. Other steps on the path to
Islamisation of the New Order regime included reversing the ban on the wearing
of Hijab (head covering) for female students in state-run schools and the
founding of the country’s first Islamic bank.
Roughly a decade after Suharto’s attempt to
encompass Islam in the political sphere, the New Order collapsed. On 21 May 1998, President Suharto
resigned. In essence, the effort by
Suharto to widen his political base by reaching out to Islam did not prevent
the fall of his regime. While Suharto’s efforts in the preceding several years
to cultivate Islam may have re-invigorated Islamic groups and organizations,
the current evolving role of Islam in the politics and policy-making of
post-Suharto Indonesia is likely to be more sustainable then it was at the
beginning of Suharto’s New Order era. A
major reason for this expectation is that there has been, over the past
decades, a surge in religious consciousness among many circles within the
Indonesian Muslim community.
Islam has not been a monolithic force in
the politics of Indonesia. There have
been divergent views amongst several Islamic organizations and movements, most
prominently the NU and the Muhammadiyah.
The New Order government’s policy of diminishing the role of political
parties combined with the military’s suspicion of Islam, led Islamic
organizations to concentrate on religious, social and educational activities
rather than politics. This very shift in
emphasis led to Indonesian society becoming more Islamicized, including the
rise of a Muslim middle class that entered both the government and the
military. These changes in part led the
military to reassess its view of Islam’s role in Indonesia. Moreover, in the post-Suharto context of
Indonesian politics, Islam has emerged as, perhaps, the most important
force. Islam is likely to be a major force
in the politics of Indonesia for the foreseeable future.
The Nature of Today’s Islam in Asia
For centuries Islam in Asia was renowned
for its adaptability to local practices and tolerance of other religions. Over
the past three decades, however, fundamentalists have tried to homogenize
Islam, introducing new tensions. More than any other factor, what has fueled
conflicts and divided Muslims and others in otherwise tolerant and harmonious
plural societies of Asia, is the slow but steady process of the transformation
of Islam in the region, from a syncretic and inclusive Islam to a puritanical
and exclusivist one under the influence of ideas, norms, practices, and
finances flowing from the Arab world.
The “Islam of the desert” has made inroads
across the Indian Ocean. This process of homogenization and regimentation—a
process referred to as the “Arabization” of Islam—puts greater emphasis on
rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi
creeds, a rigidly puritanical branch of Islam exported from, and subsidized by,
the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The internationalization of Islam drew Asian
Muslims to the desert and brought the desert to them.
Such “globalization of political Islam”
could threaten stability throughout Asia and the world. Unfortunately, too many
proponents of any form of fundamentalism rely on it as a tool, not for
inspiring spirituality, but for acquiring economic or political power.
Nevertheless, it is believed among the
majority of observers that Islam in Southeast Asia is offering a very
attractive school of thought based on tolerance, acceptance of the other,
intercultural communication, peace and development for all. In this regard,
Bruce Vaughn, an analyst in Southeast and South Asian Affairs, Foreign Affairs,
Defence, and Trade, argues quite rightly: viii
“Islam in Southeast Asia is relatively more
moderate in character than in much of the Middle East. This moderation stems in
part from the way Islam evolved in Southeast Asia. Islam came to Southeast Asia
with traders rather than through military conquest as it did in much of South Asia
and the Arab Middle East. Islam also was overlaid on animist, Hindu, and
Buddhist traditions in Indonesia, which are said to give it a more syncretic
aspect. Islam spread throughout much of Southeast Asia by the end of the
seventeenth century. Islam in Asia is more politically diverse than in the
Drawing a Parallel between Islam in
Morocco and Indonesia and Pakistan
Morocco and Indonesia, according to the
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have some parallel with each other in
terms of faith, in the cultural area. In his acclaimed work entitled: “Islam
Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia”ix, which remains
today one of the most authoritative works in comparative religion between two
Muslim countries on the two edges of the geographical area of the Muslim world.
In this fascinating study, Clifford Geertz
begins his argument by outlining the problem conceptually and providing an
overview of the two countries. He then traces the evolution of their classical
religious styles which, with disparate settings and unique histories, produced
strikingly different spiritual climates. So in Morocco, the Islamic conception
of life came to mean activism, moralism, and intense individuality, while in
Indonesia the same concept emphasized aestheticism, inwardness, and the radical
dissolution of personality. In order to assess the significance of these
interesting developments, Geertz sets forth a series of theoretical
observations concerning the social role of religion.
In the preface of this interesting work, he
sets out to define his approach to the matter and inherent philosophy: x
“I have attempted both to lay out a general
framework for the comparative analysis of religion and to apply it to a study
of the development of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two quite
contrasting civilizations, the Indonesian and the Moroccan.”
He explores the impact of local culture and
“common sense” on Islam (and the reverse) by tracing the evolution of
Indonesian and Moroccan classical religious styles, and manages to unravel
theory into accessible threads and uses this final chapter to weave together
the earlier chapters. This book is, essentially, an exploration of religion’s
impact on collective consciousness in Indonesia and Morocco.
In essence, the book is primarily a
comparative examination of how Indonesia and Morocco, both Muslim countries,
have developed in religious belief and to some extent in political belief,
according to their different geographical environment, economic structure and
The author’s argument begins from the
contrast between the tribesmen/townsmen symbiosis of Moroccan society, with its
uncertain pastoral and agricultural base and the mature peasant society of the
major part of Indonesia, with its highly productive wet rice civilization.
He argues quite forcefully, and with great
amount of the assurance of a social scientist with tremendous experience: xi
“In Morocco, civilization was built on
nerve; in Indonesia on diligence”.
The turbulent Arab-Amazigh/Berber Moroccan
background gave value to both visionary devoutness and self-assertion combined
on occasion in the key figure of the warrior-saint; the classical Indic
civilization stressed more aesthetic and philosophic values, seen over a much
more complex syncretistic range.
Where Moroccan religious ideology developed
a rigorous fundamentalism, Indonesian proliferated into more abstract
symbolism, pragmatic in allowing much more scope for variation. But in both a
basic problem, is not so much what to believe as how to believe it.
Increasingly, people hold religious view rather than are held by them; there is
a difference between being religious-minded and being religious.
In a similar work entitled: Islam in Tribal
Societies: From the Atlas to the Indus, edited by Akbar S. Ahmed and David M.
Hart xii, these two prominent academics and anthropologists conducted a lively
debate in the social sciences around the concepts of “tribe”, “segmentary
societies” and “Islam in society”. This wide-ranging collection by thirteen
distinguished anthropologists contributes to the debate by examining various
segmentary Islamic tribal societies from Morocco to Pakistan.
Conclusions about Islam in Asia
The presentation on the roles of Islam in
Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia suggests that Islam’s role in
politics, societies and economies has grown.
Despite the growing role of Islam and the rise of more activist and
religious Muslim middle classes, there appear to be few signs of an Islamic
fundamentalist trend in Asia. The point
was made repeatedly that Islam in most of Asia must compete with other
identities, most notably ethnicity.
Moreover, Islam in Asia generally is built on pre-Islamic influences
such as Hinduism and Buddhism which still persist. All of these factors tend to make Islam in
Asia of a variety different from the more doctrinaire influences of the Arabian
Only in one country, Pakistan, does it
appear that Islam is threatening to take an extra-parliamentary role towards
politics. Islamic politics of the street
intended to undermine Pakistan’s barely functioning democracy is possibly a
real danger to the political stability of the country. Just how serious a threat Islam poses to
Pakistan’s political system, and how soon, is a matter of speculation. But what is not beyond doubt is that
factional fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Pakistan has grown, and
so, too, has intolerance against the country’s minority communities whether
they are Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi.
For Azhdar Kurtov, a Central Asia expert at
the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Uzbeks of Central Asia are the
most populous ethnic group and most settled nation; they have a greater
tradition of statehood than their neighbours, and greater claims to regional
leadership. They haven’t achieved this leadership because they have fewer
natural resources than Kazakhstan, and this has created certain conflicts.
Also, the Uzbeks have much more of an Islamic doctrine than the Turkmen, Kazaks
or Kyrgyz. He goes on to argue about the future of Islam in Uzbekistan in the
following terms: xiii
“The IMU really has made itself evident,
with terrorist acts on central Tashkent squares and attempts to infiltrate
Uzbekistan via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are indisputable facts. The
IMU’s actual situation, though, remains opaque – we don’t know the numbers
involved, their location, who the leaders are, whether the IMU is in contact
with al-Qaeda and what that relationship looks like, or whether it wants to
create a kind of caliphate in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. No one knows
for sure whether all this is true, or whether it’s been invented by
Uzbekistan’s intelligence service. Because the Uzbek justice system is sui
generis and the state is secretive and doesn’t allow freedom of speech, all
these things need to be checked carefully.”
In Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islamic
identity and activity in social, economic and political dimensions has been on
the increase, political stability arising from Islam’s role is not the critical
issue. Rather, the compelling issues
appear to be accommodating Islamic activism in the emerging politics of the two
countries and protecting the rights of minorities. The New Order of Suharto’s Indonesia did not
collapse because of Islamic activism, and Islam is not behind the rough
political dynamics of Malaysia during the past two years. But, as both countries move through an era of
political change, Islam will certainly be one if not the most critical of the
many factors shaping the future.
The role of Islam in Asian regional
politics is extraordinarily complicated and differs from sub-region to
sub-region not to mention across Asia.
In South Asia for example, Islam has not proved to be a tie that binds
as indicated by the separation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from
co-religionist West Pakistan in 1971. (The majority-Hindu states of India and
Nepal certainly have not always had good relations either). Intra-regional relations in South Asia are
certainly complicated by religion (whether Islam or Hinduism, or for that
matter Buddhism) but religion does not shape these relations. Nationalism, power politics, and ethnic identities
are much stronger factors in intra-regional relations.
All in all, it appears that none of the
Asian countries considered in this work, with the possible exception or
Pakistan, are in danger of being thrown into turmoil and instability due to an
Islamic revolution. There are ways in
which the role of Islam may affect the stability of the some of these states,
however; such as incorporating Islamic political parties in the new
dispensation in Indonesia or ensuring the confidence and safety of non-Muslim
minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia. In
India and Philippines, non-Muslim majorities must work to ensure the confidence
and safety of the minority Muslim community.
There are also legitimate questions about the degree to which Islam will
affect the definition of nationalism in Muslim-majority countries of the
ii. Cf. Full text of Benedict XVI’s
speech in Germany Text, provided by Vatican, includes comments on Islam.
iii.Cf. Miller, Tracy, ed. (October
2009), Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and
Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population (PDF), Pew Research Center,
v. Cf. op. cited.
vi. Cf. Produced by Charlotte Buchen.
“Sufism Under attack in Pakistan” (video). The New York Times.
vii. Cf. Huma Imtiaz; Charlotte Buchen
(January 6, 2011). “The Islam That Hard-Liners Hate” (blog)
viii. Cf. Yusufzai, Rahimullah (22
September 2008). “A Who’s Who of the Insurgency in Pakistan’s North-West
Frontier Province: Part One – North and South Waziristan”. Terrorism Monitor 6
ix. Cf. Abbas, Hassan (January 2008). “A
Profile of Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan” (PDF). CTC Sentinel (West Point, NY:
Combating Terrorism Center) 1 (2): 1–4.
j Carlotta Gall, Ismail Khan, Pir Zubair Shah and Taimoor Shah (26 March
2009). “Pakistani and Afghan Taliban Unify in Face of U.S. Influx”. New York
xi. Cf. Gall, Carlotta; Sabrina (6 May
2010). “Pakistani Taliban Are Said to Expand Alliances”. The New York Times.
i. Cf. Crews, R.D. 2009. For Prophet and
Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia. Harvard University Press.
iii. Cf. http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedfiles/Topics/Demographics/Muslimpopulation.pdf
iv. Cf. Louw, M. A. 2009. Everyday Islam
in Post-Soviet Central Asia. Routledge.
v. Cf. Rasanayagam, J. 2011. Islam in
Post-Soviet Uzbekistan: The Morality of Experience. Cambridge University Press.
ix. Cf. Geertz, C. 1971. Islam Observed:
Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. University of Chicago Press.
x. Cf . op. cited.
xi. Cf. op. cited, p. 11.
xii. Cf. Akbar S. Ahmed and David M.
Hart (ed.): Islam in tribal societies: from the Atlas to the Indus. 343 pp.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
of Part One: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-politics/dr-mohamed-chtatou/aspects-of-islam-in-asia-–-part-one/d/112116