The region's ruling elites fear Islamisation of public life, so they have adopted draconian measures to even suppress the revival of Muslim traditions.

TASHKENT – “They beat us to a pulp for just attempting to pray, for just saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] or ‘Amen,’” Shukrat says, recalling the daily prison routine that still convulses him with chronic pains and nightmares. 

Shukhrat, a wiry, small-framed 41 year-old, attended an informal prayer group in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, that studied the basics of Islam. He was arrested, tortured and sentenced to eight years in jail in 2010 for “religious extremism.”

He spent almost five years in three prisons throughout Central Asia’s most populous and mostly Muslim nation of 34 million, before being amnestied in 2016 after the death of Uzbekistan’s first post-Soviet President, Islam Karimov. 

Thousands more Uzbeks fell victim to Karimov’s ruthless and perennial crackdown on “extremism” and “terrorism.” Despite his first and last name (“Karim” means “merciful, generous” in Arabic), Karimov was an iron-fisted ex-Communist who tried to harness the revival of Muslim traditions in Uzbekistan whose residents remained at least superficially religious during the Communist era.

Karimov claimed the “extremists” plotted to upend his secular rule and turn the entire Central Asian region stretched strategically between China’s Muslim Xinjiang region, troubled Afghanistan, Shiite Iran and resurgent Russia, into a “khalifate” with the help of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Thousands of wannabe Islamist extremists from Uzbekistan and the other four Central Asian …stans did flee to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal zone in the late 1990s, and to the Islamic State in the mid-2010s.

But international human rights groups, Western governments and former inmates such as Shukhrat insist that the absolute majority of the alleged “extremists” jailed in Uzbekistan were peaceful Muslims who simply practiced their faith outside government-controlled mosques – or failed to pay corrupt police officers who framed them to get a promotion.

Secular autocrats

Almost 30 years after the Soviet collapse, the five …stans of Central Asia, an arid and resource-rich region of more than 60 million, haven’t rejoined the Muslim world they had been part of before the czarist conquest that ended in the late 19th century.

In 2020, there isn’t a single religious party in their parliaments – although a string of religious groups tried to become political movements and get elected in the early 1990s. 

“The moment when Islamic organizations began a political struggle, the attitude towards them changed altogether, and [authorities ] started considering them 'religious extremists' and 'fundamentalists,'” Nigara Khidouytova, an Uzbek opposition leader who lives in exile in California, told TRT World.

An attempt by nascent Islamist parties to seize power in Tajikistan led to the 1992-97 civil war that ended with a victory for Russia-backed secular autocrat Emomali Rakhmon who allowed them in parliament only to outlaw them and jail their leaders by the 2010s.

The civil and criminal codes in the …stans consist of slightly modified Soviet laws that don’t even remotely reflect the sharia jurisprudence. Although polygamy is resurgent, religious marriages have no legal power, and each man is “limited” to one wife he marries through a civil ceremony.

While many locals have Arabic names, the study of Arabic is predominantly tied to the study of the Quran, not contemporary Arabic dialects, while education centres offering English or Russian lessons are ubiquitous.

With mixed success, three of the five …stans are trying to switch from the Cyrillic alphabet – but to the modified Latin ABC, not to the Arabic-based scripts used before the Communist era.

New ideologies 

In their efforts to rid of the Soviet past and Communist dogma, the secular, autocratic governments of the …stans promote new state ideologies that barely mention Islam.

Uzbekistan has a cult of Tamerlane, a ruthless conqueror from what is now the central Uzbek city of Samarkand who laid waste to most of the Muslim world. It prides itself on being the birthplace of a string of notable scholars, including polymath Avicenna and theologian Al-Bukhari, but the current curricula in Uzbek universities are Westernized and secular.

Tajik autocrat Rakhmon, one of the few Central Asian leaders who dropped the Russian “ov” from his last name, calls his impoverished nation the “birthplace of Aryans,” the forefathers of modern Iranians and Indians.

The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are fiercely proud of the nomadic traditions that often include pre-Islamic, shamanistic rituals, and epic poetry that often contradicts Islam.

In Turkmenistan, whose predominantly nomadic population was forcibly “settled” in new urban centers and on collective farms in the Communist era, eccentric helmsman and former dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov prefers a personality cult of himself. 

The political establishment in the …stans distrusts Islam, analysts say.

“The [ruling] elites are frightened by the possible Islamisation of public life and the politization of Islam with all the resulting consequences,” Alisher Ilkhamov, a London-based Central Asia expert with SOAS University, wrote on Facebook in early December.

“Meanwhile, the public, its sizable portion, doesn't remotely want to part with the advantages of secular lifestyle. It is Europe, not the nations of the Muslim world, that attracts them as an example of what is called modern society,” he wrote.

Incomplete Islamisation

Arabs started the conquest of Central Asia more than 1,200 years ago. The only battle between them and a Chinese army took place in what is now northern Kyrgyzstan. The region’s southern part pierced by the Great Silk Road became part of the larger Middle East.

But the Soviets tried hard to uproot Central Asia’s links to the Muslim world and its past – even though they created an illusion of “religious freedom” and invited visiting Muslims luminaries such as boxer Mohammad Ali or Indian Premier Lal Bahadur Shastri to the USSR’s only functioning Islamic university in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara.

They switched Central Asian languages from Arabic-based scripts to the Cyrillic alphabet, making access to pre-Communist literature impossible to everyone but a handful of scholars, and even ordered the use of European scales in local music rooted in pre-Islamic Middle Eastern traditions.

“Bigoted and backward” were the epithets they used to describe the Central Asian Muslim states conquered by czarist armies, and described the czarist conquest as a progressive step that helped rid slavery, improve public health and Westernize the elites paving the way for the Communist utopia.

As a result, Islamic traditions remained strong in the overpopulated, urbanised oases of Uzbekistan and the mountainous regions of Tajikistan, says researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University. 

“But they lost the battle to the majority of the population that preferred a mix of pan-Turkism, post-Soviet secularism and reverence to religion without letting the religion really define their daily life,” he told TRT World.

TASHKENT – “They beat us to a pulp for just attempting to pray, for just saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] or ‘Amen,’” Shukrat says, recalling the daily prison routine that still convulses him with chronic pains and nightmares.

Shukhrat, a wiry, small-framed 41 year-old, attended an informal prayer group in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, that studied the basics of Islam. He was arrested, tortured and sentenced to eight years in jail in 2010 for “religious extremism.”

He spent almost five years in three prisons throughout Central Asia’s most populous and mostly Muslim nation of 34 million, before being amnestied in 2016 after the death of Uzbekistan’s first post-Soviet President, Islam Karimov.

Thousands more Uzbeks fell victim to Karimov’s ruthless and perennial crackdown on “extremism” and “terrorism.” Despite his first and last name (“Karim” means “merciful, generous” in Arabic), Karimov was an iron-fisted ex-Communist who tried to harness the revival of Muslim traditions in Uzbekistan whose residents remained at least superficially religious during the Communist era.

Karimov claimed the “extremists” plotted to upend his secular rule and turn the entire Central Asian region stretched strategically between China’s Muslim Xinjiang region, troubled Afghanistan, Shiite Iran and resurgent Russia, into a “khalifate” with the help of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Thousands of wannabe Islamist extremists from Uzbekistan and the other four Central Asian …stans did flee to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal zone in the late 1990s, and to the Islamic State in the mid-2010s.

But international human rights groups, Western governments and former inmates such as Shukhrat insist that the absolute majority of the alleged “extremists” jailed in Uzbekistan were peaceful Muslims who simply practiced their faith outside government-controlled mosques – or failed to pay corrupt police officers who framed them to get a promotion.

Secular autocrats

Almost 30 years after the Soviet collapse, the five …stans of Central Asia, an arid and resource-rich region of more than 60 million, have not rejoined the Muslim world they had been part of before the czarist conquest that ended in the late 19th century.

In 2020, there isn’t a single religious party in their parliaments – although a string of religious groups tried to become political movements and get elected in the early 1990s.

 “The moment when Islamic organizations began a political struggle, the attitude towards them changed altogether, and [authorities ] started considering them 'religious extremists' and 'fundamentalists,'” Nigara Khidouytova, an Uzbek opposition leader who lives in exile in California, told TRT World.

An attempt by nascent Islamist parties to seize power in Tajikistan led to the 1992-97 civil war that ended with a victory for Russia-backed secular autocrat Emomali Rakhmon who allowed them in parliament only to outlaw them and jail their leaders by the 2010s.

The civil and criminal codes in the …stans consist of slightly modified Soviet laws that don’t even remotely reflect the sharia jurisprudence. Although polygamy is resurgent, religious marriages have no legal power, and each man is “limited” to one wife he marries through a civil ceremony.

While many locals have Arabic names, the study of Arabic is predominantly tied to the study of the Quran, not contemporary Arabic dialects, while education centres offering English or Russian lessons are ubiquitous.

With mixed success, three of the five …stans are trying to switch from the Cyrillic alphabet – but to the modified Latin ABC, not to the Arabic-based scripts used before the Communist era.

New ideologies

In their efforts to rid of the Soviet past and Communist dogma, the secular, autocratic governments of the …stans promote new state ideologies that barely mention Islam.

Uzbekistan has a cult of Tamerlane, a ruthless conqueror from what is now the central Uzbek city of Samarkand that laid waste to most of the Muslim world. It prides itself on being the birthplace of a string of notable scholars, including polymath Avicenna and theologian Al-Bukhari, but the current curricula in Uzbek universities are Westernised and secular.

Tajik autocrat Rakhmon, one of the few Central Asian leaders who dropped the Russian “ov” from his last name, calls his impoverished nation the “birthplace of Aryans,” the forefathers of modern Iranians and Indians.

The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are fiercely proud of the nomadic traditions that often include pre-Islamic, shamanistic rituals, and epic poetry that often contradicts Islam.

In Turkmenistan, whose predominantly nomadic population was forcibly “settled” in new urban centres and on collective farms in the Communist era, eccentric helmsman and former dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov prefers a personality cult of himself.

The political establishment in the …stans distrusts Islam, analysts say.

“The [ruling] elites are frightened by the possible Islamisation of public life and the politization of Islam with all the resulting consequences,” Alisher Ilkhamov, a London-based Central Asia expert with SOAS University, wrote on Facebook in early December.

“Meanwhile, the public, its sizable portion, doesn't remotely want to part with the advantages of secular lifestyle. It is Europe, not the nations of the Muslim world, that attracts them as an example of what is called modern society,” he wrote.

Incomplete Islamisation

Arabs started the conquest of Central Asia more than 1,200 years ago. The only battle between them and a Chinese army took place in what is now northern Kyrgyzstan. The region’s southern part, pierced by the Great Silk Road, became part of the larger Middle East.

But the Soviets tried hard to uproot Central Asia’s links to the Muslim world and its past – even though they created an illusion of “religious freedom” - and invited visiting Muslims luminaries such as boxer Mohammad Ali, or Indian Premier, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to the USSR’s only functioning Islamic university in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara. 

They switched Central Asian languages from Arabic-based scripts to the Cyrillic alphabet, making access to pre-Communist literature impossible to everyone but a handful of scholars, and even ordered the use of European scales in local music rooted in pre-Islamic Middle Eastern traditions.

“Bigoted and backward” were the epithets they used to describe the Central Asian Muslim states conquered by czarist armies, and described the czarist conquest as a progressive step that helped rid slavery, improve public health and Westernise the elites paving the way for the Communist utopia.

As a result, Islamic traditions remained strong in the overpopulated, urbanised oases of Uzbekistan and the mountainous regions of Tajikistan, says researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University.

“But they lost the battle to the majority of the population that preferred a mix of pan-Turkism, post-Soviet secularism and reverence to religion without letting the religion really define their daily life,” he told TRT World.

Source: TRT World