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Central Asia: Islam and the State
Central Asia: Islam and the State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Central Asia: Islam and the State

To avoid future instability, Central Asian states need to re-examine their policies towards Islam and step back from reliance on repression.

Executive Summary

To avoid future instability, Central Asian states need to re-examine their policies towards Islam and step back from reliance on repression. Seventy years of Soviet rule in Central Asia did not crush Islam but it had a profound effect in secularising society and political elites. Nevertheless, after independence there was a surge of interest in Islam, including the emergence of political Islamist groups seeking to challenge the secular nature of these new states. The heavy-handed repression of early manifestations of political Islam led to confrontation, violence, and the appearance of extremist and terrorist groups.

In Uzbekistan the first manifestations of Islamism were rapidly suppressed, and an all-out campaign against any Muslim political activity was initiated. Many Islamists fled first to Tajikistan and then to Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an ally of the Taliban. High levels of repression continued inside the country, provoking widespread discontent and fuelling political Islam as a focus for opposition. There are at least 6,000 religious prisoners in 2003 but dissatisfaction with the regime continues to feed into Islamist sentiment.

In Tajikistan tension over the role of Islam in state-building was a contributory factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1992. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) led opposition to the former Communist regime but failure on both sides to compromise produced bitter fighting that continued until a peace accord was reached in 1997. That agreement legalised the IRP but in practice President Rakhmonov has gradually undermined its position in the political system. With the emasculation of the IRP, more radical groups have gained influence, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir which seeks the overthrow of all secular states in the region in favour of a single Islamic Caliphate, although it claims to be committed to non-violence.

In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan there has been much less interest in ideologies that challenge secularism. But non-traditional Muslim tendencies have appeared in both, and there is debate over the role of religion in society and in politics and over the limits to state interference in religion. In southern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, the growth in influence of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir has sometimes been exaggerated, but they do have a committed following.

In Turkmenistan Islam has only weak roots as an organised religion but President Niyazov has combined widespread repression of any independent religious activity with attempts to create a pseudo-Islamic spiritual creed centred on his own personality.

Central Asian governments have often resorted to old Soviet methods of control. In Uzbekistan this has been repressive in the extreme; in Kyrgyzstan much more subtle. All five regional governments, however, have two aims: first, to control any appearance of political Islam, whether moderate or extreme, since they consider independent expressions of Islam a threat to the constitutional order; secondly, to use Islam as a conduit to promote their own ideologies and campaigns, and in general as a tool of the state.

These attempts to control and manipulate Islam have taken different forms. Laws on religion are severely restrictive in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, while liberal legislation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is often undermined in practice. In all states in the region, a government body responsible for religious affairs intervenes often in the internal affairs of religious organisations. In most states this body carries out registration of religious organisations, without which, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan at least, any religious activity is a criminal offence.

State bodies also interfere formally or informally in the running of the Islamic hierarchy, often controlling what clergy may say in the mosque. The state has a considerable role in appointments of religious leaders. At the local level this is often exercised through the power of local authorities, while at the higher level the state seeks malleable figures who will not challenge the political leadership or act as an alternative power centre.

The results of this co-option and control policy are mixed. Many imams are content merely to conduct rituals but some find government interference increasingly stifling and seek more freedom. The more the government controls it, the less authority the religious hierarchy has with believers, and the less impact it has in carrying government ideology to the population. Poorly educated clergy who parrot state ideology and refuse to stand up to the authorities have none of the respect informal leaders can gain, whether orthodox Muslims or followers of Wahhabism or other trends.

Levels of education and knowledge of Islam in the region are generally low. Religious education is seldom satisfactory. In Uzbekistan severe restrictions have pushed religious teaching underground. Mostly these underground schools teach traditional forms of Islam but the result of repression has been that the state in fact has no control over or knowledge of what is being taught. Where there is formal education, it tends to be intellectually weak, with little discussion of contemporary issues in Islam.

The security forces are tasked with tackling Islamic extremism but often interpret this in as broad a sense as possible. Frequently their repressive methods create unnecessary antagonism. In Uzbekistan, in particular, mass arrests of Muslims – many but not all members of radical political groups – have led to serious mistrust between authorities and the population and radicalisation of those who have suffered from a brutal police force.

In general, state responses to Islamist activity have been poorly informed and too often reliant on heavy-handed repression. In an environment of widespread social decline and sharp falls in living standards over the last decade, Islamism has for some become an acceptable form of political opposition. In their fear of militant Islam, governments have too often worked to undermine authoritative moderate voices in the religious establishment, leaving the arguments against militant opponents to government puppets. Not surprisingly, many Muslims are tempted to turn to groups that seem to offer a more independent view of the government and world affairs.

For much of the population of Central Asia, Islam is not the central factor in their lives. Secularism has gone a long way in undermining religious norms, and the struggle to earn a living while battling with corrupt officials, closed borders and oppressive business environments looms largest. The danger is that without open political systems to channel discontent and with secular state structures failing to deliver economic and political development, Islamist groups may gain greater credibility and increasingly take over the role of opposition on a wide range of political, social and economic issues.

It is important for the international community and especially those states with significant strategic interests in the region, such as the U.S., to continue to support freedom of belief for members of all religions; to maintain a sharp distinction between groups using violence to promote Islamic ideas in politics and those accepting democratic norms; and to maintain the argument that undifferentiated repression against religious activism is likely to lead to more radicalisation rather than less. The alternative is increasing identification of the West with regimes that many Muslims see as not just secular, but actively anti-religious.

Osh/Brussels, 10 July 2003

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.