Islamic debates

The new religious landscape can be understood at several levels.  At the most general level, the observance of ritual and expressions of piety exist in the public realm and in public spaces.  Islamic holidays are officially recognized and mosques have been built in urban spaces that previously had none. (Most Central Asian cities are centered on the “European” cities built during the Tsarist period and expanded under the Soviets.  Soviet urban spaces were dominated by Russians and were self-consciously free from religious edifices.) Travel for hajj is possible again.  This change has produced differences of positions on the relationship between tradition and piety — how far should piety be a measure of being Muslim?  The debate is by no means settled.  The rhythms of everyday life remain quite secular and the distrust of extravagant shows of piety is widespread.  At a different level, substantial debate takes place over what form of piety and observance to adopt.  From the late Soviet period on, traditional Hanafi forms of worship began to be challenged by those who favored Hanbali forms of worship common in Arab countries.  These conflicts brought into the open debates that had existed only in the confined spaces of the hujra in the late Soviet period.   Once mosques began opening, these disputes took the form of competition over who should control each mosque and what kind of ritual should be observed in it.

Debates over ritual in turn feed into debates over theological questions.  What is the place of Sufi beliefs and practices in Islam? Are traditional customs and practices congruent with “real” Islam?   In a sense, these are the big themes that have dominated Islamic debate throughout the Muslim world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, where the authority of Islamic texts has increasingly crowded out that of traditionalist scholars.  In Central Asia, this debate over “proper” Islam takes place in a specific context.  Both the Jadids and the ulama of SADUM had long taken reformist positions that criticized customary practices Customary practices are now defended in the name of the sanctity of local Hanafi traditions.  In the post-Soviet religious landscape, this debate between traditionalist and reformist positions is glossed as one between “Hanafi” and “Wahhabi” positions, with all stripes of reform being indiscriminately labeled “Wahhabi,” regardless of theological or political affiliation with Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.  This nomenclature derives partly from a proclivity of (Soviet-educated) observers throughout the former Soviet Union to label all reformist tendencies in Islam “Wahhabi.”  But in part, it also comes from indigenous sectarian religious debate, in which all transgressions from the Hanafi consensus can be labeled “Wahhabi.”  In the final analysis, the term “Wahhabism” should be taken with a grain of salt.  It is almost always used with polemical intent and carries many different meanings.

Political Islam

While the Islamic revival has been largely apolitical, three major groups advocating a¬n Islamic political order have arisen in Central Asia.  They are quite different from one another and have different understandings of an “Islamic state.”

The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan

Tajikistan suffered a devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997 — the only bloody conflict in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union — that was highly destructive of an already weak economy.  The civil war broke out as the hold of the late-Soviet political elite on power was challenged by a wide variety of groups.  One of the parties in the opposition was the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP), the local branch of an all-Soviet party established in 1990.  As a result, the two sides in the war were routinely labeled as “Communists” and “Islamists,” leading many to believe that “Islamism” or “Islamic fundamentalism” had arrived in Central Asia.  However, several authors have argued convincingly that these labels were highly misleading.  The basic issues in that war were regional and clan based, with little to distinguish the two sides in terms of their allegiance to political Islam. The incumbent elites were challenged by groups from the region of Kulob, which had been marginalized in the power configurations of the Soviet era.  In practice, the whole of Tajik society, regardless of positioning in the civil war, was undergoing a process of “Islamization,” in which symbols from the regions Islamic past were invoked.  There is little to suggest that the program of the “Islamists” had any similarities with “Islamist” movements in the rest of the Muslim world.  The civil war sputtered to an end in 1997, when a peace accord was reached around a power-sharing formula, giving the so-called “Islamists” a share in power.  The subsequent development of politics in Tajikistan does not bespeak of any attempt to Islamize the state on the part of the “Islamists.”  The IRP participates in parliamentary politics, without achieving great success.

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

The most clear-cut of a militant Islamic movement to emerge in post-Soviet Central Asia has been the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).  Its roots were in a grassroots organization called Adolat (Justice) in the Ferghana Valley in 1990-92.  In 1992, the Uzbekistani government chased members of Adolat out of the country into Tajikistan, where they became embroiled in Tajikistan’s civil war.  After that war concluded in 1997, the Uzbeks, unable to return home, found themselves in Afghanistan of the Taliban.  The experience radicalized them further and led to the formation of the IMU.  The IMU was first noticed in 1999 when an armed band belonging to it attempted to cross from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan.  After a hostage-taking drama involving Japanese citizens, the band retreated, only to reappear the following summer.  The IMU strives for the Islamization of law and the state, and the enforcement of Islamic norms as law. Its program bears many of the characteristic features of jihadist Islam: a fascination with armed struggle to the exclusion of any other political program in their pursuit of an Islamic state, and a vitriolic rhetoric that mixed anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Israeli motifs.  But to a striking degree, the IMU was motivated solely by a simple hatred of Karimov and his regime.   The IMU rose to global prominence in October 2001 during the US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, when its members fought alongside the Taliban. The war proved disastrous for the IMU, whose organization seems to have been largely destroyed.  The existence of Uzbek fighters continue to be reported in the autonomous tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Hizb-ut Tahrir al-Islami

In recent years, a new movement has achieved substantial popularity in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan.  This is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami , an international organization established in Palestine in 1953.  It aims to reestablish the caliphate and enforce Islamic law throughout the Muslim world. As such, it is opposed to all existing regimes in the Muslim world, but it is careful to disavow the use of violence for its ends.  It is organized in secret cells and emphasizes the need for the Islamization of society through non-violent means as a prerequisite for the Islamization of the state.  Its main activities in Central Asia are the distribution of unauthorized, hence illegal, religious literature and the organization of study circles and communal worship.  Unlike the IRP and the IMU, but in common with other Islamist parties in the Muslim world, the HTI sees in Islam not just a religion but a political ideology. Its ultimate goal is the “restoration” of the khilâfa, the caliphate, which the party sees as a single Islamic state encompassing all the Muslims of the world. HTI’s caliphate will be Islamic because it will governed by an ideology that is Islamic.  Judged by this measure, none of the regimes existing in the Muslim world are “Islamic,” and the HTI seeks the removal of all of them.  The HTI has enjoyed rapid growth in Central Asia since the late 1990s, though the reasons for that success are not obvious. We should not assume that the HTI is so monolithic that all its branches follow the same program or that people join it is Central Asia for the same reasons that they join it in the Middle East or Western Europe.  One can argue that the HTI is popular in Central Asia because Central Asians see its global message through the prism of local concerns.  In Central Asia, the HTI is primarily a vehicle for dissatisfaction with the current political and moral order. The utopian vision of a just and moral society presided over by a caliph is attractive to people living through chaotic conditions under brutal and authoritarian regimes.  An Islamic order or the rule of the shari‘a evoke for many people nothing more concrete than a clean economy and lack of corruption, and the vision of a single Islamic state appeals to those whose lives and movements have been constricted by the emergence of international boundaries in Central Asia itself that have had a hugely disruptive impact on local life.