Soviet policies toward Islam changed dramatically with glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “openness,” that resulted, among other things, in the cessation of state persecution of religion in the country. The whole of the Soviet Union witnessed a religious revival, as people of all religious backgrounds began to seek the moral values that had been under attack for so long in Soviet times. Central Asia was not immune to this trend. The region has seen a substantial religious revival since then. Expressions and symbols of Islam have returned to public life and public spaces — disused mosques have been brought back into operation, while many new ones have been built; thousands of pilgrims perform the hajj every year; shrines, many of them burial places of figures considered holy, have been renovated and now attract numerous visitors; public expressions of piety have increased; and considerable publishing activity has put many Islamic texts in print. Religious education is possible again.
This revival of Islam has given rise to a new debate on the political consequences of the “return” of Islam to Central Asia. Indeed, talk of an “Islamic threat” to the region has dominated policy discussions of the region since the Soviet collapse. This view, which is also shared by political elites in Central Asia, assumes that the revival of religious activity will lead inexorably to the emergence of Islam as a political force inimical to the established secular regimes of the region. While concerns about the rise of “fundamentalism” and of militant Islam have a place in the discussion, it is crucial to not lose track of the specifically religious transformations experienced by Central Asia. These take place in a political and cultural landscape that is specifically post-Soviet.
(also Mamasodiq Mamayusupov, b. 1952), the fourth mufti of SADUM (1989-93) and a leading religious thinker in Uzbekistan today. Born in Andijon in the Ferghana Valley, Muhammad Sadiq’s career was tied to SADUM from early on. He studied at SADUM’s Mir-i Arab madrasa in Bukhara and the Imam al-Bukhari Higher Islamic Institute in Tashkent, before matriculating at the National Islamic University of Libya in 1976. He returned in 1980 to work for SADUM. In 1989, he was elected its mufti, the first person from outside the Babakhan lineage to be elected to that office. In the turbulent years of glasnost and perestroika, Muhammad Sadiq sought to maximize SADUM’s room for meneuvre and to liberate it from the obligation to follow every dictate of state organs. In his fatwas, he moved away from the radicalism of his predecessors and to bank on the tradition Central Asian Hanafi jurisprudence. He also sought to mediate the conflict between the Mujaddidiylar and their traditionalist opponents (see Islam in the Soviet Period) that came into the open in this period, by taking a middle position. He did not succeed in this task. By late 1992, SADUM had split into different administrations for each Central Asian country. Muhammad Sadiq was the head of SADUM’s Uzbekistani successor, the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. He was forced out of office by the government which was not happy with his independent spirit. Muhammad Sadiq spent several years in exile in Libya, before being allowed to return to Uzbekistan. He eschews any work with government organs and occupies himself with scholarship — he is the author of numerous works, large and small, on Islam.
Today’s Islamic revival originated in the context of the open assertion of national identity that took place throughout the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. As it became possible to explore national and cultural legacies beyond the constraints placed on them by the Soviet regime, many Central Asians, began to rediscover Islam and to reestablish links with the broader Muslim world that had been severed by Soviet xenophobia. There was, in addition, a search for old spiritual and moral values that many felt had been lost during the Soviet period. The religious revival in Central Asia is, in this sense is profoundly national, one aspect of reclaiming and asserting national identity. None of this was unique to Central Asia. Indeed, the religious revival in Russia itself has been more spectacular than in Central Asia, where the Orthodox Church has a secure place in official function. Some crucial features of the post-Soviet Islamic revival need to be kept in mind. The continuities with the Soviet past are legion. The religious revival that began during perestroika might have made Islam more visible, but Islam is still reproduced in the private realm, at home and during private lessons, or in carefully controlled official institutions. Its absence from public life is striking. Public discourse does not make use of any referents to Islam; rather, Islam itself has to be justified with reference to other discourses (of national identity and destiny, progress, enlightenment, and so on). The independent states of Central Asia retain many continuities with the Soviet past.
At the same time, the public school system remains resolutely secular, with no religious instruction whatsoever in any country. A remarkable feature of the cultural landscape in the last few years has been the emergence into open of otins, women who teach children the basic tenets of faith, largely orally. Similarly, there has been a revival of Sufi orders, with shaykhs recruiting disciples openly. Yet, it is clear that instead of being a return to older traditions of Sufism, this phenomenon is redefining Sufism itself.
Relations between religion and the state have not changed significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In all five countries of Central Asia, the states remain the dominant player in politics and society. Independence came as a surprise to Central Asia and the Party elites managed to stay in power as Soviet republics became sovereign states overnight. Not only are the regimes in control of public life, their attitude to Islam has changed only slightly from the Soviet period. In making the transition, they appealed to the idea of national identities as they had developed in the Soviet period. In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has fashioned himself as the leader of a state that promises to build a great Uzbekistan in the future. The slogan, Uzbekistan, the great state of the future, is ubiquitously displayed in public spaces. Independent Uzbekistan continues a great tradition of “Uzbek statehood” (o’zbek davlatchiligi) whose roots lie deep in the past and which was interrupted by (Russian and then Soviet) imperialism. Islam is a significant part of this heritage, and the current ruling elite does not deny it. The government celebrates the Islamic cultural heritage of the region and invokes the moral and ethical values stemming from it. Sufism has been adopted as an example of the humanist traditions of the Uzbek nation, just as old mosques are celebrated as “architectural monuments.”
In Turkmenistan, the first post-Soviet president Saparmurat Niyazov, a former first secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan), sought to base legitimacy in tradition in an altogether different way. Instead of celebrating a continuous tradition of statehood, the regime celebrates the tribal traditions of the Turkmen people. Niyazov indeed has took for himself the title of Türkmenbashï, literally “the head Turkmen,” the chief of all Turkmen tribes. In Niyazov’s scheme of things, Islam had a certain place as an aspect of Turkmen history, but since Turkmen identity is supposed to predate Islam, this place is not central. Niyazov even elevated a collection of his thoughts published as the Ruhnama [Book of the Soul] as a sacred text to be used in everyday life on par with the Qur’an.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (which provides a partial exception to the rule of native Party elites claiming power effortlessly in 1991), too, the rhetoric of the recovery of an interrupted national development exists, but it is tempered by the political realities of large, often vocal Russian minorities (northern Kazakhstan has a Russian majority which has expended considerable energies in seeking union with the Russian Federation). Kazakhstan’s government has tried to turn the shrine of Ahmet Yesevi, the great Sufi master and founder of the Yesevi order, in the town of Turkistan, into a pan-Turkic icon, but beyond that, the presence of Islamic symbols or figures in official discourse is rather limited. Tajikistan is a somewhat different case, because the IRP, an avowedly Islamic party, operates legally. Yet, the state is still professedly secular and retains the right to control Islamic activity.
All post-Soviet states use Soviet-style institutional mechanisms of dealing with Islam. Soviet-era legislation on religious affairs has been replaced by new versions that do not significantly alter the nature of the relationship between state and religion. Uzbekistan’s Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations affirms the separation of religion and state in the Uzbekistan and guarantees the freedom of conscience — the right “to follow or not follow a religion … to participate or not participate in religious services, rituals and ceremonies” — as a constitutional right of all inhabitants of the country. It does not permit any coercion in the matter, and therefore forbids the teaching of religion to minors without their parents’ or guardians’ permission. Religious rights are, however, subject to considerations of “national security and public order, [and of] the lives, health, moral, rights, and freedoms of other citizens” (art. 3). More significantly, the law places most religious activities in the domain of religious organizations, rather than of individuals. Religious activities — worship, education, charity work — may only be carried out by formally constituted organizations, registered (i.e., approved) by the state. Worship and religious practice outside of “religious buildings and places of worship” (вне культовых и молитвенных зданий) is proscribed, as is private religious education. Indeed, any religious activity beyond the purview of officially recognized religious organizations becomes illegal. In practical terms, this means that one can legally worship only in mosques operated by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, the “voluntary” religious organization of the Muslims of Uzbekistan, and only that organization has the right to offer religious education or to publish (or import) religious literature. Equivalent legislation from Kazakhstan bears striking resemblances to the Uzbekistani law.
It should be clear that the institutional framework for dealing with Islam retains marked continuities with the Soviet past. The four “spiritual administrations” created in 1943 survived the Soviet collapse in principle, if not in fact. SADUM split into national administrations between 1990 and 1992, and after a brief period of independence, were brought back under state control. Today, even as the new states celebrate the place of Islam in their cultural history, they retain strict control over Islamic expression through these institutions. In effect, a new kind of “official Islam” has emerged in Central Asia.
The most significant case is, of course, that of Uzbekistan, where SADUM’s successor, the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (O’zbekiston Musulmonlar Idorasi), has been assigned the task of regulating and managing all observance of Islam and of Islamic education. Any expression of Islam or worship conducted outside the control of the Muslim Board is now illegal (and hence punishable) by definition. In March 2000, the Muslim Board adopted a new program “On the Defense of our Sacred Religion from Fundamentalism and Various Extremist Currents” (Muqaddas dinimizni himoyasi, aqidaparastlik va turli ekstremistik oqimlarga qarshi kurash dasturi) that establishes traditional Hanafi dogma as officially binding and mobilizes all imams to speak out against non-Hanafi tendencies. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan also issues fatwas (although these tend to be more traditional in format, given as responses to specific questions of dogma or ritual) [see document here]. The MBU is also the sole authoritative source for the sermons (va’z) delivered by imams before Friday prayers. These sermons are published by the MBU and their use is mandatory for all imams in the country. Muslims who practice Islam outside the official structures are labeled “independent Muslims,” and are liable to prosecution on grounds of “extremism” or “fundamentalism,” or “Wahhabism.”