Where is Central Asia going?

How important is Muslim identification for the central Asian population, is there a threat of radicalization and what is the role if national elites in choosing the future development? Experts were looking for answers to these questions during the discussion titled “Where is Central Asia going?” that was held in Moscow in Sakharov center, with the support from Egor Gaidar fund.

This is a second discussion already on the problems of central Asian region. First one was held this February (see “Diamond plates for elites”). Back then political experts were discussing validity of the term “Central Asian region” and whether Central Asian countries were able to build nation states after the collapse of USSR and gaining independence. Second discussion was centered around problems of Islamization of the region and quality of elites.

Islam and national identity

“Central asia (…) is a certain group of countries that throughout a long time period were part of the Soviet Union. I wouldn’t talk of any kind of commonality before that time period – noted the head of scientific research of the institute on the dialogue of civilizations, political expert Alexey Malashenko. Today it is a problem for self-identification, choosing of the ways of development, contacts and finding out what does central Asia actually wants to be”.

What can unite this region?

“First thing that comes to mind is the post-Soviet space, which doesn’t exist anymore, but still. Second thing that comes to mind is Islam. But what kind of Islam?” – asks the expert and explains his doubts.

“Because it varies a lot as well, depending on history, traditions and lifestyle. I talk platitudes, but there is Islam of nomadic nations and Islam of sedentary nations. And I assure you there are a lot of differences between Islam in Tajikistan and Islam in Turkmenistan. However, when we say the word Islam, we think that it is something that unites.

I used to ask thing question in various regions of CA: “Who are you?”. And with regards to Islam, if we try to group things, there were usually three answers. Some say: “Of course I am Muslim”. Another response was: “I am a Muslim first of all”, this answer by the way was most characteristic for young generation. Also, there was an answer: “I am technically a Muslim, but you know what kind of Muslims we are over here”. I don’t see an identity here.

However, already something called “radical Islam”. I don’t know what term would be more productive and correct for the phenomenon. (…) Maybe it is a politicized and quasi-orthodox Islam, because those people who try to immerse in it, really assume that it is the answer to the existing situation, crises and other things.

The way they think is this: we didn’t have success with the Soviet Union, we are not the West, we are neither here nor there, so let’s go back to true Islam, and then we’ll make a leap and skip all those misconceptions that existed in medieval times, in 19th and 20th centuries, and will build a common model, based on Islam that is good for Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and not for Egypt.

There is such category as “Muslim first of all”. Those are called radicals and they are not much liked. But they forget that if there is a uniting root of Islam for Central Asia, then it is this exact public that believes that something good could be built on the basis of Islam and Sharia law. In their opinion, these ideas were given, not by communists or the west, but by Allah himself through his prophet Muhammed. Ignoring this earnest stance, of the people that believe in it, is not smart.

What will happen next? I don’t know. For now, what we see, not only in Central Asia, but all over the world is a crisis of Muslim identity, and at the same time a crisis between the members of Islamic civilization, in broader sense, and the rest of the world”.

In Alexey Malashenko’s opinion, there is another nuance: there is a concept of Muslim world and a concept of Islamic world.

“Muslim world – is a world in which Muslims live – good, bad, drinkers and non-drinkers. Islamic world – is a world in which efforts are made to build a system based on principles of Islam. These concepts are not one and the same. Muslim world is a world of ordinary people who happen to be Muslims, while Islamic world is a world dominated by Islam.

When talking about Central Asia, we talk about a Muslim region, where all kinds of Muslims live. Islamic world is one of enclaves, which could be anywhere, in Tajikistan, Syria, etc.

Another interesting moment is that when we talk about terrorists we don’t say Muslim terrorists, it is not a household term; muslims, they are good folks. On the other hand, Islamic terrorists – they are alien to us, and that is the difference.

This might be a small thing, but I think it is important to understand that Muslim world and Islamic world don’t coincide, even in terms of identity. Because people in Islamic world want to live by Islamic rules, and in Muslim world they want to live by the rule of “we’ll see how it goes”.

An employee of the Center of central Asian and Caucasus studies of the institute of eastern studies of Russian academy of sciences, Stanislav Pritchin has a slightly different point of view on the role of Islam in central Asia:

“Islam in large part was used as an idea in the ideological plan for nation-building. Because after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a deficit of ideologies. How to build a nation and unite the people, who are ethnically different? Take any Central Asian republic – they are not homogenous. North, south, east and west of Kazakhstan are very different, in terms of both juzes and ethnic composition. The same situation is found in Kyrgyzstan.

There is no longer strict, systemic and multilevel government ideology that was present in the Soviet Union, plus there is an idea of received independence. Why did the personality cult occur in Turkmenistan for example? It was used for ideology building, for unity, because idealization of a leader is understandable to people on the east from psychological standpoint. In Turkmenistan, in my opinion, building an ideology around the persona of a leader of the nation, has worked very effectively.

Same thing can be observed in Kazakhstan with varying degree of success for different groups. And in the current post-Karimov period in Uzbekistan, we can see how the new leader successfully uses his predecessor, as part of his ideological policy”.

In turn, Igor Savin, head of the Central Asian sector of the institute of eastern studies, told us about recent research of Kazakh sociologists, studying 15-29 year old youths.

“Up to 80 of them said that they are Muslims, but only about 18-20% are practicing. What do we mean by practicing? Those are the ones that follow at least one out of five pillars of Islam more or less regularly. But there are always some exotic groups, such as radicals.

Based on the data of the committee on religious affairs of Kazakhstan, only 4-5% of religious Muslims in the country can be considered radicals. But they are the most noticeable, active and create a turbulence around themselves, which is why it seems like they are the main mass of people, even though it is not so. In Kazakhstan, it feels like this group is still a marginal one. There is a very big opposition between slavophiles and a community of so-called Kazakhstan’s patriots, who insist that they are Muslims, but nationalist ones, they emphasize that they are “pro Kazakhstan”. I.e. we are not for a foreign religion, but for our own religion. This is shown in part through the popularity of Yassavi tarikat (a sufi tarikat, found by Ahmed Yasavi).

Thus, people want to not just Muslims, but muslims rooted in their own national core. Here we see an interesting link between patriotism and Islamic identity. This is bolstered by constantly toughening anti-religious legislation, that increasingly limits freedom of actions of religious organizations, for which it is rightfully criticized, but this is exactly why various missionaries don’t feel comfortable in Kazakhstan. In my native Shymkent, anybody can show you the street where men with bears and short pants have shops, but for townspeople they are still “not our people”.

In Pritchin’s opinion, rooting of Islamic ideas in society correlates with the strength of the government. “Kazakhstan in itself is a self-sufficient country due to its economic conditions. Uzbekistan also has enough resources to spare funds to fight ideological things that can go beyond the government. Kyrgyz republic on the other hand is a champion in terms of the presence of various religious missions, due to weakness of its government institutions and poverty of regions”, he thinks.

Another interesting thing, is this. During Aslan Musin’s tenure as the head of Kazakhstan’s presidential administration, his son became known for being active in promoting a branch of Islam called quaranism, in the country, that allows drinking, leading a questionable lifestyle, but being part of Islam nonetheless. This is in regards to the efforts of creating a national “independent” Islam. With regards to this, Alexey Malshenko quotes Aron Atabek⃰: “Back in the day, I talked a lot to Aron Atabek. He is the man who wanted to create an Islamic party in Kazakhstan. He made a trip through northern Kazkahstan, up to Karaganda and then told me that Kazakhstan will never have an Islamic party. When I asked: “Why” he said: “Because Kazakhs drink even more than Russians”.

Today, political expert says, we see that something “is starting to appear one way or another”. “…I remember being told in Samarkand and Tashkent in the nineties: “Oh what Muslims are we, it’s not like we are Egypt”. I remembered those words for the rest of my life, that Uzbekistan is not Egypt, and nothing like that happen to us. As it turned out it can; Uzbek Islamic opposition had missed its chance but it could caused havoc in Fergana valley.. So if you look at these processes in a wider sense, you will see the Islamization of a Muslim world. It may sounds ridiculous, but in a sense it is true, because even traditional Islam is slowly being politicized.

Where would new elite come from.

Second part of the discussion was dedicated to discussing of the role of national elites and political leaders in the character of development of Central Asia.

Speaking about a systemic renovation of the elites, Pritchin remembered the somewhat positive example of Kazakhstan, where starting from early 90s, a program called Bolashak has been in place, as part of which thousands of young students are sent abroad to study in leading world educational institutions.

Even though, in his words “…most of the kids who go abroad as part of that program, are already representatives of the elite, because of course, officials try to use Bolashak to promote their children. Thus, this program doesn’t allow for creation of a new intellectual elite created from the best kids, but rather recreates the elite”

Experts noted that other Central Asian countries also have education abroad programs for the youth, but there is no data, to judge their success. However, they noted that there is a revamping of the elite in Kyrgyzstan, where the current president, is a “man of the next generation, who has done business in different countries and then came back and started active political work”, and of the main contenders in the upcoming election – Babanov, is a man of a totally different generation with a different mindset”.

As a conclusion, experts have noted that “self-recreating elites” of central Asia, will no longer focus on Russia, which means that prospects of integrational cooperation within the framework of Eurasian economic union are quite uncertain.

“For  Nazarbaev the Eurasian union is his baby, but for the next generation of elites, this union will be something more pragmatic… Will the new elite approach it from the point of view of national interests ro will act like Ukrainian elite, which is ready to tear even profitable economic connections , only to not have any relations with Russia?” – asked Pritchin.

Igor Savin, noted in that regard: “There is an opinion that Eurasian union is artificial, and Nazarbaev and Putin are inventing something together, only so that Kazakhstan will become the subject of Russia. However, people themselves make a living by conducting everyday transactions. Based on latest data, more transfers from private citizens go to Kazakhstan from Russia, rather than vice versa. So maybe there isn’t that much of artificial in the Eurasian union?”

In turn, Alexey Malashenko thinks that it is too early to speak of a new elite. “Look at Arab countries. Right now we have Bashar Asad in Syria, before it was his father. Is this Bashar a new elite? Now, he is just a continuation of an old one. Yes, in Central Asia there might be changes in relationships between juzes and regions, but in essence what we see now, is the continuation of old elite”. A new elite, in his opinion, could have occurred in Kyrgyzstan, but did it? Is there a new elite in Tajiksitan? Will president Rakhmon’s relatives be an elite? What about Turkmensitan? Even in Kazakhstan, look at the last names and at the children… Where would a completely new elite with a new mindset come from?”. “It (the elite) will still work for itself, equating its interests with national ones. That is the problem. There is a change of generations in the old elite, but not of elite itself. For now, we can’t speak of the change of elites” – Malashenko summarized.

⃰ Aron Atabek is a Kazakh poet, publicist, creator of the national independence party “Alash”. He was indicted in 2006 for 18 years on the accusation of organizing of mass protests against demolition of buildings in Shanirik microdistrict in Almaty, as a result of which a police officer died. International human rights organizations had called him a political prisoner.


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