The latest issue of the Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions (No. 115, July-September, 2001) includes an article by French expert Olivier Roy suggesting that ethnicity and nationalism will continue to play a key role in Central Asian Islam, even in its militant strain.
Islam had not entirely disappeared from Central Asia during the Soviet period: in addition to a rural, conservative Islam which managed to survive more or less throughout those seven decades, there was an “official Islam” under state control. Toward the end of the Soviet regime, some young Muslim intellectuals also emerged.
There was a sudden increase in opportunities for contacts with foreign Muslims after the end of the Soviet period.
All Central Asian states have now become members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But while “re-traditionalization” was to some extent encouraged by states eager to reconnect with their national heritage, there have been at the same time determined efforts to keep Islam under control — in Uzbekistan more than in any other place. Each newly independent state attempted to develop its own structure of an “official Islam”. But this has not prevented the emergence of young, educated independent preachers, including some radical groups.
Especially worth noticing is the fear provoked among some Central Asian political leaders by the development of the international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir (active since 1996 in Central Asia). Verbally aggressive and uncompromising, but rejecting armed violence and terrorism, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir is attractive for young Muslims, despite the ferocious repression against the movement (especially in Uzbeskistan). Regarding Sufism, despite its lasting importance in Central Asia, it does not play a significant political role there, according to Roy.
However, ethnic-national factors, which have been given a new impetus by the independence of the Central Asian states, should remain key factors in the near future, concludes Roy. They play an important role even among Muslim militants. Radical Islam comes to pose a serious threat to the political order of Central Asian countries only if it becomes a channel for ethnic-national claims or if it enjoys a strong financing and support from international networks.
(Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 105 Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris, France)– By Jean-François Mayer