The ancient Kukeldash Madrasah is in the heart of Tashkent’s old city. It’s Friday afternoon, and the nearby maze of medieval unpaved alleys looks unwelcoming under a scorching sun.
But outside the old gates of the religious school, a crowd of bearded young Uzbeks and veiled women wait patiently. The entire plaza in front of this famous Islamic center is flooded with people from the nearby Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent’s largest, oldest outdoor market. Handicrafts makers, flat-bread sellers, black-market money dealers – all are here. Everyone is waiting for afternoon prayers.
It’s a typical scene in this sprawling city of over two million, replicated in front of every mosque, big and small. But it is also a relatively new one.
A few decades ago, Tashkent had a different vibe. The melting pot of ethnic Koreans, Russians, Tajiks, Turks, Uzbeks and myriad of other nationalities offered all a place under the welcoming Uzbek sun: It was – by Central Asian standards – a liberal, cosmopolitan hub.
But times have changed. In the 1990s, guerrilla wars swept the turbulent south, along with extremism and terrorism. Above all, hangs an Islamic revival that has made Tashkent into a stronghold of the religion.
Masterpieces of ancient Islamic architecture like Kukeldash, which were state-owned history and art museums in Soviet times, now serve as real religious centers for the locals. There are more scarfed and veiled women on the streets, more Arabic script on the billboards and markets cease to trade during prayers.
The ripple effect was a huge outflow of ethnic Germans, Koreans and Russians: Over a million fled Uzbekistan in the first two post-Soviet decades.
An ethnic Russian guide named Nikolai, who arranges Silk Road tours for Russian tourists, expressed common misgivings.
“We’re strangers here. We don’t feel we’re welcome anymore,” he said. “In the Soviet days, all my family were living in Tashkent, it was our hometown. There were so many Russian schools, restaurants, and of course, Orthodox churches – but [now] this is a Muslim city, for Uzbeks. All my relatives and friends have already moved to Russia; me and my wife, we’re the last holdouts in our family…”
Svetlana Lee, an ethnic Korean, works in a nearby souvenir shop. She enjoyed this leafy, sunny city, until not long ago. Not anymore.
“We have an Asian appearance, but we’re not Muslims,” she said. “Locals perceive us, especially Korean women, as Central Asians, so expect us to adhere to Muslim traditions and lifestyles – to wear a scarf, for example.”
Lee’s daughter, a student at a local university, has had disputes with college administrators over these issues.
“My sister and most of my friends have already moved – they now live in Moscow’s suburbs,” Lee continued. “We may join them, but it’s not that easy to arrange – and very expensive too.”
What makes non-Muslims wary is not just schooling. It’s a deeper issue: the ongoing Islamization of Uzbekistan and Central Asia.
Tides of conquest
Famed Islamic scientists and philosophers hailed from Central Asia; Samarkand and Bukhara flourished as centers of Islamic learning; Muslim empires, including the Mughal and Timurid, rose.
The Mongol hordes’ bloody take-over slowed Islamization – but only for a half-century.
Another wave of conquest surged through the ‘Stans in the 1860s: Imperial Russia on its eastward march. Russian colonists’ policy was of mild religious tolerance, but even then, Moscow was wary of pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkic movements.
Soviet officials took on a modernizing role, building schools and improving the status of women. Moscow campaigned against radical Islam, linking it to bigotry, backwardness and superstition. Meanwhile, the Moscow-controlled Islamic Board of the Soviet Union oversaw the religion.
Only in 1988, under liberal Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, did Moscow relax controls over Islam. Islam revived immediately and accelerated after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
New mosques, religious centers, schools and literature sprang up. In 1912, there were some 26,000 mosques in Central Asia; by 1949, there were just 415 mosques in the entire USSR. In 2004, there were 2,500 mosques throughout Central Asia.
Relaxed travel restrictions boosted exchanges with Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia sent copies of the Qur’an into the region by the ton in the early ’90s; UAE and Kuwait deployed missionaries; Qatar and Bahrain sent teachers and scholars; Turkey built mosques and Islamic complexes. Ankara had a head start: Their religious mission was coupled with pan-Turkic nationalism.
But regional leaders were wary of politicized Islam.
War and peace
The radical Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP, battled the Dushanbe government in the Tajik Civil War from 1992 until 1997, showing their fears were justified: From a population of six million, 50,000 were killed and 250,000 fled to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The 1996 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan further emphasized the perils.
But not all Islamic movements were violent. The most popular in Central Asia in the 1990s was the peaceable Hizb ut-Tahrir. Even so, with its declared goal of uniting all Muslim countries and replacing them with a caliphate, it was considered threatening. It has been banned across Central Asia.
Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes use Islamic terrorism as justification for repression of political opponents.
From revival to repression
Currently, the best example of the political role Islamists are trying to play in Central Asia – and the way authorities are trying to limit it – is in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek Islam is liberal compared to the conservative versions in the Middle East; it is tinted with Zoroastrism, common in the region before Islam’s introduction. Almost 90% of Uzbekistan’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunnis. The country is a cultural and religious hub in Central Asia.
Even in the Soviet era Uzbekistan was the most Islamic state, with some mosques left intact – but was still reasonably secular and Russified, with a large Russian minority
In the early 1990s, Islamic missionaries, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, arrived in Uzbekistan to promote Wahabism and Sufism. In 1992, in the town of Namangan, radicals educated in Saudi seized a government building and demanded President Islam Karimov declare an Islamic state and make Shari‛a the only legal system.
Karimov struck back hard; group leaders fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1992 and 1993, some 50 Saudi missionaries were expelled. Sufi missionaries were also forced to quit their activities.
Many schools that Ankara opened came under pressure. One organization that oversees Turkish Islamic exports is Süleymancılar’ – reportedly linked to Turkish intelligence. Under Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s rule, it has become more powerful, but it makes Central Asian leaders uneasy.
The Gulen Movement of moderate Islamists founded in the late 1960s by US-based leader Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of organizing a 2016 coup – is even more controversial. It opened schools in Central Asia, but after Erdogan parted ways with Gulen, these schools lost Ankara’s backing and the Uzbek government closed them all.
Then came the unrest of May 2005, with extremists bent on overthrowing the Uzbek government and making Uzbekistan a theocratic republic. The Uzbek government reportedly massacred hundreds of civilians, declaring them “terrorists.”
“Just as in the Soviet Union, Tashkent tolerates only a state-approved version of Islam. It has cracked down on all groups outside that system, and justified it as a fight against Islamist militants who seek to overthrow the leadership,” Igor Sidorov, a Russian political observer, based in Almaty, Kazakhstan told Asia Times. “Former President Islam Karimov kept saying that Islamist ‘terrorists’ were behind a so-called coup attempt. New President Mirziyoyev appears to repeat the same narrative.”
Crescent across the ‘Stans
Kazakhs, traditionally nomads, were greatly influenced by Russians with whom they were living side by side with, in the northern steppes, are not zealous followers of any Islamic group. But thanks to Turkey’s inroads and ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s push, Kazakhstan is getting more Islamic, with new Turkish schools, mosques and centers springing up.
Kazakhstan is the northernmost Muslim-majority country in the world, with 70% of the population professing the religion.
Islamic religious institutions came were resurrected after the Soviet Union’s implosion. In 1991, 170 mosques were operating; by 2013 the number had risen to 2,320. In 2012 Nazarbayev opened the Khazret Sultan Mosque in the capital – the biggest mosque in Central Asia.
Still, he kept Kazakhstan secular; Islamic parties are banned. Nazarbayev always stressed is nation was “a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West.”
In Kyrgyzstan, 86.3% of people are Muslims of the Sunni branch, though their practice of Islam is influenced by shamanic tribal customs. The south – bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – is most religious, but the country as a whole is officially secular. Even so, ethnic Germans, Russians and Ukrainians have been fleeing for three decades, and now make up only 10% of the population. In 1979, that figure was 31%.
Sunni Islam is widely followed in Tajikistan – especially the Hanafi school. With the departure of most Russians and Slavs, more than 97% of locals are Muslims – the highest figure in Central Asia. The Islamic revival was unprecedented in Tajikistan, but after the 1992-97 Civil War, the leadership cracked down hard.
In October 2005, the Ministry of Education stopped female students wearing Islamic headscarves in secular schools and started closing unregistered mosques: Since 2011, 1,500 have gone. Forced shaving of long beards was introduced; 160 Islamic clothing stores were shuttered. The government is even considering outlawing Arabic-Islamic names for children.
Even so, Dushanbe promotes “official” Islamization. One of the largest mosques in the world, funded by Qatar, is under construction and in 2010, Tajikistan hosted a session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference with delegations from 56 member states.
Not everyone in the ‘Stans supports the Islamic revival. And those who do not are not restricted to non-Muslim ethnic minorities who feel abandoned and who have upped stakes.
In what might be considered a counter-revival, many urbanized, ethnic Central Asians prefer the secular lifestyles originally introduced by the Russians. Many students and white-collar workers have a Russian or Western look and dress. They dine at Western-style cafes, dance in clubs and enjoy traveling abroad. Among these, the hujum campaign for unveiling women, which dates back to the 1930s, retains many supporters.
But they may be pushing against a rising tide. Since the ‘Stans independence, the deep-rooted religion has flowered across the region. Its revival makes leaders uncomfortable and offers them excuses to crack down on dissent and religious freedoms. The dangerous irony is that repression – combined with corruption and poverty – creates fertile soil for militant Islam.