Central Asia states using Islam for authoritarian and nationalist purposes

States of Central Asia are using “traditional” or “official” Islam for both strengthening national identity and legitimizing authoritarian regimes. Moreover, structural and political problems are explained away by references to an “Islamist threat,” writes Mariya Y. Omelicheva (University of Kansas) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (February). For most Kazakhs, Tadjiks, and Uzbeks, ethnic identity and Islam cannot be dissociated. This understanding of Islam puts more emphasis on the Islamic legacy of the local people as an identity marker rather than on strict implementation of Islamic rules. Muslims make up a clear majority of the population in all Central Asian countries (more than 90 percent in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan). Their constitutions define those states as secular and guarantee religious freedom. In practice, however, there is strong state control over religious activities, and registration is mandatory for all religious groups. This control has become stronger in recent years. Omelicheva describes “official” Islam as a “vague category,” circumscribed by the literature, practices, institutions, and individuals approved by state agencies in charge of the management of religious life. Officially approved religious leaders denounce Islamic groups that want to practice their faith outside of the official framework as “pseudo-Islamic,” and these groups then face prosecution. Official religious structures are enjoying a monopoly over religious training as well as relations with Muslims in the rest of the world. This “official” Islam is described as “tolerant,” “authentic,” and “moderate.”

Due to the association of Islam with ethnic belonging and local culture, most of the people are actually opposed to radical forms of Islam. But Central Asian governments are emphasizing the threat of “radical Islam,” using the need to defend their fellow citizens against it as a source of legitimacy. Moreover, “radical Islam” (usually called “Wahhabism” or “fundamentalism”) is blamed for failures in providing social services or implementing political reforms. Thus, Central Asian political leaders position themselves as defenders of “traditional” Islam against dangerous foreign influences.

(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorferstr. 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland – http://www.g2w.eu)