Islamo-democrats and the ‘soft Islamicization’ of Central Asia

Even as terrorists from Central Asia have taken the spotlight for their recent part in the Islamic State’s attack in Istanbul in late June, the region is seeing the emergence of “Islamo-democrats” who are challenging the influence of political Islam. The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (Vol. 36, No. 2) reports that the growth of political Islam, represented by such radical groups as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir, no longer controls the Islamic scene. Rather than seeking to create a Muslim society through applying Islamic teachings to every aspect of social life, such leaders as Tursunbai Bakir Uulu in Kyrgyzstan, Bekbolat Tleukhan in Kazakhstan, and Mohiddan Kabiri in Tajikistan “share a modest political agenda, while they publicly pronounce their commitment to the existing political order,” writes Emmanuel Karagiannis. The failure of Islamist groups to establish Islamic republics in Central Asia, with many of their members serving prison sentences for their insurgent activities, has made them less active in the region. Even though Hizb ut-Tahrir has remained active in most of Central Asia, the declining number of arrests of members suggests that the group is no longer expanding.

Karagiannis notes that the rise of the Islamo-democrats does not necessarily mean the same thing as Western-style secular democracies. Leaders such as Bakir Uulu and Kabiri propose a partial and “soft Islamicization” of their countries (including women wearing the hijab) through democratic means unlike the previous groups that confronted state authorities and ultimately mobilized Muslims for a universal caliphate. The Islamo-democrats are more likely to stress the importance of a homeland. Karagiannis notes that a major influence in the new Islamic actors in Central Asia has been Turkey and its Justice and Development Party (AKP), which seeks to reconcile social conservatism with a pro-business agenda. The AKP has sought to promote its version of Islam abroad, including Central Asia, and the governments of the region have sought to placate Turkey as a strategic ally.

(Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs,