Islamic Fundamentalism in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: Real or Imagined Threat

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been much concern among observers and analysts around the world over what role Islam is to play in the political, economic and social spheres of life in newly independent Central Asian states. Traditionally, Islam is the dominant faith, but had been strongly influenced by the Soviet atheist ideology during the last seven decades before Central Asia became independent in 1991. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some observers in the West depicted Central Asia as an extension of the Middle East, invoking fears that Islamic fundamentalism was to pose a serious threat to the stability in the region of Central Asia. In this thesis I analyzed the dynamism of Islamic revival in Central Asia’s two post-Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan through the prism of the imported phenomenon of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. The thesis demonstrates that Islam in Central Asia is a natural process determined primarily by internal socio-economic and political conditions and not influenced by outside forces. In order to support this argument, I approached the problem by analyzing both external factors and internal conditions. The concluding argument is that even if Islam is to be radicalized it will be because of internal factors, such as authoritarianism, violation of human rights and repression of moderate manifestations of Islam from within, rather than because of the influence of Islamic fundamentalist forces from abroad.

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Kyrgyzs and Turkmens are relative newcomers to Islam. Kyrgyzs were among the last inhabitants of Turkestan to be Islamized. Even when Islamized, their nomadic lifestyle meant that the prevalent attitude among Kyrgyzs and Turkmens towards Islam was less rigid than their settled co-religionists. Kyrgyzs and Turkmens of Central Asia also share another common trait: recent admission to the club of 'nation-states'. This has sent state leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in search of their identity, suitable models of government and their place in the context of world politics. Concern with political legitimacy has involved a re-evaluation of historical legacies. How should the new states relate to their Soviet and pre-Soviet past? Can pre-Soviet Islamic traditions be reconciled with modern forms of government? What is the role of Islam in politics? Answers to these questions are often ambiguous. However, a general pattern is emerging. Despite differences of style in Kyrgyz and Turkmen politics, both state appear to regard Islam, in its doctrinal form, incompatible with politics. Both states favour a secular path of development that only tolerates islam in the cultural field, devoid of any political normative value.
During the first months after independence in 1991, numerous scholars and commentators suggested that the defining characteristic of the five Central Asian republics-Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan- was their Islamic heritage and predicted that the region would unite with the wider Muslim world to create a fundamentalist bloc. The concern for radical and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam is legitimate, as there is a strong regional inclination toward Islam. However, the widely held assumption that Islam is likely to be a potent force in shaping the future of the Central Asian republics is not entirely accurate. In fact, there are a number of factors suggesting that these republics will not fall under the sway of an Islam-led opposition and that a unified Muslim state across the whole of Central Asia will not materialize. This analysis is an attempt to put into perspective the dynamics of the Islamic revival in Central Asia and to provide a realistic assessment of its role in the region. I will do so by: · Describing the survival of Islam as cultural phenomenon in Central Asia after seventy years of the Soviet anti-religious crusade; · Examining the nature and scope of the Islamic revival post-independence in the region; · Assessing a number of factors capable of having an impact on the process of the Islamic revival, including: (a) internal factors such as economic determinants in pushing the republics toward Islam; (b) external pressures exerted from the Middle East in shaping the Islamic orientation.
Many have viewed Central Asia as a region beset by an Islamic tide. U.S. policy that lacks understanding of the dynamics in Central Asia may exacerbate an already fragile situation and allow the Western‐prophesied “Islamic tide” to swallow the region.