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Central Asia news

Irina Zvyagelskaya: People come to Islamic radicals in despair

20.03.2009 15:32 msk

Maria Yanovskaya

Religious life Russia

Today, the growth of religious tunes in Central Asia is viewed by experts as the time bomb and limited continuation of free development in these countries; even Soviet regime with its systematic atheism closed eyes to Islamic factor in Central Asian republics, viewing it as one of the public life regulators. Ferghana.ru interviewed the doctor of history sciences, professor, vice-President of Center for strategic and political research, chief research officer of Oriental Studies Institute, Irina Zvyagelskaya, on the reasons of religious influence growth in the region and possible hazards of Islamization.

Ferghana.ru: - What is the growth rate of religious ideas in Central Asia? What is the dynamics?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - The religious ideas in Central Asia have been traditionally strong enough, even under Soviet rule. For instance, the Ferghana valley has always been under Islamic influence. Another thing is that under soviet rule people were sometimes hiding their adherence to Islamic traditions… Today, those social groups, which were modernized under Soviet regime, also start looking toward religion. Today, the educated people, open to the world, more integrated in the world culture and quite Europeanized, are looking for their national identity. Where are the roots? The roots are where there is existing tradition in the traditional public norms. People start paying more attention to Islam and this is essential.

I believe there is just superficial Islamization in progress that we can observe in maintaining the rituals or in relation to wearing the traditional clothes, but not in deep studies of religion. The search for identity that follows the “ritual” Islamization gives people an opportunity, for instance, to accomplish hadj, meet their coreligionists abroad… It has been three or four years since my previous visit to Dushanbe. I was impressed by outfit of people in the streets: I witnessed much more traditionally dressed up women, wearing hijab. And those were not rural girls, but capital residents…However, one needs to know that Islamic business is very active. The market is filled with traditional dresses, hijabs. The Muslim woman fashion is growing.

Besides, Islam becomes increasingly popular not only in traditionally rural communities, but also those that used to be nomads although the nomads, as it is known, had the established form of Islam, which was far from classic form… Now, everything changes. I heard from Kyrgyz colleagues that Islam is rapidly politicized and Hizbut Tahrir even made attempt to get parliament seats. Nonetheless, the major event in Kyrgyzstan is the expansion of Islamic education network: there are many newly opened homebred madrasah and quasi-legal centers under mosques. It is not quite clear who teaches there…

Ferghana.ru: - This is not clear to you, the expert community, or the government of Kyrgyzstan?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Perhaps, the authorities also have no clue. Not conducting deep study, people bring their children to these centers. Moreover, the education there is free, which is also important. It is nearly impossible to track what is being taught there. This is very serious concern: no one can guarantee that these are not half-literate or, vice versa, licensed mullahs, gained radical ideas abroad. Today, there are many people in Central Asia that graduated from Islamic colleges in Pakistan or Arab countries in 1990s. People were picking up grant programs, generously sponsored by Islamic organizations in the region. I was shocked when I got to know that two Uzbeks were attending school in one of the medieval age cities of Yemen. Nobody knows what they were learning there… Now, all those people back as licensed experts. There is a great interest of Islamic world to region.

Ferghana.ru: - Is this interest present today?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - I do not think it is reduced. I cannot give numbers, but Arab states sponsor the publications and purchase of Koran, construction and rebuilding of mosques. This produced disappointment since they were expected to become the investors…But the real problem is promiscuity, particularly demonstrated in the first years of independence, in relation to the radical literature, grant programs, offered by Islamic foundations. The question is what Central Asian states have learnt today?

Ferghana.ru: - The elite are searching for identity. What about the population? Why would it search for identity if, according your statement, it never lost it under Soviet regime?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - The growth of traditional ideas is reasoned by, first of all, the collapse of USSR and splash of nationalism that took place in newly independent states. Moreover, religious ideas are intensified by specific form of the market, established in these countries. The total absence of justice, big gap between rich and poor, corruption, clans…The Islamists speak about fair re-construction of the system. This attracts people because it gives hopes.

The Islamists propose to eliminate borders (Hizbut-Tahrir, for example, proposes to establish Caliphate). This appeal is so popular because this is the way of their lives. The state borders, unlike former administrative ones, split ethnic societies and big families, destroyed traditional economic system, linked with the opportunity to freely move over the territory, depending on season (specifically, it was important for honey producers). Today, some border areas have been mined…

The Islamists do not just preach; they also provide financial support. These are serious social institutes, active organizations that take many functions of weakened state – or totally start playing the role of the state, if the state itself is inactive. Hamas, Hezbolla and others represent such kind of organizations...Yes, they employ terrorist methods. However, it would be unfair to state that their terror produce only terror. They are widely popular among the population because they support poor, create jobs…

Ferghana.ru: - Do the Islamists in Central Asia create jobs?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Let us consider Akromiya; many businessmen were among its members. In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, men go abroad for earnings. This changes the functions in the family and women take much more responsibility. The Islamic organizations, supporting women in such situation, help them survive, concentrating on their brainwashing…

The growth of Islamists influence is sustained by strengthened traditional structures that create social comfort to human. Another point is that one has to pay for this comfort: big families, solidarity groups and clans often deprive the freedom of choice. Individual wants must not contradict collective values. For instance, in such traditional structure girls will be explained that their major and only goal in life is to give birth and take care about the house.

Ferghana.ru: Speaking of Islamists appearance in politics: what is the chance of establishing real secular state with Islam as major religion? Islam contains the canon of political behavior, unlike Christianity.

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - This is the way of life.

Ferghana.ru: - Does this mean that strong state in the region must be Islamic state?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - No. Of course these states can be atheistic as they were under Soviet rule. However, the Soviet government did not put as much efforts to impose atheism in Asia as aggressively as it did, say, in Russia: the Bolsheviks realized that Islam was the form of regulation of public relations…Yes, they limited the opportunities of religious cult development: they did not build mosques and etc. The point is that serious resistance forced Bolsheviks to break the traditional way of life of Muslims. Take a look: the fundamentals of traditional structures functions remained and Soviet regime could do nothing about it. Moreover, Muslims adapted in the new environment, building the hierarchy, offered by Soviets.

Ferghana.ru: - What if the politicians, living in the state with strong traditional structures, view themselves as faithful Muslims? Where is the line between the state and Islamic ideas for such politician?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - In the secular state the religious institutes do not cause determining impact on the internal and foreign policy development. The ideas of the politician are not as important: there are also religious people among Russian political figures. The growth of individual religiousness, common for many post-Soviet societies, does not contradict the secularization until the religion remains free individual choice while the state authorities do not make their decisions in accordance with religious norms.

Ferghana.ru: - What if the politician believes that his religious ideas correlate with national interests?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - This is an abstract issue. There secular regime in these states. The problem is that since the very beginning, due to various reasons, this region was marked by international community as Muslim area, i.e. specific, original, with own path, not linked with Russia. It was named “Muslim Central Asia”. Why? The reason is that there are many Muslims. But you are not saying “Christian Europe”! The regimes are secular…

Ferghana.ru: - What if Islamists seize the power?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: It is assumed that they can win the elections once and forever. Yes, they might come to power, but this will totally re-shape the nature of the state. Such change will affect majority of population that will not accept the changes. Coming to power, the Islamists would establish the Islamic state with all the consequences for those, who do not share such position.

Ferghana.ru: - What about Tajikistan? Do Islamists have parliament seats there?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - They have two seats. No doubt, if it was not the administrative mechanism, the Party of Islamic revival in Tajikistan would have more opportunities. However, the party’s agenda is not as wide: it demonstrates the loyalty to current government, it underlines its moderate behavior and discusses not important public issues but rather the topics of Islamic rituals: whether women are allowed to visit mosque and so on. We are looking for moderate Islamists to have dialogue but their impact capabilities are limited. As a result, the electorate turns to radical Islamists that raise important social problems…

Ferghana.ru: - When you say “radical”, do you imply so-called “non-canon” Islam? Prohibited Islam?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Yes. But prohibition is not effective here. Who are the judges? Those who decide how much traditional is this or another Islamic movement? The problem is that radical Islam in Central Asia is taken care by internal affairs ministry, not by Islamic religion experts. Half-legal radical Islam could be challenged by preaches by prominent Islamic authorities, educated people, but we do not see them often…

Ferghana.ru: - Does “non-canon” Islam influence the Islamization of the region?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Yes. This processed is controlled under active support from radical Islamists and this is an alert. Many experts, including Alexander Ignatenko, believe that this Islamization of the region is reasoned by external factor. However, the Islamists preach is popular as the idea of fair state is demanded. People are sick of clans, corruption, social troubles…

Ferghana.ru: - It turns out that these states are destined to become Islamic…

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Why?

Ferghana.ru: - The clans, corruption and gap between rich and poor in Central Asia are impossible to eliminate.

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - What about us?

Ferghana.ru: - In Russia? No.

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Why should we view the Islamic alternative is the only solution of the problem? Are not there other options? The point is that this is the result of slow evolution, but not Bolshevist simple formula – let us built Islamic state and life will become perfect. By the way, the examples of some Islamic states in the world are far not attractive. There is a book, published and edited by Boris Rumer, “Central Asia at the end of Transition”.

The transit stands for the way from totalitarian society to new more democratic political system. Since Central Asian state have established political and social institutes and faced system shifts, it is clear that the transit is over. Nonetheless, I am not sure if historical transition can be viewed as process, having a clear line. Yes, the religious ideas are growing, but these countries also have some modern elements: look at their expert and scientific society.

These are educated people with high qualification and wide outlook. Analyze the activities of NGOs, opposition political parties, mass media, relatively free in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Yes, sometimes the elections are imitated, but it would be only worse not to have them at all. The political programs are discussed. The experts point at the problems, existing in the country…Let us see how these modernization elements will correlate with the growth of traditional ideas.

Ferghana.ru: - How does Russia participate in the opposition between state authorities and radical Islamists in Central Asia?

Irina Zvyagelskaya: - Russia does not and should not interfere. It does not mean we have no position: you know that Russian position on Andijan events were different from Western one. Russia is careful about radicals, but not Islam. Islam is one of the traditional religions in Russia. Big portion of Muslims resides in our country and this is authentic, native population. Russia needs to be very careful in these issues.

Maria Yanovskaya








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