Transnational Religious Education and the Changing Face of Central Asian Islam

By
Larissa Eltsefon

"There is an Islamic revival underway in Central Asia," stated David Abramson, Foreign Affairs Research Analyst, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 28 September 2009. Although decades of Soviet rule squashed religious education and practice in Central Asia, many states are seeing renewed interest among their populations in the knowledge and practice of Islam.

The fall of the USSR lifted traveling restrictions and allowed Central Asians to pursue these interests by seeking religious instruction abroad in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan. Abramson outlined several reasons that compelled students to take this opportunity to study abroad: (1) the Soviet legacy of government suspicion towards religion and the consequent elimination of public Islamic education; (2) violence and political repressions; and (3) dismal economic conditions. Upon their return, added Abramson, students exert significant influence both on the populace and their respective governments. In particular, they bring back a deeper and wider knowledge of Islam, which is incorporated into the local religious tradition, creating both challenges and opportunities for state control of Islam.

Abramson focused specifically on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two Central Asian states that are sending students abroad but developing different state policy towards Islam. In Uzbekistan, the government has directed its scholars to focus their study on the history of religion while asserting control over clergy, religious activism, and any public discourse on religious matters. Conversely, Tajikistan is accentuating its own history of Islamic secular dialogue while simultaneously attempting to hamper signs of religiosity in public life.

In both countries, noted Abramson, students who study abroad mostly come from modest socio-economic backgrounds, and a small minority comes from families with long histories of religious instruction. Women study abroad as well, but usually return to teach in either women's madrassas or (illegally) at home, since they have no employment opportunities in the religious sphere.

"Uzbekistan has reflected more closely than elsewhere in Central Asia extreme shifts in state policy," remarked Abramson, "largely in response to the rise of radical Islamic movements in the 1990s, several terrorist attacks, and growing religiosity among the country's populace." After volatile protests in 1992, the Uzbek government urged many students to study abroad in the hopes of diluting their activism. Since then, the secular government has become more involved in religious affairs; state resources are used for construction of religious sites, Islamic law has penetrated these state legislatures, and clerics loyal to the government have been appointed to replace older imams. However, Abramson noted that one of the great ironies of Uzbekistan's current Islamic revival is that the secular state's increasing role in religious affairs is actually accelerating this revival.

Tajikistan's government confronts similar challenges from their returning student population. Abramson pointed out that Tajikistan sends more students abroad than any other Central Asian country, and as a result, faces a bigger hurdle in reintegrating returnees who cannot put their religious education to good use. Most of those coming back enter the world of business; religiously observant, these individuals combine Islam and the contacts they have made abroad to run successful enterprises. In general, Abramson described returnees as fitting into one of two categories — "those who reintegrate into their families and communities and those who strive to communicate their newfound Islamic education with Tajik society more broadly."

The Tajik government has attempted to develop Islamic educational institutions under its own auspices, but returning students often offer more advanced knowledge of Islam to a populace eager for religious education. Abramson predicted that "if the government does not meet these challenges adequately, it will have to contend with a growing movement of underground religious education, likely taught by those educated abroad."

Abramson argued that the Islamic revival in Central Asian does not itself threaten state stability, but governments are currently unsuccessful in providing a level of religious education sufficient for populations developing increasing interest in Islam. Abramson concluded by noting that "Central Asia's governments will face ever greater challenges to their secular status and even stability, unless their governments take more active steps to foster religious and secular education, simultaneously."

 

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