Central Asia: Modernity vs. Islam

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles

The Fergana Valley in the heart of Central Asia has a reputation for instability, violent conflict, and Islamic fundamentalism. The three countries whose borders intersect in this densely populated mountainous region – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – have struggled to build modern states in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This process has indeed been tumultuous.

A civil war broke out between rival political factions in Tajikistan in the 1990s. The “tulip revolution” of 2005 ousted the authoritarian leader of Kyrgyzstan. Later in 2005, the Uzbek authorities broke up anti-government demonstrations in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan, killing hundreds. Meanwhile, all three governments have taken actions against Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. More recently, there have been reports of a new group of “black turbans” organising in the Uzbek city of Kokand.

But this picture of the Fergana Valley as violent and prone to Islamic fundamentalism is inaccurate, according to S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“There is a tendency to catastrophise, to see the region as a series of unsolvable problems, but that’s not true,” Starr said at a seminar, earlier this month, in Washington, DC on the Fergana Valley cosponsored with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. “The region has not been a tinderbox. There have been incidents in all three sectors. The ones before 1991 tended to be ethnically based. But amazingly the borders have remained the same. And for all the complications that independence has brought, the ethnic clashes have been relatively limited.”

Three factors have had a moderating influence. “Migrant labor is a safety valve,” Starr argues. “The soil is good – it’s spectacular agricultural land if it’s irrigated – so that even without cash to buy lots of things, people can eat. And these folks know one another. They’ve lived with one another for hundreds and thousands of years.”

Pulat Shozimov also sees a very different Fergana Valley. A leading Tajik scholar, Shozimov is one of the three editors of a new multi-disciplinary research project sponsored by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute that brings together 24 scholars from all three countries to produce essays on eight different socio-economic topics. Shozimov portrays this research project as “a model, a free space for open discussion about key questions and problems in order to discovery new possibilities for the Fergana Valley.”

The study “will be the most comprehensive three-dimensional portrait of this crucial region that has been produced in the last half-century,” Starr says. “What are our three editors have achieved, one from each country, is to create a positive climate for real region-wide collaboration.”

The Fergana Valley is overwhelmingly Muslim, and most believers are Sunni. A common element in the region, since the fall of the secular Soviet regime, has been a surge in religious interest.

“There has definitely been an Islamic revival,” observes Eric McGlintchey, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “It’s very apparent simply looking at the number of people going to Friday prayers and the dress people are adopting. After 50 years or more of being told they couldn’t practice their religion, they can now practice religion openly. So, there’s a natural curiosity.”

Some outside analysts have focused on the threat of religious radicalism in the Fergana Valley. But McGlintchey believes that radical Islam has limited appeal. “The Hizb-ut-Tahrir operates fairly openly in Kyrgyzstan, less so in Uzbekistan,” McGlintchey reports. “They know the literature, the talking points, but when you press them a little bit on Islam or broader, ‘ummah’ things begin to fall apart fairly quickly. Most people don’t waste their religion on Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Their status is overstated.”

A more important but less analysed trend has been the linkage between Islam and economic modernisation. According to Pulat Shozimov, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IPRT) has reached out to an emerging middle class. “At present they don&#39t have a clear economic program,” he says, “but I think they are trying to build their own economic network.” Here, Shozimov says, the IPRT is looking to Turkey’s ruling party as a model for how to combine Islamic values with both democratic structures and a modern, globally connected economy.

McGlinchey agrees: “It took a Muslim party to come to power to move Turkey in a democratic direction. You may be seeing a similar dynamic in Tajikistan.”

Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, McGlinchey notes a similar dynamic. “There is a virtuous cycle that connects Islamic social capital and economic growth,” he contends. “In Andijan, businessmen have gotten together who trusted one another and recognised each other as devout – in contrast to the state authorities who are very often corrupt and extract resources and are difficult to trust. These businessmen pooled capital within the group and were able to grow different businesses. Other people see these prominent Muslim businessmen, see their success, and say, ‘I want to work in their factories and learn about the religion.’”

The Fergana Valley is thus attempting to leave behind its image as a sporadically violent and unstable region that plays host to radical Islamic groups. New cooperative initiatives as well as new economic and political models of modernising Islam are emerging. The rather frosty official relations among the three countries may do little to encourage these new dynamics, but they are nonetheless being challenged from below.

“In spite of the obvious tensions among the three countries,” Starr observes, “the three peoples know each other very well, have been interacting closely for centuries, and understand how to maintain practical relations even in the face of tensions.”

Inter Press Service, March 29, 2008

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