Olivier Roy, lecturer at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences-Po), gave an interesting seminar here at Berkeley on January 25.
In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers imagined that the Central Asian republics would opt for neo-Communism and/or a strict secularism along the lines of Turkey. There was and remains a consensus that the ex-Soviet -stans would fight radical Islam. At first glance, this is indeed what appears to have happened, with some success. The local Islamist movements that emerged immediately after the USSR's collapse have been largely defeated. But Roy pointed to two separate phenomena which suggest that these societies are increasingly being drawn into the orbits of Saudi Salafism, on the one hand, and Western-exported political Islam on the other. Let me begin with the latter.
By political Islam, Roy means ideologies which advocate the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate with borders that might range from Europe to the far East. The main group aiming for this goal in Central Asia is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which is today an illegal mass youth movement in Uzbekistan, where it boasts several thousand members. Hizb was founded in the 1950s and once had its base in Beirut. However, it now has a center in London, where its members have tried to avoid overt political activity. There is also a significant base in Australia. Roy believes that the Uzbek branch of the movement came from London sometime in 1996 or 1997. It achieved a breakthrough in Uzbekistan, spreading primarily among secondary school students. Unlike the Western European Hizb organizations, it is possible to talk to members of the party in Uzbekistan, whereas in the UK and elsewhere they have gone completely underground and do not publicize their headquarters. However, the movement faces repression from the authorities - repression which often attracts further adherents as family members of jailed or killed members join the party.
Ten years ago, Roy says, it was a common place that the Central Asian dictators would want to employ only low-level clergy with relatively little knowledge, basically to maintain a rural Islam untouched by radical ideas - he referred to it as "folkloric Islam." But this is not what has happened at all. Rather, a slew of young, sophisticated, Salafi (or Wahabi) clergy, who speak Arabic fluently after years of study in Saudi Arabia, have entered the official religious institutions. Furthermore, all the money coming to train future Muslim leaders in Uzbekistan is coming from the Saudis. And the Central Asian governments are entirely unconcerned about this. On the contrary, leaders such as the Uzbek Islam Karimov are leaning more and more on Islam as a bulwark against democratization and reform, which they see as their real enemies. Karimov sees the social views of the Salafi clerics as congruent with his own. He is marshaling Islam to promote "authentic, traditional Uzbek values," according to which women should stay at home while men go to work. In Tajikistan, the president Emomali Rahmonov and the state clergy are even discouraging women from going to the mosque.
These two different groups - Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Salafi clerics - are antagonistic as they basically compete for the same target group. Ideologically, too, Roy explained, the Salafis actually reject Hizb-ut-Tahrir and political Islam as "innovation": "The Prophet does not speak of ideologies" they might say in response to Hizb which describes itself as "a political party whose ideology is Islam." So far, the clerics have also stayed away from activity that might challenge the state. They are not political Islamists but conservative religious leaders. Ironically, according to Roy, a similar tendency can be observed in Western Europe. Here too most of those appointed to the official clergy have been the most conservative and orthodox clerics who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood or to authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes. It is obvious that Roy believes that this amounts to playing with fire - both in Europe and in Central Asia. While a ruler such as Karimov might think that he is co-opting the fundamentalists, he might soon find himself co-opted by them.
In a future post, I hope to describe another tendency antagonistic to both of these - the inroads made in Central Asia (and the rest of the former USSR) by various Christian groups, ranging from Witnesses to Korean Baptists; this phenomenon finds its counterpart in the conversions to (Salafi) Islam in Western and Eastern Europe. By next year, you should be able to read all about it in Roy's forthcoming book.