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The Question of Religious Fundamentalism in Central Asia

H. B. Paksoy, D. Phil.

Presented to the Central Asian Studies Program Conference on The Revival of Central Asian Culture. (The Oklahoma State University, March 1997)
Published in Reform Movements and Revolutions in Turkistan (1900-1924), Studies in Honor of Osman Khoja. Timur KocaoĆ°lu, Ed. (Haarlem: SOTA, 2001) Pp. 329-39

One might consider a population in 1990, exhibiting the following spiritual attributes: 35,0481 operating churches, clustered in 219 Bodies (groups or denominations); 58.6 % of the total population maintaining church membership; 335,389 pastors in parishes; 537,379 total clergy. This country has 203 seminaries with 52,025 students enrolled. One sect alone operating 8,913 schools, not counting other denominational parochial schools. These figures do not include resources devoted to overseas evangelical and missionary activities. This political entity has 3.5 million square miles of territory and 145,383,738 out of a total population of 248 million are church members. The political entity in question, of course, is the United States.[1]

There are no comparable statistics with respect to Central Asia, which has a land mass akin to that of the U.S., but its population of approximately 70 million is clustered in several irrigated patches separated by uninhabitable expanses.[2] From the late 1930s until 1990 there were only two seminaries in Central Asia, with a student body not more than several dozen students in attendance. Total number of operating mosques, according to varying Soviet statistics, numbered around one hundred. The holy book Koran was published less than half a dozen times until 1984 in limited quantities.[3] The entire clergy was under the total control of the state. The bureaucratic apparatus of the center selected the seminary students for training and the graduating clergy were then assigned by the state apparatus to practice religion who paid them monthly.[4] All "official" clergy reported to one of the four Moslem Spiritual Boards.[5]

In Central Asia the US type evangelical TV or radio stations are not indigenous. In the earlier periods, such as between the 12th and 16th centuries, propagation medium of religion and legitimation of a new ruler was literature, especially poetry.=20 Instead, especially during the past two centuries, Central Asia has been a target of proselytization, both Islamic and Christian, rather than a jubilant exporter of religion. The sources of these efforts to variously Islamicize or Christianize Central Asians are diverse, and now continuing with renewed vigor. One of the recent attempts to that effect began in the second half of the 19th century. Since one of the ostensible excuses for its militarily occupying the area was to "civilize" the "heathens" by Christianizing them via compulsion, the tsarist bureaucracy "legally" designated the Central Asians as "Muslim," making them officially created targets. Tsarist Foreign Minister Gorchakov's famous Memorandum of 1864 claims the "civilizing mission" of tsarist policy towards the Central Asians in these religious terms. Gorchakov's Memorandum was issued to the tsarist diplomatic corps as the "explanation" to be provided all governments around the world.[6]

Gorchakov's Memorandum signalled a significant reversal in Russian policymaking. Earlier, Central Asians were encouraged by the Russians to convert; to Islam. It was Catherine II (r. 1762-1796; German princess married Peter --who later became tsar Peter III), on the advice of one Baltic German nobleman, that Crimean Tatars, if properly incorporated in a new Russian administration of their homeland, might ultimately prove useful in advancing Her Majesty's imperialist goals in Central Asia. Catherine closed the Office of New Converts (to Christianity, established by Peter I) and wished to utilize Tatar merchants, who included itinerant Muslim "clerics," in Islamizing the steppe people. The Russians believed that the adherence to Islam would prevent any union against Russians and make Islamized subjects more pliant. As the Russian empire began preparations for military occupation of Central Asia, special schools were established. In such institutions, Tatars were encouraged to enroll to train as translators and minor officials, for duty in Central Asia to represent and enforce the tsarist interests.[7]

In Central Asia, religion has been outright outlawed by decree during the past 70 odd years. Decrees were enforced by the full weight of the central state apparatus. Soviet Institutes of Scientific Atheism commanded larger staffs than the Moslem Spiritual Boards, also established by the state to control all religious activity. The duties of the Institutes of Scientific Atheism concentrated on persuading the populace to replace religion with Marxist Leninist doctrine. As one result, the new generations grew up in almost total ignorance of the religious precepts. They made do with hearsay, and smuggled books often containing eclectic information. Information pertaining to religious practices continued in secret, under pain of authoritarian repercussions.[8] Nor have the Agitprop departments (at numerous levels) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union been idle. Many handbooks have been produced to guide the apparatchiki. Some of these have been devoted to the replacement of religious observation days with those of the state selected and sponsored events. Such include the "constitution day;" or the birthdays of the 1917 leadership, not to mention those of the party leaders of the moment. These changes are classified under the general rubric of "...propagandizing all new customs and ceremonies, to establish them as regular practice; which are the important ordinances of ideological work."[9]

Despite all this, quite often the outside commentators do not hesitate to call the region, Central Asia, "Islamic" and impute "fundamentalism" to its inhabitants. As before, Moscow encourages this practice. Recently, a "senior member" of the Oriental Institute (at the time, in Leningrad) has spoken of the danger of an "Islamic Explosion." The speaker stated that the "European-centered approach to Islam" had caused the USSR to pursue incorrect policies in Central Asia. He advocated the rejection of that approach in favor of one that treats Islam on its own terms.[10] The wish of the official in question may have been to keep the Western specialists too busy with such assertions to pay attention to these demands Central Asia shares with other nationalities, such as the Balts. This treatment of Islam is not only not new, it continues to err in the same way as before --attributing all of the grievances of the Central Asians to Islam, as if Moscow's understanding of Islam would have helped the Politburo to make better cotton policies. Was it a lack of understanding of Islam that led to the destruction of the Aral Sea? Further, by the continuing attribution of unrest to Islam, Moscow was signalling the West that no action is too drastic to quell it. If Western politicians grasped more clearly that political autonomy and economic liberty were at the root of Central Asian discontent, Western governments might look upon it with a very different eye.

When observed from the Central Asian writings, the primary question at hand is not necessarily religion, but sovereignty, and its twin, the economic question: who will benefit from the wealth of Central Asia? Since the late 19th century, the clear answer to both questions has been "Moscow." As for the smelting plants, railroads and communication links constructed by Moscow in Central Asia since the Russian occupation: infrastructure is necessary in colonial administrations, to receive orders and to process and ship out the goods.[11] A few hospitals and schools also come in handy for the laborers as well as the transplanted bureaucrats, managers and the officers of the military units assigned to prevent any uprisings.[12]

The conditions in Central Asia during 1988-1991 are rather reminiscent of the 1906-1917 and the 1917-1924 intervals. During the 1906-1917, "representative assemblies" were called to St. Petersburg with numerous promises. Prominent among them was the prospect of landed autonomy for the non-Russians. With every succeeding election, by various revisions in the regulations, the number of deputies to be elected from among non-Russians to St. Petersburg assemblies declined.[13] Nonetheless, non-Russians, including Central Asians, established political parties in anticipating autonomy and produced party programs.[14] The 1917-1924 period was almost a replication of the first, despite the differences in the rhetoric employed by the Bolsheviks. Indeed, even decolonization was pledged to non-Russians. Instead, what continued was colonization, replete with center induced corruption. And in some cases, efforts by Central Asians to assert their own sovereign rights, as written in imposed constitutions,[15] were treated as "corruption" by the center.

Therefore, to root out the "corruption," special prosecutors were dispatched to Central Asia, who soon became a target of investigation themselves for using inhuman methods to extract confessions.[16]

The "Treaty Principle of the Soviet Federation," raised by Gorbachev at the 28th CPSU Congress, was not abandoned after the coup attempt of August 1991. Treaty bonds are still said to have "the enormous advantages of the new Soviet federation," which would foil the plans of "all kinds of separatists, chauvinists, and nationalists" who are trying to "deal a decisive blow to perestroika which threatens their far-reaching aims."[17] Whatever the nominal power relations in a new union treaty, the old economic realities would preserve Central Asia's de facto colonial position vis-a-vis Russian industry. Moreover, the "economic logic" of continued ties to Russia would make it that much more difficult to alter the pattern, and Central Asia would have to go on supplying raw materials below world prices for still higher priced Russian manufactures constructed under the Soviet regime.[18] Soviet Center always needed the oil extracted in Baku. For the purpose, many a fact was distorted in justifying the occupation of Azerbaijan, and indeed all of Caucasia. "An aim of reasserting control over Caucasia could best be served if the area remains unstable as in 1920. This may be the reason for the participation of CIS forces in regional fighting there and for their having aided both sides at different times."[19]

Thus the "Union Treaty" of the USSR, discussed during the "Openness and Restructuring" campaigns of Gorbachev, was one indication that Moscow wished only to change the name but not the essence of the sovereignty and economic questions. It was because the non-Russians of the Soviet Union saw through the paragraphs of the proposed "treaty" and insisted on their own political and economic independence. In fact, the "republics" were telling Moscow to dissolve the imperial system. But Moscow keeps bringing the old plan to the table under new designations.[20]

Similarly, not every "Soviet man" accepted the end of the USSR, especially those who stand to lose substantial privileges by the severing of umbilical cords of Moscow. Among the CPSU faithful, attempts have been under way to proceed as before, under various designations, and to continue functioning as the Soviet Union. Even the announcement by Moscow higher echelons pertaining to the dissolution of the Soviet Union was greeted with doubt by the middle and lower officialdoms. Much like the dissolution of the tsarist empire immediately before the formation of the Bolshevik state and succeeded by the Soviet Union. Regarded as a fait accompli, the announcements and pledges by Moscow to end related abuses seems to have been accepted as only temporary by the lower functionaries.[21]

Just about the time when Moscow finally "took the advice of the republics" and announced that USSR is no more, another proposal was floated to the "republics:" a federation, basically an effort to continue the union as before, but under a new label.

For the purpose, the Federalist Papers[22] was waved as the model for the Central Asians to emulate.[23] This admonition to the Central Asians was joined by some outsiders as well, especially by those who have not made the comparison of primary differences between the American Revolution and the Central Asia's annexation into the tsarist empire.[24] Americans were "federating" among themselves to gain independence against an outside power. Whereas the Central Asians were being urged to federate with the imperial power which took away Central Asian political independence and economic liberties.[25] Even after the dissolution of the USSR, and declaration of independence by the former republics, Moscow is demanding privileged treatment.[26] Nor are the Russian military preparations lacking to carry out such demands.[27]

Central Asian political movements emerging at the beginning of the 20th century stressed a separation between religion and state; before the coercive methods were put into place to enforce the Dictum of Marx "Religion is the opiate of the masses." This can be observed from the platforms and programs they issued.[28]

When the Bolsheviks militarily incorporated Central Asia into what became the Soviet Union, all plans for the a secular and independent Central Asian state were also postponed.

In order to place the issue of fundamentalism into perspective, perhaps two questions posed: 1) Is religion equal to nationality? 2) Who is more eager for the Central Asians to be "fundamentalists?"


1. Constant H Jacquet, Jr. Editor, Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 1990 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, Communications Unit of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1990).

2. "In 1900, it was estimated that in Turkestan alone, without counting the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, there were 1503 congregational mosques and 11230 parish mosques with a total of 12499 imams (prayer leaders) to minister to 6 million persons, that is, one mosque for every 471 believers." See Geoffrey Wheeler, The Modern History of Central Asia (New York: Praeger, 1964), P. 186. It should be remembered that not even the bases of the estimations are available.

3. H. B. Paksoy, "Deceivers." Central Asian Survey Vol. 3, N. 1, 1984.

4. It was reported that in 1990 there was a 100% increase in the number of seminaries, to 4. With private donations, more mosques are being built.

5. For the attributes of "unofficial Islam" see: Alexandre A. Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World (Chicago, 1979); idem, Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union (London, 1985). The "Moslem Spiritual Boards" are still in existence. In 1991, it was reported that plans may be underway to establish another "Spiritual Board" in Alma-Ata.

6. The Gorchakov Memorandum was issued after the Russian defeat in the 1853-1856 Crimean War to the joint British, French and Ottoman forces, immediately before the tsarist offensive against Central Asia. A copy is found in Sir Fraser-Tytler, Afghanistan. (Oxford, 1953). 2nd Ed.

7. H. B. Paksoy, "Crimean Tatars" Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and Soviet Union [MERRSU] (Academic International Press, 1995) Vol. VI. Pp. 135-142. 8. H. B. Paksoy, Tr.,"Firibgarlar: Suddan Keyingi Mulahazalar," [The Deceivers: Comments pursuant to Court Hearings] Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs Vol. 9, N. 2, 1988. (The translation of a 3500 word leading article signed with the pseudonym "Adabiyat=87=FE," appearing in Sovet Uzbekistani, Tashkent, 26 September 1982; the Official Organ of the Uzbek SSR Communist Party Central Committee).

9. D. N. Ganiev, R. Rahmanov, S. G. Yahyaev. Yangi Turmush-Yangi Ananalar [New Life, New Traditions]. (Tashkent, 1973). Collection of papers pursuant to republican seminars on the subject identified in the quotation.

10. The interview was printed in the Leningrad youth newspaper Smena, and reprinted in Komsomolets Uzbekistana, in a "slightly abridged form." See "Islamic Explosion Possible in Central Asia" Munich, February 5, 1990, (RLR/P. Goble).

11. The following works by Russian functionaries may shed light on the then prevailing official tsarist colonial views: M. A. Terentyef, Russia and England in Central Asia. F. C. Daukes, Tr. (Calcutta: Foreign Department Press, 1876). 2 Vols. Rendered into English from its 1875 Russian original; N. A Khalfin, Russia's Policy in Central Asia, 1857-1868. Hubert Evans, Tr. (Oxford: Central Asian Research Centre, in association with St. Antony's College-Soviet Affairs Study Group, 1964). Original Russian was issued in Moscow, during 1960. See also George J. Demko, The Russian Colonization of Kazakhstan, 1896-1916 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969) Uralic & Altaic Series, Vol. 99.

12. That is not to suggest that Central Asian efforts to regain their independence did not take place under what was termed "uprisings:" See H. B. Paksoy, "Basmachi" [Turkistan National Liberation Movement, 1916-1930s] Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and Soviet Union (Academic International Press, 1991) Vol 4, Pp. 5-20. For samples of earlier cases, see B. F. Manz, "Central Asian Uprisings in the Nineteenth Century: Ferghana under the Russians" The Russian Review, Vol. 46, 1987, Pp. 267-281.

13. Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire, 1801-1917 (Oxford, 1967); Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union (Harvard, 1970). Second printing.

14. In addition the programs presented below, for a collection of other party programs, see: Society for Central Asian Studies, Programmnie dokumenti musulmanskih politicheskih partii 1917-1920 gg. Reprint Series, No. 2. (Oxford, 1985). It should be recalled that the official tsarist designation "Muslim" was in force throughout this period.

15. As an example, see Ozbekistan Sovet Sotsialistik Respublikas ng Konstitutsiyas (esasi kanun) (Tashkent: Ozbekistan Basmevi, 1984). For comparison to the USSR Constitution, see E. Finer, Five Constitutions (London, 1979).

16. During 1990, two individuals sent by Moscow gained notoriety in the press in that respect.

17. RL Daily Report, Munich, February 6, 1990.

18. Nor has the pressure on Central Asia abated in this respect. "Russian parliamentary speaker Ruslan Kashbulatov said during his trip to Kyrgyzstan that he believes the establishment of an interparliamentary assembly of CIS states, which will become official at the summit of CIS state leaders in Bishkek on 25 September 1992, is the beginning of the creation of a new confederation of former Soviet Republics. The assembly is scheduled to become an independently operating organization with the right to dispute decisions made by the leaders of CIS states." RFE/RL Daily Report, No. 177, 15 September 1992

19. See A. L. Altstadt (Conference on Islam and Democratization in Central Asia; University of Massachusetts-Amherst, September 1992). "This motivation might also explain a curious item in Izvestiia of 8 July, which claimed that President Bush "spoke sharply" with the Azerbaijan President Elchibey, "warning" him that the US would provide no humanitarian aid in view of continued Azerbaijani operations in Karabagh. In fact, there was no such phone call. Izvestiia's retraction was tiny, and the idea of bad relations between the US and Azerbaijan had been planted."

20. "Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin has announced that Russia has concluded bilateral agreements with Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan concerning the foreign debt of the USSR, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 September. No details were given, but in return for Russia assuming their share of debt liabilities, these nations have agreed to transfer or renounce claim on former Soviet assets, including embassies and gold reserves, according to the Financial Times on 9 September 1992. Similar negotiations are currently underway between Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union." RFE/RL Daily Report No. 173, 9 September 1992.

It is recalled that it was Moscow that contracted the foreign debt of the USSR.

21. The process is continuing: "Yeltsin gave in to pressure from regional officials and decided to hand his right to appoint heads of local administrations to the local authorities, according to the Interfax report on Yeltsin's 11 September speech. As a result, Yeltsin has lost his major control mechanism over the Russian periphery to local leaders, most of which are former Communist Party leaders. Acting Prime Minister Egor Gaidar also indicated that the government promised to give local leaders access to its communications system and introduce a post of deputy prime minister in charge of regional affairs." RFE/RL Daily Report No. 176, 14 September 1992.

Of course, the "access to communications links" can be double edged, whereby Moscow might be able to monitor such circuits to keep up with the general mood of the local leaders.

22. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter, Ed. (New York, 1961).

23. Now available in Russian as well, Amerikanskie federalisty: Gamilton, Madison, Dzhei, Gregory Freidin, Tr. (Benson, 1992).

24. Among the many exhortations, see: Moscow News, 1 October 1989; Veteran, 2-8 October 1989, translated in JPRS-UPA, No. 68, 19 December 1989; I. Krylova, "Belgiya: Opyt Resheniya Natsionalnykh Problem" Politicheskoye Obrazovaniye No. 6, 1989. Cf. Thomas S. Szayna, The Ethnic Factor in the Soviet Armed Forces (Santa Monica: Rand, 1991). P. 27.

25. The notion is still alive: "The leader of the Liberal- Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, told Rossiya (No. 27) that a majority of Russians favor dictatorship. He said that he wants to reinstall the Russian empire, first within the boundaries of the former USSR, but subsequently along the borders of the former tsarist empire. He stated that right-wing forces will come to power in Russia and Germany under the slogan of the protection of the white race and divide eastern Europe among themselves. He added that after the forthcoming demise of the United States, Alaska will also be incorporated into the Russian empire. He noted that, if elected president, he would strengthen the army and state security forces." RFE/RL Daily Report No. 124, 2 July 1992.

26. Apart from the demands made by Moscow on the Baltic republics, the following constitutes an example: "Russian authorities have asked Azerbaijan to pardon an Russian officer sentenced to death by the Azerbaijan Supreme Court's military collegium on 31 August. According to ITAR-TASS, the Russian Defense Ministry and a public committee concerned with servicemen's social rights appealed on 9 September to Azeri leaders to stay the execution of Lieutenant Evgenii Lukin. Lukin was in charge of the guard at the Baku Military school on 7 September 1991 when it was attacked by an armed group seeking to obtain weapons in the school's depot. When the attackers failed to retreat in the face of the warning shots, Lukin ordered his men to shoot to kill. Three attackers lost their lives. The Russians claim that Lukin should have been tried by a Russian court." RFE/RL Daily Report No. 174, 10 September 1992.

27. "In Recent months, a political and military consensus has been forming in Russia to develop and implement policies to defend ethnic Russian minorities throughout the CIS from increasing ethnic unrest and real and alleged discrimination. The new policy, called "enlightened imperialism" by some is championed by Yeltsin aide Sergey Stankevich, hard liner Yevgeniy Ambartsumov, Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet's Committee on International Relations (rumored to be a possible future choice for Minister of Foreign Affairs if Kozyrev is forced out), and General Pavel Grachev, Russia's Minister of Defense. The recent Russian military doctrine draft of May cites slights against ethnic Russians as a possible source of future conflict. More recently, it has been said that future rapid reaction forces will have the number one mission of defending the 'rights and interests' of Russian citizens. Some fear that the new policy may be a guise to use the ethnic Russian minority issue for more geopolitically sinister ambitions of reclaiming lost empires." Rabochaya tribuna 7 August 1992. Cf. J. Holbrook, Notes on Russia and Central Eurasia, No. 19, 20 August 1992.

During August 1992, this doctrine and the rapid reaction force was tested in Georgia, which was reported in the world media without discernible repercussions. The ostensible reasons for the Russian forces entering Georgia was "to protect Russian tourists and some Russian military installations." 28. "Basmachi Movement from Within: Account of Zeki Velidi Togan" H. B. Paksoy, Ed. Central Asia Reader: The Rediscovery of History (New York/London: M. E. Sharpe, 1994).