By Amanda Erickson
In 1929, Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin laid out his vision for Central Asia: “teaching the people of the Kirgiz Steppe, the small Uzbek cotton grower, and the Turkmenian gardener the ideals of the Leningrad worker.”
It was a tall order, especially when it came to religion. About 90 percent of the population there was Muslim, but atheism was the state religion of the USSR. So in the early 1920s, the Soviet government effectively banned Islam in Central Asia. Books written in Arabic were burned, and Muslims weren’t allowed to hold office. Koranic tribunals and schools were shuttered, and conducting Muslim rituals became almost impossible. In 1912, there were about 26,000 mosques in Central Asia. By 1941, there were just 1,000.
Rather than stamp out Islam, though, efforts to stifle Islam only radicalized believers. It’s a trend that’s played out again and again over the past century, and one that could have dire consequences in the war on terror. Today, Central Asian Muslims are radicalizing at alarming rates. Thousands have flocked to the Islamic State, and Turkish media reports suggest that the suspect who killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub last week was an ethnic Uighur from Kyrgyzstan.
In the 1930s, the Soviet move against Islam silenced moderate imams and leaders. But fundamentalist leaders privately began to woo followers. One of the best known was Shami-damulla, an Uzbek with ultra-conservative views of Islam. He was jailed in 1932, but he left behind scores of disciples who preached his hard-line beliefs in makeshift mosques and at underground schools. When Joseph Stalin relaxed the Soviet Union’s stance on official religion in the 1940s, it was this group of spiritual leaders who were poised to take control of the state-run, public governing bodies.
They did, and by the ’70s Islam had made a comeback in much of Central Asia. Holidays Ramadan and the spring New Year of Novruz were celebrated publicly. Tea houses doubled as mosques.
In the 1980s, fundamentalists were further bolstered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which turned many Central Asians against the USSR, and by the weakening of travel restrictions, which brought a freer flow of information and people from the Middle East.
By the time the Soviet Union fell, radical Muslims had built out strong networks, allowing them to take on the fledgling governments of their newly formed countries. In 1991, a group of militants took control of the former Communist Party building in an Uzbek city, demanding the establishment of an explicitly religious state in which sharia law was implemented and children were separated by gender in schools. In 1992, those same militants took local authorities hostage. In another part of the country, then-President Islam Karimov faced down thousands of Islamist demonstrators calling for a more accountable government.