Principal Investigator: Marlene Laruelle
One of the most pressing issues Central Eurasian societies are facing relates to the ability to access Islamic education, a topic that is also critical in many other Muslim countries. The region’s authoritarian states not only actively promote and incentivize secular education, but they refuse to sponsor religious education with public funds. Their brand of secular authoritarianism has been inherited from the Soviet regime. It was not until 1945, almost thirty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, that the Soviet Council of Muftis succeed in re-opening the Mir-Arab madrassa, built in the 16th century, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute in Tashkent, did not re-opened until 1971. Together they constituted the only institutions of higher Islamic education in Soviet Central Eurasia, and they were subject to strict government supervision and controls.
The demise of the Soviet Union did not really benefit Islamic education in the region. Now in many of these countries, such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, student are forbidden from receiving religious education at home or in private institutions, and minors—and women in Tajikistan—cannot attend religious services. Only a few hundred highly selected students are allowed to access the main higher education institutions that offer curriculums in theology. For instance, in Uzbekistan—a country of 30 million people—there are only eleven madrassahs (including two for women), providing secondary education, and only the Islamic Institute and Islamic University in Tashkent providing higher educational instruction on religion. These institutions are oriented toward those planning to become imams or religious teachers. Apart from full-time study in these institutions, there is no officially-sanctioned religious instruction for individuals interested in learning about Islam.
Islamic education therefore develops underground, and an increasing number of imams informally offer religious education. Some poor families, especially in rural regions and the newly created suburbs of the capital cities, send their children there to get free education when they can no longer pay for public school (officially free, yet costly in reality) or private tutors. This underground religious education often compensates for the lack of state-supported recreational activities for children, left alone or under the supervision of the elderly while their parents are at work. Moreover, with growing migration flows (more than five million Central Asians work in Russia), many rural families are left without any paternal authority, and wives, already working, tend to send their children to informal religious circles for more exposure to authority. This rise of underground religious education does not equate to a cause-effect trend toward radicalization. However, it contributes to a diversification of religious perceptions and practices (for instance with Hanafi rites increasingly in competition with Hanbali), which the authorities perceive as putting social stability at risk.
Foreign actors are also rapidly occupying the niche of Islamic education. In the early 1990s, funds coming from Gulf countries, especially from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were quickly banned by the Central Eurasian authorities, who were afraid of the arrival of Wahhabi ideological principles to their societies. But many other actors from Middle Eastern civil societies succeeded in opening educational institutions, such as the Fetullah Gulen movement, which had dozens of secondary schools all over the region and built several universities in partnership with local authorities. The Gulenist movement’s ambiguous promotion of ‘moderate Islamism’, and its role as a torchbearer of Turkey’s economic and political interests made it progressively become persona non grata in many countries in the region. Today, foreign religious education develops in Central Eurasia through ‘outsourcing’ mechanisms: tens of thousands of young Central Asians learn theology abroad, mostly in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India, and increasingly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Nonetheless, the lack of official recognition of their degrees has complicated their ability to integrate back into their home countries. Many of them come back and then enter underground Islamic circles, where they can work as imams, or emigrate to Russia, where they can easily find jobs in the new mosques being built all over the country.