Central Eurasia – Religion in International Affairs

CERIA picThe Central Eurasia – Religion in International Affairs (CERIA) initiative promotes a better understanding of religion in Central Asia. It approaches religion as a “societal shaper” that has broader implications in affecting politics, economy, and culture. It investigates three fundamental research axes: religion and the nation state, religion and identity, and religion and entrepreneurship. CERIA offers a platform of dialogue between the policy community, which tends to have a security-centered reading of the role of religion in Central Eurasia, and the scholarly community, which look at religion in a more societal and cultural context. Read the CERIA Initiative Briefs, and view CERIA Initiative Events.

The CERIA Initiative is generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

CERIA Research Axes

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.

Principal Investigator: Wendell Schwab

Unlike Islamic education, which remains tightly state-controlled, the Islamic media world was able to secure more autonomous niches and emerge as one of the most diversified and vibrant spaces for debate over religion.

Since their independence, Central Asian states have been trying to control their domestic publication markets and avoid penetration from ‘foreign’ discourse on religion. Legislation on the importation of literature and domestic outreach has been tightening. Each country attempts to carefully control both its citizens’ movement abroad to study religious topics and the ability of foreign religious organizations of any type to interact with citizens. However, everywhere in the region, relatively easy access to leaflets, booklets, flyers, and DVDs has allowed people interested in religion to participate in collective debates about the place of Islam in their private and public lives. Today, Islamic publishers continue the Soviet-era underground tradition of publishing lectures and sermons, making local-language versions of scriptures available to the public, and translating works from Russian, Saudi, Egyptian, and Turkish authors. In the most open countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, television channels produce didactic programs that instruct viewers on proper mores and family relationships. Social media pages put Islamic messages in Central Asians’ hands 24 hours a day and allow for discussions not possible in other media sources. All of these new Islamic media channels have changed information flows about Islam in Central Eurasia, and created new forms of Islamic authority. We will explore them by also taking into account the body of literature existing on other Islamic regions of the world and the new media revolution.

Internet and social media are obviously revolutionizing the local Islamic marketplace of ideas. Central Eurasia’s access to digital Islam has been delayed by low internet penetration, authoritarian controls on media and communication, the Soviet legacy of public secularism, language barriers, and, in part, the region’s peripheral status in the Muslim world. However, this situation is rapidly changing as Central Asians increasingly access information online instead of in print. Today, religious quarrels between Saudi Salafi scholars and competing styles of Islamic-inspired women’s fashion from Turkey or Egypt increasingly inform debates about how to be a good Muslim among young Central Eurasian citizens who have never left their home countries. Some sophisticated web-based media produced by sites like Sodiqlar.org work to create a coherent ‘Islamic’ perspective on world events that frequently borrows from and interacts with popular apolitical groups to enhance their reach and audience. Others topics come with new political baggage, including calls to choose sides among fratricidal jihadist factions in Syria and al-Qaida influenced hate rhetoric against other Muslims groups that many Central Asians have never before encountered.

Digital media permits people who were previously isolated or excluded from Islamic debates in the region to circle back and re-engage. New media activists acquire the language skills and specialized education that enable them to translate Islamic media produced in Arabic or even English, introducing popular and often proscribed texts into regional languages. They act as bridges between information environments, often creating branded digital media studios dedicated to bringing content they believe is meaningful into their home language networks. This desire to belong to a greater, universal Islamic identity appears to appeal most of all to the several million young Central Asian men who live separated from their home communities as labor migrants or refugees in countries such as Russia. A similar, but more modest trend is visible on some Central Asia television networks. In Kazakhstan, Asyl Arna, the most popular Islamic television channel, went viral on social media pages, with over 155,000 followers on vKontakte (the Russian-language equivalent of Facebook), a number that exceeds that of the Kazakhstani Muftiyat (~12,000 followers on vK).

Principal Investigator: Aurelie Biard

This research axis studies the deployment of a ‘bourgeois Islam’ among urban middle classes of countries with a rent economy in Central Eurasia, with Kazakhstan being the flagship one. The autonomous republic of Tatarstan, in Russia, and Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus region, are two other examples. This phenomenon has been widely described in other Muslim societies, for instance Turkey, Iran and Dubai by scholars such as Vali Nasr, or in Egypt by Patrick Haenni, who looked at the moralist preacher ‘Amr Khalid. In Indonesia, Gwenaël Feillard has studied the formation of an “Islamic work ethics,” and more broadly an economic ethos whose advocates are no longer merely intellectuals or ideologues, but veritable capitalists, at once preachers and entrepreneurs, to cite only a few studies. It has been explored for the rural bourgeoisie emerging in Soviet Muslim Eurasia by Stéphane A. Dudoignon & Christian Noack’s project Allah’s kolkhozes (2014).

After nearly two decades of market economy in the former Soviet Union, we are witnessing the rise to power of a transnational Islam adapted to the rationale of the capitalist market economy. With globalization, Islam tends to open itself to all the key themes of the world market and become the vehicle of demands for individual autonomy and of, as stated by Patrick Haenni, a “new integration in the world that is somewhat inspired by American televangelists.”

Through this research axis, we explore the Weltanschauung of these new urban middle classes. We focus especially on the notion of Islamic Prosperity Theology, on the forms of Muslim piety performed, on the networks of sociability and on the virtues of practical ethics conveyed in order to legitimate the accumulation of capital. For these new entrepreneurs, economic success is indeed a divine payment. In this logics, personal enrichment, as divine retribution for exemplary conduct based on the principles of Islam, is perceived as positive if money is ‘properly acquired’ and if it is purified by tax (zakat). This production of an Islamic Calvinist ethic combines strict piety with intense entrepreneurship. With the notion of salvation through work, these new middle-classes re-invent for the occasion a certain form of protestant ethics, for which the wealthy were also ‘God’s favorites’. This understanding of Islam manages to combine the economy and religion, heavenly salvation and the here and now: for the believer, to whom prosperity is promised, the recompense is immediate and visible.

For this “pious bourgeoisie”  as defined by Gilles Keppel, displaying piety is the path to middle class status. In this perspective, the inculcation of Islamic values and ethics is seen as a part of this process of embourgeoisment, that is, of developing bourgeois respectability and social and cultural capital. The cultivation of Islamic discipline is similarly connected with that of civic virtue and urbanity. Investigating this ‘bourgeois’ Islam and its ‘urban middle class capitalist ethic’ will shed light on current deep social and cultural evolutions shaping the future of the region.

Principal Investigator: Marlene Laruelle and Peter Rollberg

Because of decades of militant atheist ideology, religion in the former Soviet space is often studied and thought of as part of the collective cultural background of the nation, rather than as a personal belief system. Even political authorities tend to promote a view of religion as culture in order to depoliticize interpretations of religion that may be seen as offering an alternative political order. With this new track, we will investigate the relationship between religion and culture. In Central Eurasia, art and literature are a widespread medium for exploring religious feelings and practices, and establishing a fruitful dialogue between religious belief and largely secular cultures. We will investigate this interaction by studying the place of religion in Central Eurasia’s Soviet and post-Soviet cinema and literature, based on previous work done on other regions of the world. Among Islamic countries, cinema has been largely studied in Iran, but a growing body of literature on television in Arab countries and in South Asian Muslim countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh) is emerging.

Filmmakers such as Ysup Rozyqov and Ayub Shahobitdinov from Uzbekistan have been experimenting with new approaches toward the representation of Islam in narrative cinema. They view religion as a living practice that humanizes people’s relationships rather than restricting them. Rozyqov’s The Orator (1999) looks back at the years of Soviet repression of religion not in anger, but with a sovereign irony that points out the losses and unnatural self-repression that the imposition of atheist rule meant for Uzbek society. Shahobitdinov’s Heaven – My Abode (2008) depicts both the mystery of religious perception and the moral effect it has on society. These and related films are not proselytizing but capturing the essence of the individual and collective religious experience. In screening, analyzing, and discussing such feature films, our initiative broadens the view of Islam in Central Asia and allows for a deeper understanding of religious developments in Central Asian societies.

Just as interesting as cinematic and literary narratives involving religious themes are those texts that deliberately avoid the topic. The reasons for such avoidance are usually political: rather than addressing religious issues in an open manner, mass media and artifacts sometimes represent the past and the present of Central Asian societies as if Islam does not exist. In popular television miniseries such as City of Dreams (2009) and Astana, My Love (2010), the people of Kazakhstan are shown to be devoid of any religious interests or practices, let alone deeply held beliefs. Since television in all Central Asian republics is state-sponsored and state-controlled, these avoidances indicate a deep insecurity vis-à-vis spiritual and religious themes that in itself is worth analyzing.

Another important aspect is how Central Asian societies come to terms with the role of religion in the Soviet period. Looking back at the 1920s and 1930s with their vicious anti-Islamic campaigns, but also at the daily experiences in the post-Stalin period, the schizophrenic split between Communist/atheist declarations in public and – at least minimal – religious practices in private is yet to be fully explored. A seminar on Uzbek cinema that was held in September 2015 explicitly addressed these questions in a taboo-free environment. The further exploration of these issues promises a better understanding of inner societal processes that were unfolding during the Soviet period and of its effects on post-Soviet Central Asian societies. We will coordinate with the HLF-sponsored ‘Russian-Soviet Perspectives on Islam’ initiative at George Mason University to see how to articulate the findings of their archival work with our approach on culture as a medium for discussing religion.

CERIA Fieldwork Grants

The CERIA Initiative offers travel grants devoted to the study of religion in contemporary Central Asia. The grants are offered for specific fieldwork that results in a paper submitted for publication at CAP.

Projects selected for 2017:

Donohon Abdugafurova, Emory University, Islam, Morality and Public Education: Religious Elements of Ethics and Etiquette in the Uzbek School Curriculum

Nurbek Bekmurzaev, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Virtualization of Religious Learning: The Role of Media in the (Re-)Shaping of the Institution of Islamic Education and (Re-)Forming Ummah in Kyrgyzstan

Alima Bissenova, Nazarbayev University,  The Religious Market of Ideas in the Republic of Bashkortostan and Chelyabinsk Region of Russia 

Cara Kerven, University of Cambridge view site
Religion in Rural Turkmenistan 

Noah Tucker, Registan.net and CAP Associate, Identifying Islamic Education and Indigenous Counter-Extremism Resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Raano Turaeva-Hoehne, Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, Informal Economies and Entrepreneurship in Central Asia and Beyond: Post-Soviet Islam and its Role in Ordering Entrepreneurship

CERIA Briefs