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The Revival of Islam in Central Asia and Caucasus
M A Karim


The present CIS (Common wealth of Independent States) or former Soviet Union has more than 70 million Muslims. Under seven decades of Communist rule, Muslims almost lost their identity due to the persecution of Islam.

The perestroika or reform policy of Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, eased the religious policy of the former Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reform policy mainly concentrated on economic restructuring for which he sought the help of the West. Obviously, to deal with the outside world, Gorbachev had to improve the freedom of conscience of the citizens of his country. Thus the believers became less persecuted and demanded more freedom.

Though the 1991 Communist coup  to overthrow Gorbachev did not succeed, it brought about a great historical change, the downfall of the Communist era and the creation of the CIS. This brought an end to the Gorbachev era.

At present, the six Muslims republics of the former Soviet Union Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan are members of the CIS. Except Azerbaijan, the other five republics fall within the geographical boundary of Central Asia. Apart from these six republics, there are about 20 million indigenous Muslims inside the Russian Federation, the biggest state of the CIS, who are mostly concentrated in the Caucasus, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and scarcely in other parts of the Russian Federation where the total population is over 150 million.

The revival of Islam in Central Asia and the CIS has had a different impact in different areas depending on freedom of religious policy and the interest in Islam. On the whole, the impact of cultural and educational aspects of Islam is growing in all parts of Central Asia and the CIS. For example, growth of mosques and educational institutions--madrasaha--varies from place to place; in Uzbekistan alone there are more than 2000  mosques. During the Soviet period there were only some 400 mosques throughout the USSR.

The new mosques, madrasahs and Islamic Centres are mostly financed by local Muslims. In many cases donations have come from Muslim organizations. Some Muslims countries--Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and a few others also contributed. The Muslim countries also offer scholarships for students from Central Asia to study in their own countries. In Turkey alone, there are about ten thousand students studying in different educational institutions. The Islamic Universities of Pakistan and Malaysia, a few universities in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar University regularly provide places for students from Central Asia--The students are financed either by the University itself or organizations. Some students are also studying in  Libya, Morocco and other countries.

The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), World Muslim League (Rabita), International Islamic Relief Organization, SAAR Foundation and Islamic Development Bank regularly make contributions to educational and other developmental works in Central Asia. Some of these organizations have opened branches in Moscow and other cities of Central Asia with the Official permission of local governments.

The Organizations also finance orphanages, hospitals and provide other humanitarian assistance. The Islamic Development Bank has so far provided over $4 million. Due to ethnic problems and regional conflicts, for example, war in Chechnya, Tajikistan, Abkhazia, Nagornokarabah, a huge number of refugees have been made homeless and are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Despite political uncertainties and economic difficulties, for the revival of Islam, the education of Muslim children has priority. Parents are enthusiastic to teach their children Islamic values starting from the nursery age. Mostly evening and weekend (part-time) madrasahs are serving this purpose. Though the shortage of Islamic teachers is a problem in many areas, some of the above mentioned Muslim organizations are helping with the preparation of teachers. In Kazakhstan and Tatarstan many teachers are engaged, from Turkey especially, to teach Arabic and Islamic disciplines. Officially, the Ministries of Culture of some Muslim Republics, at the request of parents, are introducing in mainstream schools syllabus with Islamic disciplines. For this, guidance is being sought from the Muslim countries.

At the moment, there is a great need for literature on Islam. To meet this requirement, books available in English, Turkish or Arabic are being translated into Russian and local languages. Such books cater for different ages. Presently, independent organizations within the country, with the help of international organizations like WAMY, IIRO, SAAR Foundation have been producing a considerable amount of Islamic literature every year. WAMY has established a publication bureau in Dagestan called ‘Sant-Lada’. ‘Sant-Lada’ mainly publishes translated Islamic literature. Nevertheless, for the 70 million Muslims of CIS with at least 7/8 major languages the available literature is still only a drop in the ocean. Similarly, at the higher educational level, the interest in studying Islam is growing. Recently, Moscow State University started higher degrees on various aspects of Islam--something unthinkable during the Soviet period. Independent institutes are being established to study Arabic, The Quran, Hadith, Tafsir, life of the Prophet (pbuh), etc. In January, 1995, such an institute was opened in Moscow with the help of some financiers from Kuwait. The Rector of the Institute is Sayed Kamaliev, a leading Arabist from the former Soviet Union.

Female education has also been of great concern in the society. ‘Charity begins at home’, so mothers have the responsibility of educating the future generations. However, there are still very few full-time institutions where girls can get Islamic education. In Tashkent, the Mir-Arab Madrasah now has a female section. This is the only Madrasah to have survived since the Soviet period by government funding. Recently, an independent women’s Madrasah called ‘Fatimat-uz-Zaharah’ has been established in Tashkent by independent funding. The madrasah which caters for female students of all ages, so far attracted at least one thousand students. Recently, a similar madrasah was established in Dagestan to cater for Caucasus female students.

As a result of female Islamic education, the wearing hijab (female Islamic dress) is very visible in Muslim areas which was a taboo during Soviet Times.

As Islamic education is becoming a need, the intelligentsia also feels a need to produce academic works on Islam. Many even propose to rewrite the history of central Asia. History books, as written by Soviet scholars previously, do not emphasize the role Islam played in the history of Central Asia. The specialized centers at universities, as well as a number of independent centres, have engaged scholars and Islamologists to write books on different aspect of Islam. But, at the moment, such academic works are far too few to meet the demand.

Fear of Persecution

In central Asia, the revival of Islam is very much evident. However, the present leaders and the governments of Muslim states are mostly communist-turned-democrats, so it is very unlikely that their policies will easily accommodate Islam. Their constitution separates religion from state. So, mass Islamic movements and any role that Islam is to play in state affair face almost the same restrictions as in the past. For example, the Islamic Revivalist Party, the only major political movement for Muslims, formed in 1990, has faced severe persecution in Muslim republics. The irony with IRP is that, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it ceased to be an ‘all Union’ or one party and sought recognition in individual Muslim states. But it was not recognized by the majority of Muslim states. For example, in Uzbekistan, not only has the IRP been unrecognised, its leaders, including the Chairman of the Party--Abdullah Uttah--have been imprisoned. Tajikistan was the only place where the IRP was recognized a mark in the political arena of the republic. Unfortunately, the communist and Russian ploy defeated the democratic alliance in Tajikistan in 1992. Had a free democratic system been allowed after the downfall of Communism, Tajikistan would have been the first democratic state in the former Soviet Union with a major role played by IRP. The ‘defeated’ leader of IRP, in fear of persecution, crossed the border and sought refuge in Afghanistan. The leaders--Mohammad Sharif, Abdullah Nuri, Uslam Daulatov, Turadzonzadah and others have vowed to continue the jihad from across the border.

In other parts of Muslim areas, the Islamic political movement is still in its infancy and fear of persecution is high. For example, the Kazakh authorities have time and again alerted themselves to the rise of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ all over Central Asia. The war in Chechnya has accelerated Muslim awareness and the Islamic Movement.

Foreign Investment

The sudden collapse of the communist system and the weak infrastructure of government pushed Central Asia and Caucasus into chaos. The economy is weak and struggling to recover. At the same time the Muslim republics have vast resources of oil, gas, cotton, gold, etc. The resources easily attract foreign  investment. Becoming members of Economic Co-operation Organization (ECO) and with the support of IMF and World Bank, the Central Asian republics are developing their economic sectors. Among the Muslim countries, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and some Gulf countries have established economic and trade links with Central Asian states. However, the volatile governments and the political uncertainties of these newly independent Muslim states do not at present attract massive investment from outside.

Nevertheless, it can be concluded that due to the geographical and strategic situation and its cultural, religious and historical links, the Muslim world can play a very important role in bringing back the region under Islamic Brotherhood.

Chenhnya at a Glance

Chechnya was a part of Daghestan, a Muslim state of the Caucasus, under the leadership of Imam Shamyl.

In 1859 Muslims of Daghestan lost their country to Russia after 34 years of resistance jihad.

In 1917 Daghestanis declared independence. Some even supported Communists against the Czars because they promised to recognise their independence.

In 1925 Communists Russians reoccupied Daghestan. Banned Islam, Masjds, and other Islamic institutions.

Chechnya Autonomous Region was established by the Soviets to divided the Muslims of Caucasus (Daghestan) into different groups while appearing to give recognition and autonomy to different linguistic groups.

In 1944 the whole population was loaded on cattle trucks and were expelled to Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin where one third of the Chechens died.

In 1965 Chechens were allowed back to their region.

Oct. 1991: Chechnya declared independence from Russia as other autonomous regions were doing around it after Dudayev was elected as president. He was among the children who were deported to Kazakhstan in 1944.

Dec. 11, 1994: Russian attack on Chechnya began with 40,000 man Russian army armed with superpower class equipment.

Dec. 30, 1994: The first major Russian attack on Grozny began with hundreds of tanks while the world was at pause for New Year celebrations.

Jan. 3, 1995:  The first Russian attack on Grozny repelled by Chechens as ‘hundreds of tanks’ are destroyed as described by one Russian sources.

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