Since independence in 1991, the Central Asian republics have had an up and down relationship with the American monitors of worldwide religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom.
In its 2023 report, USCIRF criticized four of the five Central Asian republics, less the Kyrgyz Republic, for a variety of offenses, including restrictions on wedding and funerary banquets, and on beards and hijabs; banning and punishing religious activity by unregistered groups; onerous registration requirements; mandatory “expert” review of founding documents and religious literature; banning unregistered religious activity, the private teaching of religion, missionary activity, and proselytism; arresting Muslims who held prayers in unauthorized locations; and criminal and administrative code amendments that may impact individuals’ religious freedom.
The State Department then takes up the USCIRF findings, considers the political context, and issues its own designations that are often narrower than USCIRF’s. For example, in 2022 USCIRD designated Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, but State declined to designate Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, which has the largest Muslim population in Central Asia, recently noted a jump in support for preachers such as Abror Mukhtar Aliy, who has a large online audience, and is a critic of Israel. Tashkent also noted a worrying proliferation in citizens’ comments that are supportive of Hamas.
Tashkent is sensitive to any sign of radicalization because Uzbeks were prominent among the Central Asian foreign fighters in the Syrian Civil War and War in Iraq. The government successfully reintegrated over 500 women and children extracted from combat zones in Afghanistan Syria, and Iraq, but considers the fight against militancy unfinished work that requires an active role for government rather than a laissez-faire policy that seeks to buy peace through accommodation.
After independence, the republics were led by the men originally appointed as the leaders of the Soviet Socialist Republics of then-Soviet Central Asia. The leaders replaced “General Secretary” with “President” on their business cards and continued to govern the newly independent republics. The governments continued the Soviet practice of supervising religion but, as officials had little or no understanding of Islam, they often characterized nominal religious observance as extremism.
The republics embarked on a path of economic liberalization under “strong president” systems that ensured a large role for the state security services, that were formerly the local constituents of the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB). Vigilance was believed necessary due to both internal disarray and worrying neighbors, like Iran and Afghanistan, but leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan felt secure enough to facilitate U.S. operations in Afghanistan and host the Northern Distribution Network, the key resupply line to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Reforms accelerated with election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president of Uzbekistan (2016) and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as president of Kazakhstan (2019) as the presidents prioritized economic growth over securitizing every challenge. Mirziyoyev made it top priority to settle long-running border disputes with the country’s neighbors which had a positive impact on the region’s economic and political climate.
The republics also edged up to the issue of a larger public role for Islam after the official (but often ignored) atheism of the Soviet era. Religious freedom was applauded and encouraged by U.S. observers who believed that confessional freedom was key to the republics’ development and recognition as “modern” countries.
Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire since the late 18oos, then the Soviet empire after 1917. In a century, the region endured the October Revolution (1917); the Russian Civil War (1917-1923); the Red Terror (1918-1922); Collectivization and Dekulakization (1928-1933), where in Uzbekistan “the declared policy was ‘liquidation’ of the kulaks in the cotton-growing areas,” and deportation in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan; the Soviet famine (1930–1933), preceded by the Kazakh famine (1919–1922), where Kazakhstan lost more than half of its population in 15 years; the Great Terror (1936-1938); World War II (1941-1945); post-war reconstruction; the end of the Stalin era (1953); the Tashkent earthquake (1966); Brezhnev era stagnation; the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989); the collapse of the USSR (1991); chaos following the end of the USSR; the Tajikistan Civil War (1992-1997) which was followed by terror attacks up to 2019; and an Islamist-led terror campaign in Uzbekistan (1999-2004).
The last century in Central Asia, with the overlapping and sequential emergencies, was the prototype for what today is called the “polycrisis.”
The republics are multi-ethnic, though most of the population is of the titular nation, and many individuals are of mixed ethnicity. For example, Kazakhstan is 70% Kazakh, 15% Russian, with most of the remainder Uzbeks, Germans, Ukrainian, Uyghur, Tatar, Tatars, Azerbaijani, Koreans, and Turks. Uzbekistan is 84% Uzbek, then Tajiks, Kazakhs, Karakalpaks, Russians, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tatars, Koreans, Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. Turkmenistan is 86% Turkmen, 5% Uzbeks, 5% Russians, and Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, and others.
Hand in hand with a variety of ethnic groups are many religions aside from several trends of Shia and Sunni Islam: Nestorianism, the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaism, and Buddhism.
The Central Asian countries are secular, Sunni republics living next to a revolutionary, Shia theocracy (Iran), and Afghanistan, a country ruled by an Islamist Sunni regime that hosts Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan all trade with Iran, and Tajikistan has a defense pact with Iran, and Tehran hasn’t shown any overt interest in intervening in Central Asia, though the “Look East” strategy may see more overt interest in shaping the republics’ internal and external policies.
In the U.S., more freedom is seen as the solution to most problems, with often unfortunate results at home and abroad. President George Bush’s post-9/11 “freedom agenda” proposed liberty and democracy as “the great alternatives to repression and radicalism.” Bush then demanded the Palestinian legislative elections be held in 2006. Hamas won the election and democratic legitimacy, and we are seeing the result now in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The republics’ governments want to strengthen the secular state system and promote social harmony, and avoid what they see as the extreme individualism in U.S. that has resulted in social instability (urban violence, drugs abuse, and economic disparities), declining trust in institutions, and an increase in the number of Americans who are rejecting the constitution and embracing violence, according to American legal scholar Jonathan Turley.
In North America, the expansive geography acted as a relief valve that kept religious differences from escalating to extreme violence.
In the early 1800s, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) were run out of Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, before finally settling in Utah, and even then an army expeditionary force was sent with orders to replace church founder Brigham Young as governor. Fortunately, the dispute was settled by negotiation with no casualties, though many died during the trek from Ohio to Utah.
In Canada, during the French and Indian Wars, the Catholic descendants of French settlers in eastern Canada (the Acadians) were expelled by the British when they refused to sign an oath of loyalty the British monarch, who was also head of the Church of England. The Acadians were forcibly dispersed, some to Europe, and many to the U.S., where they settled in Louisiana.
America, then, has no real memory of domestic violence caused by religious strife, as the persecution of the Mormons and the Acadians happened 200 years ago and didn’t see an outbreak of widespread violence, though it didn’t look that way to the Mormons and Acadians. And America avoided anything like Europe’s wars of religion fought between Christian denominations in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
Though the U.S. claims to take mostly a hands-off approach to organized religion, many Western governments fund religious intuitions, and ban practices they deem harmful.
In the United Kingdom, King Charles III is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and appoints archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals on the advice of the Prime Minister. In Germany, the government paid Christian churches, €602 million in 2023. Plus, many believers pay the church tax (Kirchensteuer), 9% of income tax.
France, in line with its constitutional principle of secularism (laïcité) recently banned the wearing of abayas in schools, and the Swiss parliament approved a ban on burqas and a successful constitutional amendment in 2009 banned the construction of new minarets on mosques. Israel funds the building of synagogues, and Saudi Arabia no doubt does the same for mosques and foots the bill for the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. And across the world, state religions are common with many governments recognizing an exclusive status for Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. “State atheism” is the policy in Communist China and Vietnam, but religion is not banned.
In the U.S., though, there is government involvement in religious affairs: most religious organizations are exempt from tax and, if tax-exempt, are barred from prohibited from engaging in political activity; and in many states parents can use tuition vouchers funded by tax dollars for parochial school fees.
State involvement in religion, outside the U.S., is often the norm, not the exception, and France and Switzerland have nothing to fear from the U.S. for banning religious attire or minarets. But most of the countries designated by USCIRF and the State Department are non-Western and may be characterized as being in the Global South leading to the conclusion that the U.S. government’s actions are part of its mission civilisatrice.
State involvement in religious affairs in Central Asia started in 1788 when Catherine II ordered the establishment of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly, which had authority over aspects of Muslim practice. In 1943 the Soviets created the Central Asian Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SADUM), headquartered in Tashkent. SADUM administered madrassas in Tashkent and Bukhara and was “heavily penetrated by KGB agents,” according to historian Christopher Andrew. Only graduates of the madrassas could legally conduct religious services so the KGB determined who could administer to Muslim believers.
After independence in 1991, the republics continued state supervision of religion and the current state interest in administering some aspects of religious affairs exists as a defense against internal actors, subversion by powerful neighbors, i.e., Iran, or trans-national Islamist networks. This was coupled to a desire in the region to take control of its culture after more than 200 years of supervision by Moscow
Central Asia scholar Svante Cornell points out, “Western laws on freedom of expression tend to tolerate almost any form of ideas in the abstract, but draw the line at the incitement or actual use of violence. Uzbek officials…considered that the problem lay not simply in violent acts but in the nature of the ideology itself, which they considered particularly dangerous in view if the vulnerable nature of a young nation in the process of consolidating its national identity.”
Constitutions of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan all declare the countries’ secular status, and all the republics, except for Tajikistan, ban political parties based on ethnicity or religion.
Central Asia governments have acted to promote secular policies versus traditional religious policies. The Kazakh government has proposed a law to ban the hijab and burka for minors as part of President Tokayev’s effort to strengthen the secular state and state regulation of religious organizations. In Uzbekistan, minors may attend mosque but must be accompanied by parents or family members.
In Uzbekistan, the development strategy for 2022-2026 promotes the country’s Islamic heritage. Among its goals are “Support the activities of the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, [and] the Centre for Islamic Civilization” and “Encourage an atmosphere of interethnic harmony and interreligious tolerance in society.” The government is seeking to promote the country’s heritage as a center for Islamic scholarship in the 8th to 13th century as more Uzbeks practice Islam.
For example, visits to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah by Uzbeks have climbed in recent years. In the Islam Karimov era only 5,000 Uzbeks made the annual Hajj; now the number is 15,000 to 17,000. Previously, only 2,000 performed Umrah every year; now the number is about 140,000. The government must respect the increased religiosity of some of the citizens as it remains vigilant for Islamist intolerance. Interestingly, the reforms of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may help the Central Asian governments as he has reduced the income and influence of the severe Muslim trends previously sponsored by the Kingdom as part of his plans for modernization and economic development.
Though the constitutional declaration of secularism is welcomed by the West, the republics will continue to manage some aspects of religious observance.
Fox example, private religious schools and mosques are a channel for funding from foreign governments or extremist movements. In Pakistan many Taliban fighters were educated at privately-funded madrassas, a worrying precedent for countries in the region. Educational institutions that are closed to government review, and receive undeclared, foreign funding, have the potential to create what Robert Kaplan calls “formal obligations that exist both above and below the level of government,” a concern in countries still building the police and juridical establishments that can enforce the law and respect the civil rights of citizens.
And Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have suffered from recent terror campaigns and feel state intervention in religious affairs will stanch future problems. The republics don’t have the resources of the U.S. or Europe and delaying action until talk turns to violence is neglecting their duty to protect their citizens, though pre-emptive action looks like repression to some Western observers.
The republics are responsible for own security now that they are no longer needed by NATO for access to Afghanistan. They have o two potentially troublesome neighbors, Iran, and Afghanistan, plus the online radicalization threat that can come from any direction. The republics seek security and cultural autonomy after surviving the Soviet cultural experiment, but they do not want to trade the former overseers in Moscow for new ones in Washington, D.C., or Brussels.
American critics are often blinkered by a lack of empathy and a belief in the universality of the American model of democracy, and rarely consider the benefits conferred by their country’s unique geography and how it affects their political outlook. Washington should seek out ways to cooperate with the republics, including intelligence sharing on Islamist threats, so both sides can work to stop the mobilization of extremist ideology.
Central Asia is making progress supporting citizens’ religious, freedom. According to Akmal Saidov, First Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament) of Uzbekistan, in recent years the Uzbek government has promoted the publishing of religious literature, including Bibles in the Uzbek language; built 100 new mosques and refurbished 500; increased opportunities for religious education, including Protestant and Orthodox seminaries; and removed 20,000 from the extremism watch list, and amnestied over 1,000 persons in jail on extremism charges related to religion.
So American leaders are better informed on what is happening in Central Asia, Tashkent invited the Multifaith Faith Neighbors Network (MFNN) to visit in early 2024 for a go anywhere – ask anything visit that can establish an accurate context for the region’s progress in defending religious liberty.
Washington should grasp the opportunity for provided by independent groups like MFNN to help clarify the situation on the ground so its policies are not counterproductive in a region that has a positive view of the U.S., but not to the exclusion of partnering with neighboring Russia and China. If the U.S. cannot be a constructive partner, the republics’ best option may be, ironically, China, the country with an official atheist ideology but which may more amenable than the West to Central Asians’ efforts to protect and preserve their religious tradition
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
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