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Central Asia

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Central Asia

    Islam has existed in Central Asia for more than 1,000 years. Despite threats from the Mongols, Russian conquests, and the atheistic policies of Soviet rule, Islam has survived as a political, cultural, and religious force.

    The Land and Its People.

    Central Asia, which includes the present-day countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbeki-stan, covers more than 1.5 million square miles. This vast area shares its borders with the nations of Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran. The region's varied geography consists of mountains, grassy plains, and deserts, which comprise 60 percent of its total area.

    Centuries of intermarriage in Central Asia have blurred ethnic distinctions in the region. Most groups here can trace their language to Turkic origins. The Tajiks—the only exception—speak an Indo-Iranian language. Religion provides a unifying force among Central Asia's diverse population. The majority of the estimated 58 million people who live in the region practice Sunni Islam and follow the Hanafi school of law.

    Early History.

    Beginning in the 900s, Islam spread among the Turkish peoples of Central Asia. They learned about this new religion through their contact with Muslim merchants who traveled the silk and fur trade routes that crisscrossed the region. Missionaries and Sufi brotherhoods were also influential in the conversion of the Turks to Islam.

    During the 1200s, the Mongols invaded and conquered much of Central Asia. Mongol rulers, most of whom were Buddhists and Nestorian Christians, strongly opposed Islam. Sufi brotherhoods helped preserve the religion's hold on the region by preaching extensively among the masses. Eventually, several important Mongol rulers converted to Islam, ensuring its survival.

    By the mid-1300s, the Russians began to seize power from the Golden Horde, a branch of the Mongol ruling family that had its capital at Saray on the lower Volga River. Over the following centuries the Russians expanded their control across Central Asia and incorporated Muslim territories and people into their empire. As the Russians occupied the region, they drove Muslims from major cities and valuable lands. In some areas, they destroyed mosques and forced Muslims to convert to Christianity. Catherine the Great reversed such policies when she became the ruler of Russia in the late 1700s. Catherine allowed Muslims to worship freely, supported the building of mosques, and created Islamic institutions to oversee the Muslim population of the Russian empire.

    Islam in the Soviet Union.

    By 1900 Russia ruled all of Central Asia. In 1917 Vladimir Lenin led a revolt against the Russian government and established the world's first communist state—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin and most of the members of his Bolshevik party were hostile to all religions, including Islam. Their need for political and military allies, however, led them to alternately tolerate and oppress the Muslims living within the Soviet sphere of influence.

    The Soviets launched a campaign to secularize the lands under their control. They believed that if they could destroy the religious identity of the people and replace it with a national identity, they would be better able to promote the principles of communism. Between 1925 and 1936 , the government established the republics of Uzebekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Soviets imposed the use of new standardized languages in these territories.

    The structure of Islamic societies in Central Asia also came under attack. The communists considered the patriarchal, or male-dominated, Muslim family to be a potential challenge to the state. Consequently, they banned polygyny, and they passed a law that gave Muslim women equal rights to obtain a divorce and to own property. Furthermore, the government arrested and killed opposition Muslim religious leaders and closed mosques and Islamic schools. During World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ), the Soviets adopted a more relaxed approach to Islam in an effort to win the support of Muslims in the fight against Germany. Nonetheless, thousands of Muslims joined the opposition.

    Tolerance of Islam continued in the Soviet Union until the late 1950s. Under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, however, anti-religious sentiment resurfaced. Soviet authorities closed more than 1,000 mosques within ten years. After Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964 , the communists revised their strategy to curb religious activity. Instead of relying on forcible measures, they created an anti-religious propaganda campaign. Publications, films, radio broadcasts, and research reports emphasized the in-feriority of religion in general, and Islam in particular, as compared with communism.

    The period following World War II was characterized by a nonmilitary rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War. Soviet leaders believed that their official support of Islam could help them win favor in the Muslim world. To this end, they created Islamic organizations within the Soviet Union to forge diplomatic ties with Arab countries and to spread anti-American feelings in the Middle East and Africa. This policy lost much of its appeal after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 .

    When Mikhail Gorbachev became president of the Soviet Union in 1985 , he introduced a policy of glasnost, or openness. Greater freedom of religious expression was permitted. Muslim groups in the Soviet republics staged anti-government protests and began to compete for political power. When the government of the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 , most of the former Soviet republics joined to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Islam reemerged, and by 1993 thousands of mosques and hundreds of Islamic schools had opened in the Muslim states of Central Asia.

    Present Concerns.

    Although the former Soviet republics gained their independence, serious problems plague the Central Asian states. The political situation in these states is very unstable. Authoritarian regimes, led by former communist party members, run the government. Security forces ensure the power of the state, and freedoms of assembly, speech, and the press are restricted. The status of Muslims and Islamic political parties varies among the countries of Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, for example, Islamic political and social movements are subject to strict controls. Shortly after achieving independence, Tajikistan became the site of a civil war between the ex-communists who ruled the country and opposition forces calling for the formation of an Islamic state.

    Another important issue for Muslims in Central Asia is reconnecting with the Islamic world. The antireligious policies of the Soviet state and isolation from historic centers of Islamic learning had caused Muslims to lose much of their religious identity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian states have established diplomatic ties with neighboring Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran.

    Central Asia also faces economic challenges. Under Soviet rule, the region's economy depended on cotton production, mining, and light industry. The Soviet system of central economic planning guaranteed a market for these goods. Today the Central Asian states must export their products to other countries, making them vulnerable to changes in demand. Although the region has abundant supplies of oil and gas, especially in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, regional and international political disputes over pipeline routes have limited their potential to generate income.

    Central Asians must additionally deal with environmental and health issues. The extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers has caused water and air pollution. Infant mortality rates are high in Central Asia, particularly in rural areas. Near the Aral Sea, for example, about one in ten babies die in infancy. Moreover, Central Asians have a lower life expectancy than those living in the more economically developed regions of the world. See also Communism and Islam; Mongols; South Asia; Sufism.

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