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Central Asia: Islam and the State

 PDF version of Central Asia: Islam and the State


To avoid future instability, Central Asian states need to re-examine their policies towards Islam and step back from reliance on repression. Seventy years of Soviet rule in Central Asia did not crush Islam but it had a profound effect in secularising society and political elites. Nevertheless, after independence there was a surge of interest in Islam, including the emergence of political Islamist groups seeking to challenge the secular nature of these new states. The heavy-handed repression of early manifestations of political Islam led to confrontation, violence, and the appearance of extremist and terrorist groups.

In Uzbekistan the first manifestations of Islamism were rapidly suppressed, and an all-out campaign against any Muslim political activity was initiated. Many Islamists fled first to Tajikistan and then to Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an ally of the Taliban. High levels of repression continued inside the country, provoking widespread discontent and fuelling political Islam as a focus for opposition. There are at least 6,000 religious prisoners in 2003 but dissatisfaction with the regime continues to feed into Islamist sentiment.

In Tajikistan tension over the role of Islam in state-building was a contributory factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1992. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) led opposition to the former Communist regime but failure on both sides to compromise produced bitter fighting that continued until a peace accord was reached in 1997. That agreement legalised the IRP but in practice President Rakhmonov has gradually undermined its position in the political system. With the emasculation of the IRP, more radical groups have gained influence, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir which seeks the overthrow of all secular states in the region in favour of a single Islamic Caliphate, although it claims to be committed to non-violence.

In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan there has been much less interest in ideologies that challenge secularism. But non-traditional Muslim tendencies have appeared in both, and there is debate over the role of religion in society and in politics and over the limits to state interference in religion. In southern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, the growth in influence of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir has sometimes been exaggerated, but they do have a committed following.

In Turkmenistan Islam has only weak roots as an organised religion but President Niyazov has combined widespread repression of any independent religious activity with attempts to create a pseudo-Islamic spiritual creed centred on his own personality.

Central Asian governments have often resorted to old Soviet methods of control. In Uzbekistan this has been repressive in the extreme; in Kyrgyzstan much more subtle. All five regional governments, however, have two aims: first, to control any appearance of political Islam, whether moderate or extreme, since they consider independent expressions of Islam a threat to the constitutional order; secondly, to use Islam as a conduit to promote their own ideologies and campaigns, and in general as a tool of the state.

These attempts to control and manipulate Islam have taken different forms. Laws on religion are severely restrictive in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, while liberal legislation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is often undermined in practice. In all states in the region, a government body responsible for religious affairs intervenes often in the internal affairs of religious organisations. In most states this body carries out registration of religious organisations, without which, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan at least, any religious activity is a criminal offence.

State bodies also interfere formally or informally in the running of the Islamic hierarchy, often controlling what clergy may say in the mosque. The state has a considerable role in appointments of religious leaders. At the local level this is often exercised through the power of local authorities, while at the higher level the state seeks malleable figures who will not challenge the political leadership or act as an alternative power centre.

The results of this co-option and control policy are mixed. Many imams are content merely to conduct rituals but some find government interference increasingly stifling and seek more freedom. The more the government controls it, the less authority the religious hierarchy has with believers, and the less impact it has in carrying government ideology to the population. Poorly educated clergy who parrot state ideology and refuse to stand up to the authorities have none of the respect informal leaders can gain, whether orthodox Muslims or followers of Wahhabism or other trends.

Levels of education and knowledge of Islam in the region are generally low. Religious education is seldom satisfactory. In Uzbekistan severe restrictions have pushed religious teaching underground. Mostly these underground schools teach traditional forms of Islam but the result of repression has been that the state in fact has no control over or knowledge of what is being taught. Where there is formal education, it tends to be intellectually weak, with little discussion of contemporary issues in Islam.

The security forces are tasked with tackling Islamic extremism but often interpret this in as broad a sense as possible. Frequently their repressive methods create unnecessary antagonism. In Uzbekistan, in particular, mass arrests of Muslims – many but not all members of radical political groups – have led to serious mistrust between authorities and the population and radicalisation of those who have suffered from a brutal police force.

In general, state responses to Islamist activity have been poorly informed and too often reliant on heavy-handed repression. In an environment of widespread social decline and sharp falls in living standards over the last decade, Islamism has for some become an acceptable form of political opposition. In their fear of militant Islam, governments have too often worked to undermine authoritative moderate voices in the religious establishment, leaving the arguments against militant opponents to government puppets. Not surprisingly, many Muslims are tempted to turn to groups that seem to offer a more independent view of the government and world affairs.

For much of the population of Central Asia, Islam is not the central factor in their lives. Secularism has gone a long way in undermining religious norms, and the struggle to earn a living while battling with corrupt officials, closed borders and oppressive business environments looms largest. The danger is that without open political systems to channel discontent and with secular state structures failing to deliver economic and political development, Islamist groups may gain greater credibility and increasingly take over the role of opposition on a wide range of political, social and economic issues.

It is important for the international community and especially those states with significant strategic interests in the region, such as the U.S., to continue to support freedom of belief for members of all religions; to maintain a sharp distinction between groups using violence to promote Islamic ideas in politics and those accepting democratic norms; and to maintain the argument that undifferentiated repression against religious activism is likely to lead to more radicalisation rather than less. The alternative is increasing identification of the West with regimes that many Muslims see as not just secular, but actively anti-religious.


To the Government of Uzbekistan:

  1. Undertake a wide-ranging review of legislation on religion, reforming existing laws that violate international conventions on religious freedom and adopting new laws that should:

  1.     permit religious education within mosques;

  1.     expand possibilities for religious education within licensed madrasas;

  1.     provide clear guidelines on registration of religious organisations and allow appeals in courts against refusal to register religious groups; and

  1.     liberalise censorship of religious publications, providing clear guidelines on what is not permitted and why.

  1. Restore the credibility of the Muftiate among believers by increasing its independence.

  1. End primitive Soviet-style propaganda against non-traditional forms of Islam, which often only serve to further discredit government policies and appear to many as propaganda against Islam itself.

  1. Accelerate amnesties for religious prisoners, end the practice of seeking confessions before release, and provide social support for those released.

  1. End the abuse and torture of religious prisoners, which merely creates greater resentment in the wider community and support for radical groups.

  1. Introduce more religious specialists into government structures dealing with religious issues, provide training for all officials on religious affairs, and give believers opportunities to practice their beliefs in state service.

To the Government of Kyrgyzstan:

  1. Adopt a new law on religion, setting out the range of controls that the government considers necessary, but balancing these against the demands for religious freedom in the constitution and international conventions to which Kyrgyzstan is party.

  1. Undertake a review of Islamic education aimed at:

  1.     encouraging better education for imams and other religious teachers, particularly in city mosques;

  1.     improving education in madrasas and Islamic institutes, including by introducing into curricula more secular subjects that will provide possible work opportunities after graduation;

  1.     promoting more study and research into political and social issues in Islam, focusing on contemporary issues, and modernising trends and ideas; and

  1.     developing more expertise on Islam within government structures and training for security officials.

To the Government of Tajikistan:

  1. Consider establishing an independent Muftiate, or appointing more authoritative scholars to the present Council of Ulama.

  1. Revoke unwritten bans on loudspeakers in mosques and other symbolic restrictions on the practice of Islam.

  1. Avoid arbitrary decisions on closure of mosques or other religious institutions and revoke minimum population requirements for establishment of a mosque.

  1. End low-level harassment of the Islamic Renaissance Party and permit it to operate freely throughout the country.

To the International Community:

  1. Consistently press Central Asian governments to respect freedom of belief for members of all faiths and promote observance of international conventions regarding freedom of belief and religion.

  1. Take a firmly critical line against governments that practice torture and other abuses of religious prisoners.

  1. Consider widening exchange programs to include more religious figures, with the aim of improving religious education and demonstrating freedoms of belief.

  1. Consider funding libraries, resource centres and other programs to provide access for people interested in religion to objective and mainstream literature and resources.

  1. Engage where possible with Islamic institutions to promote greater awareness of the international community among their students and provide appropriate assistance, for example with literature, computer technology, and language classes.

To the U.S. Government:

  1. Declare Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan “countries of particular concern” in the annual review of religious freedom.

Osh/Brussels, 10 July 2003

 PDF version of Central Asia: Islam and the State

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