Islam plays valuable role in Central Asian life, development

Islam plays valuable role in Central Asian life, development

Central Asia poses a problem for those who like to spread anti-Muslim stereotypes. The region is profoundly Muslim while at the same time historically inclusive and tolerant.

The peaceful practice of the faith is also flourishing at the same time that the countries of the region are becoming wealthier and more international. And despite the growth of the religion in the region, the more radical variety of Islam found elsewhere has not recently made significant inroads in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

This story is the first of a three-part Central Asia Newswire (CAN) series taking a look at the role of Islam in the region.

Central Asia has been historically Muslim for more than a thousand years. The religion spread steadily and usually peacefully across the Asian steppe.

Islam in Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, was primarily of the Hanafi School. It was always interacting with the very different Christian faiths of the West and the Taoist, animist and Buddhist faiths of East Asia. These traditions intermixed with the nomadic values of the steppe and the traditions of commerce of the Silk Road to create a cosmopolitan, hospitable culture.

Islam in the region, along with other religions, however, took a hit in modern times with the Soviet Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and Vladimir I. Lenin’s merciless war on all religious faith.

The religion not only recovered in the following decades, but flourished and played an important role in World War II, known throughout Central Asia — as in the rest of the Soviet Union — as the Great Patriotic War.

During World War II, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin ended the banning of organized religion while still keeping tight government control of it.

Mosques were reopened under supervision and Muslim qadis – preachers – throughout the region were free to preach jihad, the waging of holy war on behalf of Allah. In this case they were waging jihad against the most terrible threat they had faced since the days of Genghis Khan: the invasion of Nazi Germany.

It was the most widespread and important waging of jihad, or holy war, of the 20th century, and it remains entirely unknown in the West. Yet it was crucial to Allied victory in the greatest war ever recorded.

Millions of Central Asian men who would have been conscripted anyway were inspired by their faith to fight patriotically for the Soviets.

The costs were very high. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Central Asian soldiers fought and died turning back the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad in 1942 and at Kursk in 1943 – the two most decisive battles of World War II.

According to some Kazakh estimates, as many as 50 percent of the entire male population of Kazakhstan between the ages of 18 and 45 were killed fighting the Nazi invaders in the Red Army, or serving in support functions.

The passions of the Islamic faith alongside patriotism were forged then and remain significant in the 21st century.

They help explain why Islam spread so rapidly again after the collapse of communism, though the Islamic tradition began its revival half a century earlier. And the faith also spread a sense of brotherhood and cooperation with neighboring nationalities.

Ironically, the most violent episodes that Central Asia has experienced in its nearly two decades of independence have not been religious, but rather inter-ethnic conflicts between peoples who were all Muslim – the civil war between the clans of Tajikistan in the 1990s and the Uzbek-Kyrgyz violence that rocked the cities of Osh and Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of this year.

The deep Muslim identity of the Central Asian nations, especially Kazakhstan, is seldom realized in the West, and it is almost never given credit for its contribution in the successful and peaceful development of the region in the nearly two decades since the collapse of communism.

The development and role of Islam is also different in each of the five Central Asian nations, reflecting their different populations, natural resources and geography.