In 1929, Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin laid out his vision for Central Asia: “teaching the people of the Kirgiz Steppe, the small Uzbek cotton grower, and the Turkmenian gardener the ideals of the Leningrad worker.”
It was a tall order, especially when it came to religion. About 90 percent of the population there was Muslim, but atheism was the state religion of the USSR. So in the early 1920s, the Soviet government effectively banned Islam in Central Asia. Books written in Arabic were burned, and Muslims weren’t allowed to hold office. Koranic tribunals and schools were shuttered, and conducting Muslim rituals became almost impossible. In 1912, there were about 26,000 mosques in Central Asia. By 1941, there were just 1,000.
Rather than stamp out Islam, though, efforts to stifle Islam only radicalized believers. It’s a trend that’s played out again and again over the past century, and one that could have dire consequences in the war on terror. Today, Central Asian Muslims are radicalizing at alarming rates. Thousands have flocked to the Islamic State, and Turkish media reports suggest that the suspect who killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub last week was an ethnic Uighur from Kyrgyzstan.
In the 1930s, the Soviet move against Islam silenced moderate imams and leaders. But fundamentalist leaders privately began to woo followers. One of the best known was Shami-damulla, an Uzbek with ultra-conservative views of Islam. He was jailed in 1932, but he left behind scores of disciples who preached his hard-line beliefs in makeshift mosques and at underground schools. When Joseph Stalin relaxed the Soviet Union’s stance on official religion in the 1940s, it was this group of spiritual leaders who were poised to take control of the state-run, public governing bodies.
In the 1980s, fundamentalists were further bolstered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which turned many Central Asians against the USSR, and by the weakening of travel restrictions, which brought a freer flow of information and people from the Middle East.
By the time the Soviet Union fell, radical Muslims had built out strong networks, allowing them to take on the fledgling governments of their newly formed countries. In 1991, a group of militants took control of the former Communist Party building in an Uzbek city, demanding the establishment of an explicitly religious state in which sharia law was implemented and children were separated by gender in schools. In 1992, those same militants took local authorities hostage. In another part of the country, then-President Islam Karimov faced down thousands of Islamist demonstrators calling for a more accountable government.
Karimov and the region’s other leaders quickly decided to crack down. Pious Muslims were a threat to their regimes, and these autocrats used Soviet-style tools to keep the faith under political control. Now state committees regulate religious expression, censor literature and ban activities and groups that don’t conform to their tastes. Muslims in Central Asia can be punished for talking about religion outside of a mosque or carrying an unauthorized Koran. Thousands of Muslims have been tortured and imprisoned in the region for exercising their religious freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Kyrgyzstan, preachers’ sermons must be vetted before delivery. Uzbekistan has even banned beards, outlawed Islamic dress and shuttered halal restaurants.
This oppression has once again pushed mainstream Muslims underground and into the arms of radicals. Today, the International Crisis Group, a conflict-monitoring NGO, estimates that between 2,000 and 4,000 people in Central Asia have become radicalized. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has partnered with the Taliban and other groups, fought against coalition troops in Afghanistan and carried out attacks in Pakistan. Recently, the police in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, had a public shootout with alleged Islamic State fighters, killing six and wounding seven more.
Even government leaders are not immune. Last year, the head of Tajikistan’s elite police force defected to the Islamic State. In a video posted to YouTube, he called the government “dogs” — and promised to bring jihad to Russia and the United States.