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A friend-request from Allah

Written by on Thursday, 24 September 2009
Media and Internet, Turkmenistan
12 Comments

Islam may the fastest growing digital religion in the world.  Photo of an iPhone Qur'an by Flickr user Nazim Zeeshan (CC-usage).

Islam may the fastest growing digital religion in the world. Photo of an iPhone Qur'an by Flickr user Nazim Zeeshan (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: The mechanisms of Islam’s resurgence in Central Asia and beyond are little understood.  For example, Islam may be the world’s most digital religion, out-pacing its historic rival Christianity, as well as more recent competitors like secularism and free market capitalism, in the cybernetic marketplace of ideas.  neweurasia’s Annasoltan examines Islam’s return to Turkmenistan from the viewpoint of its FaceBook user community.

When religious freedom in Turkmenistan becomes an issue the first thing that comes to one’s mind is the persecution of religious minorities living in the country.  Yet, there has been an important development that has mostly gone unnoticed: the gradual rise of Islamic religious influence among Turkmenistan’s young population.

It is a trend that is visible in all Central countries, not to mention the world.  The fact that about 90% of Turkmenistan’s population is Muslim makes this development the more natural after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Until recently Turkmenistan had only a few mosques.  However, since the country’s independence in 1991 several new grand mosques have been built in various corners of the country.   Some have questioned their value beyond beautiful architecture or postcard decoration in a country that was known as the least Islamized society in Central Asia during the Soviet era.

Some history: the country was Islamized by Arab conquerors in the Eighth Century but local cultural traditions and rituals have survived.  In fact, to many the cult of ancestors is still stronger felt than Islam’s appeal. Turkmens more than anything are proud of their heroic and glorious history when the land was home to their great rulers.  They take pride in being distinctively different than other nations.  Indeed, there are more books on Ahal Teke horses than on any religion.

But if FaceBook is any indication, religious influence is gaining ground among Turkmenistan’s youth.   Consider the ubiquity of fan pages for the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an in the Turkmen FaceBook user community, or the listing of the Qur’an in the “favorites” section of their profiles.

Screen capture by Christopher Schwartz (CC-usage).

Screen capture by Christopher Schwartz (CC-usage).

In the “offline” world, the Five Pillars are being taught in Turkmen schools, and among Turkmen students in Turkey and Egypt, fasting during Ramadan has become a commonplace practice.  That itself is a remarkable development because Islam’s influence was believed to be strong mostly among the older population in rural areas; now it is becoming a source of individual thinking and expression among the youth.

Islam’s return to Turkmenistan may be a consequence of policy and history.  During Soviet rule religious rituals were forbidden, forcing Muslims to practice their religion secretly.   Soviet propaganda was strong to the point that the Turkmen-Soviet intellectuals actively propagated atheism.

After independence Niyazov created a personality cult, replete with its own holy book, the Ruhnama (the largest mosque in Turkmenistan is inscribed with verses from it).  Although omnipresent, the cult could not fill the ideological vacuum.  There has been a void in Turkmenistan, and it seems Islam is filling it.

Although all forms of religious expression that are not sanctioned by the government are curtailed, and independent religious literature is banned, when seen as expedient, especially to secure support for the regime, Islam has so far been allowed to co-exist alongside the official ideology.  Indeed, Islam has been somewaht useful in promoting the newly defined Turkmen nationalism and statehood –under the direction and control of the government, of course.

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12 Comments »

  • Timur says:

    Islam “may be” the world’s most digital religion? That’s a pretty bold statement. Numbers would be good, especially since non-Muslims would find that sentence difficult to believe. If the majority of Muslims live in Indonesia and Central Asia and North Africa, it’s hard to imagine them competing with the Bible Belt of the United States in putting information online.

    Reply

    Schwartz Reply:

    @Timur, it’s a well-established fact among security and religion experts that Sunni dawa efforts have chosen the internet as their second most preferred medium, after face-to-face evangelization. The “Islamification” of the Web (or the “cybernizing” of Islam) is due to a combination of demographic, ideological, and access issues.

    With regards to demography, Sunni Islam is actually the world’s fastest growing religion, cf. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3835 and http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Claims_to_be_the_fastest_growing_religion&oldid=313814448. Indeed, its primary competition is coming from non-Western religions, the Bahai Faith in particular; Christianity is lagging behind, and what competition does exist — which is undeniably fierce in some quarters of the globe — is emerging from non-traditional varieties like Mormonism, the Unification Church, and most of all, Pentecostalism.

    With regards to ideology, Sunni Islam doesn’t suffer from the ambivalence toward technology that has marked so much of the Christian tradition, Protestantism’s brief embrace of modernity in the 19th Century notwithstanding (which, at any rate, resulted in the fundamentalist backlash). The fact that most online evangelical ministries feel it necessary to include a section on their websites explaining why Christians should embrace the Internet, while on Islamic dawa sites it’s rare to see such apologetics, is telling.

    Finally, with regards to access, it’s true that in most areas of the “Dar al-Islam” the internet has, at best, a meager reach. But the entire Islamic world need not be wired in order for it compete effectively in the online world. In fact, online dawa activity primarily arises from six geographic areas: California, Texas, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, and India, typically from mosques or Islamic centers in cities with large universities and high rates of municipal connectivity. The sheer volume from these locales outperforms the Bible Belt, which is largely “unwired” and has fewer major academic centers; indeed, most online evangelical ministries come from either California or Britain, and typically from exurban communities far removed, both mentally and physically, from major intellectual centers.

    Putting the above comments together, we can make a simple formula: demography provides the basis for Islam’s digital mastery, ideology its facilitation, and well-placed access its effusion.

    Hope this helps!

    Reply

    Michael Hancock Reply:

    @Schwartz, Not that I’m coming to Timur’s defense, but you realize that the Wikipedia article you linked states that such claims are impossible to prove? In addition, it seems to assume that Islam is a numbers game, a monolithic religion that adds more members of exactly the same beliefs, which is laughable. You can take Arabs from Saudi Arabia who will categorically deny that anyone in Central Asia or Indonesia is “really” a Muslim. And using Foreign Policy dot com as a source? Tsk Tsk.

    However, the points you make yourself are good ones. But again, numbers? Have you wondered the Catholic megalopolis online? Or are we only counting evangelizing websites now? And are you only counting material in English [translation]? Catholicism in the Philippines rivals any Islamic faction in ferocity of belief, I would say.

    Reply

    Schwartz Reply:

    @Michael Hancock, haha yeah, it’s always treacherous to use Wiki or FP; I offered them simply as a quick digest of stats and arguments.

    To answer your questions, yes, I am talking specifically of dawa sites for both pietists and radicals (note: that was the original context by the above post’s editorial remark about the “mechanisms of Islam’s resurgence”, ahem). I am also including non-English sites in local languages, but I don’t have any hard numbers to provide you at the moment.

    Also, of course, as I said above, in some quarters of the world Christianity’s competition with Islam, however we may understand these categories, is fierce, the Philippines being one good example, not to mention Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, etc.

    Moreover, note that “re-conversion” or revivalism is probably a far greater phenomenon within both religious communities than conversion of outsiders. Indeed, re-conversion of already, if nominally, Christian or Islamic individuals and polities, is the explicit aim of most evangelists and dawaists, be they pietist, radical, or otherwise.

    This brings us back to the question of evangelism and dawa in the non-English internet. In this part of the online world, because the evangelists and dawaists’ concerns tend to be, shall we say, parochial or domestic, they tend to not venture into each other’s linguistic domain, so to speak.

    You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m confident you won’t find many dawaists preaching to Christian populations in Urdu or Arabic, for instance, or evangelists preaching to Islamic populations in Spanish and Tagalog (note: this is not to say that they *never* do, because there are incidents in which they have). When they engage each other or each others’ populations for the purpose of polemic and conversion, they will typically do so in English.

    Nevertheless, I maintain that Sunni Islam, particular its Muwahiddun pietest and local traditional variants (not to be confused with the Salafis or Sufis, obviously, although there is overlap), is beating Christianity at the digital game. It might take some hefty research to proffer you some hard numbers; perhaps this could make a good dissertation. ;)

    Schwartz Reply:

    PS

    @Michael Hancock, it’s also not just Sunnism. Shi’ism has also really taken to the online world with a vengeance. We need look no further than the recent “Twitter-revolution”, over-hyped though it may be, as evidence.

    And generally speaking, consider the price, packages, and plurality of mobile and internet services in Islamic regions, especially Southeast Asia and Africa. Perhaps my argument here is ad populum (i.e., even if the majority of Muslims here are nominal at best, it still counts), but I’m also now going beyond my initially narrow discussion of dawaists vs. evangelists.

  • I seem to recall reading that the label “Turkmen,” originally arose to denote Turkic nomads that had embraced Islam. That is, apart from the fantasy-history embraced in the Ruhnama – I’m referring to the primary source material here.

    For that reason, I find it odd to have the author claim that Turkmenistan was the least Islamicized of the Central Asian Republics, especially for anyone with a passing knowledge of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

    I will grant that nomadic traditions and Turkmen culture are important to Turkmen, but since when is religious and culture a zero-sum game? In many ways, Arab Muslims regard Arab culture as part of Islam, but that isn’t necessarily the case for Iranian Muslims, Moroccan Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, nor for Turkmen Muslims. While remnants of nomadic shamanism exist, I would suggest they are more like Christmas Trees and Easter Eggs; heathen traditions adopted by the reigning religion. Remember: the word “Easter” itself refers to a goddess of fertility.

    Reply

  • annasoltan says:

    Michael Hancock:

    My focus has been mainly on the topic of the Turkmen youth, Islam and the Internet but thank you for drawing my attention to this issue.

    If I may make my point more clear, Turkmenistan was Islamicized to the point that Islamic customs were observed but Islamic learning and teaching based on the Koran has not progressed there as much as in neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, while at the same time local customs have survived. Fundamentalism has been mostly unkown. Along with the Islamic faith, a wisdom of their own has existed. The local elders(aksakgal)were just as influental as the imam, if not more. Turkmens have been nomadic peoople along the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

    Secondy, I am not only referring to Shamanism, but Turkmen traditions such as observance days for the deceased relatives (3rd, 7th, 40th days and year anniversaries),among many others.

    To my knowledge some of the Muslim traditions had existed even before Islam’s arrival. For example, circumcision is believed to be practiced
    previously due to the climate and concern for hygiene.

    Reply

  • Schwartz says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s a BBC article about how 1/4 all people on the earth are Muslim: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/8296200.stm

    Reply

  • [...] The Turkmenet’s appearance has already seen the rise of diverse phenomena, ranging from the dissemination of political hip hop songs in the Turkmen language to Islamic revivalism on Facebook. [...]

  • [...] fan pages of the Prophet Muhammad or the Qur’an (a pattern I first noted around this time last year, but which has only increased since [...]

  • [...] actually doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Check out my 2009 report for neweurasia, “A friend-request from Allah,” to see the opposite phenomenon — how Islam is going online to spread its message to [...]

  • Russell says:

    I know I’ve jumped on this discussion a little late here, but I figure better late than never.

    Indeed, as Turkmen youth are learning to use mobile phones, computers, and other technologies, they are beginning to express themselves more ‘freely’ in this (deceivingly) ‘wire-cloaked’ haven. I am reminded of my time on the ground in T-stan, where boys would meet up and do nothing else but swap media (Lady Gaga music videos, azans, pictures, bloopers, etc.) via bluetooth on their mobiles. Overtime, as I got more used to this bizarre, seemingly out of place social activity, I could almost tell someone’s personality just by the material that they had on their phone.

    I think, like most people in any given country, most ‘professing’ folks are only as religious as their fathers or mothers – that is to say, without any drastic shift in power structures to enforce a differing ideology, the progeny will most likely accept what’s given them.

    Things are changing, however. Mounting onto the free platform of the internet, people are allowed to consume or produce anything about everything with nearly zero accountability. This site included. I wonder how it will be used in Central Asia, and what sort of forces will win out to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ (thanks Obama) of the people. Probably those who have the best marketing teams.

    I was only in T-stan for a measly two years, living and working in a very specific, exclusive area, so I wouldn’t dare make a comment on the ‘overall’ progress of Islam’s popularity among the youth. I wouldn’t know based on my own subjective experience.

    It seems that, like most any place, there will always be those who want to drink and smoke, and those who don’t, and that all religiosity or nonreligiosity seems to be just a rationalization for one’s own predilections. I hope that made sense.

    Reply

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