A friend-request from Allah
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.
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.