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Turkmenistan’s new Muslims, part 1: the müezzin’s siren song

Written by on Monday, 22 November 2010
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
Kiptchak Mosque in Ashgabat. Photograph by Flickr user bestoy (CC-usage).

Kiptchak Mosque in Ashgabat. Photograph by Flickr user bestoy (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: Turkmen Islam has long been renowned as a private and not particularly fervent affair. However, the situation is rapidly changing, particularly among Turkmenistan’s young. neweurasia’s Annasoltan goes on a journey, exploring the reasons behind — and challenges to — the müezzin’s siren song.

For a long time in Turkmenistan, Islam’s appeal was limited to older people, especially from rural areas, or among the families of clergy. But now 19 years into our nation’s independence, that picture is changing. Every Friday, the devout flock to the Ertogrul Gazi Mosque on Ashgabat’s Shevchenko Street, and among them, much to my surprise, are many of the young. Mostly boys, of course, but also some girls. The same is happening all over the country; two mosques in Balkanabad, in western Turkmenistan, even say they cannot accommodate all the believers.

Even before the Soviet era, Turkmens were not especially religious. They usually preferred to pray in the privacy of their homes. I talked with one person observing the flocks, who remarked, on condition of anonymity, “One can call this a new fashion. Because people are increasingly visiting mosques, others are following them. If the parents tell their children to go, they go.” Along these lines, Yazmyrat, an acquaintance of mine, positively remarks, “It fits the current trend of reviving old Turkmen customs and traditions. While moving ahead, we are learning from our past.”

What’s going on? It’s widely believed that poverty is the main cause for Islam’s resurgence. The argument goes that although our country is rich in hydrocarbon resources, the majority of the population lives in deep poverty, therefore, people seek stability through a new, vast social network and a metaphysical guarantee for their ultimate safety. Simple boredom shouldn’t be underestimated either: gives the poor and unemployed, especially poor and unemployed men, something to do. And all of this is certainly true to a degree, especially considering the lack of educational and professional opportunities here.

However, among Turkmenistan’s rising believing class, you’ll also find many young people from socioeconomically secure backgrounds. For those of readers outside the country who can’t see Shevchenko Street, you’ll find the evidence for this in the ubiquity of Turkmen Facebook users signed onto 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 then).

I decided to ask the mosque-goers themselves about why they believe. Here’s what one of them said, again on condition of anonymity: “My parents are afraid that trends such as extra-marital sex, drugs and alcohol–in short, all of the lascivious delights–will corrupt our youth. They view Islam as a force to heal or prevent those evils.” Another anonymous believer said: “My neighbor has turned away from taking drugs, because our president has made drugs less available. He wanted to break with his dirty past, clean himself, and so he has turned to Islam.” And indeed, I’ve heard lots of anecdotes of prisoners turning to Islam.

Inevitably, there’s also a political dimension. Several of the people I talked with identified corruption, either generally, in the government, or among businesses, as a motivating factor for joining Islam. Such believers talk about the need for “halal” leadership at the top of our government to rid the country of corruption and establish the rule of law and justice.

Some readers may be alarmed that this is tantamount to Islamism, but I haven’t seen that (yet). There isn’t talk about overthrowing the government with a literally Islamic state as much as having the currently existing government abide by generally Islamic principles (and, let’s face it, rule of law and justice is a universal principle). Here’s what one anonymous 21-year-old believer said to me:

“The fact that many young people like me go to the mosque should be seen as  a positive development. It means that our nation is progressing. A man who loves his religion will love his homeland, too. A man who does not love his homeland and his people will not want religion. We have no Islamic extremism in Turkmenistan. We are all Sunni Muslims. Islam doesn’t create a division between the people. Therefore, a man who loves his religion will not be harmful to the state.”

But there’s a really interesting regional matrix to all of this, all of which revolves around the question of authority–who will Turkmenistan’s new believers listen to, their government, the clergy (and which?), or their own interpretations? In my next post I’ll explore some of the dynamics, some of which, lying deep in the Turkic past and in modern Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, may surprise you.

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