Turkmenistan’s new Muslims, part 3: sewing the threads (pile and weft)
Editor’s note: Islam is on the rise among Turkmenistan’s young, and according to neweurasia’s Annasoltan, the government is taking no chances. The authorities appear to have diagnosed education as one of the root causes, and they are intent upon eliminating it, even if they must dismantle the rising generation’s academic aspirations to do so.
In my last post in this series, I surveyed how a combination of tradition and modernity are actually suppressing the expression of a “pure” Islam, despite its resurgence among the young. Now, having sewn the “warp” of my Turkmen spiritual carpet, it’s now time to sew the “pile” and “weft”, i.e., Turkmenistan’s fearful religious relations with Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the arena of education.
This past summer, what initially appeared to be nothing but nasty gossip about the closing down of several Turkmen-Turkish schools throughout the country later proved to be unfortunately true. For the remaining Turkmen-Turkish schools, boarding options were altogether eliminated. That means Turkmen pupils were (and remain) no longer allowed to stay overnight at these schools. There was never an official explanation, but speculations were rife that it had to do with alleged private lessons given by the Turkish teachers to their Turkmen pupils on Islamic principles and rituals. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s true that many of today’s young mosque visitors are typically from these schools. Yet, in spite of these measures, the Turkmen-Turkish schools remain high on parents’ lists for their children. In fact, if there were more such schools, they would be packed.
Meanwhile, there’s been the well-documented problems with the America University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Kyrgyzstan. According to a report by a local blogger for the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, an official at the registration office for foreign nationals, which also covers locals trying to obtain permission for studying abroad, explained the ban on studying in Kyrgyzstan by saying that the students are given wrong religious thoughts: “There are people who are propagating Wahhabism [there],” he said in answer to parents’ questions. Note that neither the inter-ethnic riots that swept southern Kyrgyzstan in June and claimed more than 400 lives, nor the liberal political climate and democracy-building efforts from before and since then, were brought up by him as a reason for concern.
Yet, just as with the Turkmen-Turkish schools, the AUCA is every bright Turkmen student’s best shot at a quality education, not to mention potential access to the world’s largest intellectual and commercial market — the United States. One wonders what Turkmen students can do to escape their isolation in Turkmenistan.
The most obvious answer is: by going to school in the broader Muslim world. There are some top notch universities out there, in particular, in Turkey, Pakistan, and the Gulf States. But even here it appears that they must tread carefully. I’ve heard anecdotes from Turkmen students leaving for Muslim countries, in particular Turkey, that they are warned not to get involved into religious and political activities or parties. One fears that it would be easy to conflate programs of learning or entire universities with this warning — after all, it’s already been done once, to the AUCA — leaving open the possibility that even in the Muslim world there are few truly safe places to go.
The situation is really frustrating, but it’s also self-destructive. In my next post, I’ll be talking with Forum 18′s John Kinahan about how it could get out of hand. And since this is not a news story that’s going to disappear, either, expect more posts on this topic in this series in the future.