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Turkmenistan’s new Muslims, part 4: sewing the threads (the edge finish)

Written by on Wednesday, 29 December 2010
Politics and Society, Turkmenistan
Niyazov's mosque with inscriptions of the Ruhnama instead of the Qur'an. Photograph by Flickr user nathan.groth (CC-usage).


Editor’s note: Islam is on the rise among Turkmenistan’s young and the government has been responding with more Soviet-style oppression. But how long can this situation last? neweurasia’s Annasoltan interviews Forum 18′s John Kinahan for his perspective.

I’ve been exploring the rise of Islam among Turkmenistan’s young, in particular how the idiosyncrasies of my nation are simultaneously contributing and limiting the religion’s resurgence. I’ve talked with the young Muslims themselves, and I’ve also looked into the government’s response. Through it all, I’ve tried to understand the situation through the metaphor of a traditional Turkmen carpet, and so now I come to the edge finish of my weave.

Here’s how the carpet is shaping up: in general, there appears to be a real push to limit contacts between Turkmen Muslims and foreign Muslims. Take for example last year’s ban on the Hajj, although officially for health reasons, should probably be seen as another action in this policy. (This year, as in previous years, only 188 Turkmen Muslims were allowed to participate in the Hajj.)

So, what will be long-term results? Here are the thoughts of Forum 18‘s John Kinahan, with whom I recently talked.

Nineteen years have passed since Turkmenistan gained its independence. Today, Soviet-style methods seem no longer capable of solving many problems. Yet, it seems the authorities are still mainly concerned about staying in power. says Kinahan. In doing so, they may actually be undermining themselves:

“When people are living in societies where the state wants to maintain extreme control over society, including religious organizations, people become frustrated. In democratic countries, when people are frustrated with policies of the government, it is possible for them to vote for other parties, or to protest or organize new political parties. In Turkmenistan none of this is possible. There is an interest for democracy and human rights, but that interest is not coming from the government. [...] Their worst enemy is their own citizens making own choices.

“The problem starts when the state reacts with repression. If the Turkmen government wished to promote instability and extremism, then punishing people for peacefully exercising their rights for religious belief would certainly be a way doing that. It would encourage extremism, and if violence starts to happen, there will be more violence. If one looks for example at Uzbekistan, where we find a different form of Islam, one can see that the state pressure has increased the appeal of violence groups.

“In a country like Turkmenistan, religious belief is important for society. If people exercise their human rights and respect other people’s rights, that’s not going to lead to instability and that should not be a problem for the state.”

But will the authorities wisen up? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely. In the end, we’ve just got to have faith that cool heads will prevail.

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