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The Threat of “Salafi Sufism”: An Opportunity for Regional Cooperation in Central Asia

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap] ufism, a philosophy whose most distinctive feature is tolerance, and its followers have been always known for their forbearance. It has been accepted and respected over time by people, groups, and even governments. At the same time, regardless of the political and apolitical functions of this intellectual movement or the historical background of some of its leaders and followers who have played significant roles in various political junctures, the spread of Sufism is often regarded only as a consequence of political shrinkage and/or social dormancy.

This is too limiting and inaccurate. Thankfully, Sufist movements have recently attracted much scholarly attention. A growing research literature is emerging and multiple analyses have been made about its socio-political capacities. As it so happens, Sufism forms a part of the most traditional layers of social life in many Muslim communities. But why have the potential capacities and influence of Sufist movements been taken more seriously only in recent years? The answer centers around the rather unique spread and adaptations of this movement over recent time and space.

Central Asia has become the central arena of important Sufist movements, including Yasawiyya, Kubraviyah, Naqshbandiyah, Qadariyya, Chishti order, and even Zinyya. The region has served as the geographical hub for the emergence of well-known elders such as Khawaja Ahmad Yassawi, Sheikh Najmuddin Kubra, Sayeed Amir Kalal, Bahauddin Naqshbandi, Khwaja Allahyar Sufi, and Khwaja Ubaidullah Ahrar. (Pakatchi, 2013). During the domination of Tsarist Russia and then Communism, Sufism did not lose its traditional position and even in the middle decades of the twentieth century served as a mobilizing force under the command of Basmachi movements such as Junaid Khan (Qurban Nazar Serdar). The Soviet central planning system and communist propaganda policies failed to drive Sufism out. In addition, the independence period for Central Asian republics provided one of the most appropriate contexts for the revitalization of Sufism, what with the ideological and identity vacuum caused by the Soviet collapse, along with heavy social, political, and economic problems. Thus, Central Asia once again became an arena of prosperity for Sufist thought and practice, with widespread public acceptance of its teachings. But something is happening today in the religious life of Central Asia in that there is a discernable difference between the quality of contemporary Sufism and its historical precedent. In other words, despite the relative awareness of the etiquette and emergence of Sufi orders, it seems that sometimes there is distorted knowledge about the true history and accumulated experience of the formal Sufi school. This can serve as a turning point for Sufist movements in the life of modern Muslim Central Asian communities. But that turning point can bring about both wanted and unwanted developments.

In recent years, Sufism in Central Asia has been raised as a serious object of study in many think tanks. It is arguably the only viable rival for regional political leaders to create an alternative socio-political system to the more prominent and worrisome “political Islam.” Consequently, influencing and co-opting strong Sufist movements became executive policy for many Central Asian governments. Simultaneously, Sufism, with great ability to mobilize followers, has received much attention from regional and transregional actors. But to achieve full political capacity and social influence, Sufism’s inherent spirit of tolerance and humility was counter-effective: its ability to absorb other ideas and its potential rapid penetration of external teachings, along with its hierarchical structure and compliance system of Sufi orders, allowed for some degradation of fundamental Sufi principles. This resulted in the mobilization of some ‘Sufi’ orders that were deprived of “tolerance” and equipped with “Takfiri” teaching. This trend prevents such modern Sufi movements from realizing their maximum political and social capacities.

In this new era, various leaders and groups in Central Asia, including “Ibrahim Hazrat” in Buwayda, Uzbekistan, (a charismatic Naqshbandi Sufi), “Sheikh Ismatullah” in Kazakhstan (the leader of the Sufi group of Jahriyah which represents a legacy composed of Yasawiyya and Qadariyya teachings), “Sheikh Zaharuddin Ghori Shahrikhany,” another influential Naqshbandi figure in Uzbekistan, “Ismail Abdul Wahab Zadeh” in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, (known as Sufi Qadariyya), “Sheikh Qurban Ali” in Kazakhstan, “Haji Ismail Pir Mohammadzadeh” a Naqshbandi leader in Tajikistan, and “Davoud Khan Ghori Artykev” in Namangan, figure most prominently. According to Olcott (Olcott, 2007), the revival of Sufism in this area began in two main ways: first in the form of active political movements and then in the form of a conscious denial of political participation. Davoud Khan Ghori Artykev in Namangan and “Adil Khan” in Andijan led groups supporting political activity, while denial of political participation is led by Ibrahim Hazrat and his followers. Addressing the unique details of diverse Sufi movements in Central Asia requires more opportunity and support for better research. What I address here is an aspect of Central Asian Sufist modernity that, so far, has received less attention: namely, the creeping conflation of many of these movements’ teachings with Takfiri and Salafist beliefs.

Furthermore, the 21st century spread of Salafist and Wahhabist movements in Central Asia is well-known. It is interesting that some Sufi leaders have received their religious training in non-Central Asian countries such as Pakistan and have experienced a coexistence in such countries with an embracing of Wahhabism. Recently, clear signs of change have been seen amongst the various Sufi orders in Central Asia – both in appearance and social behavior – that in most cases are copacetic to Salafist and Wahhabist teachings. In addition, different inter- and intra-Sufi groups compete in the region, thus increasing the severity of this detrimental conduct. Sufist leaders have often expressed severe criticism towards each other and some attacks (often in the form of calling others heretical and claiming that they are not on the true path of Islam) are made by these leaders toward other Sufis.

These conditions create an environment that can be classified as very close in style and character to radical Islamist and Takfiri movements. Thus, it seems Central Asia could very well gradually witness the rise of Salafism and Wahhabism under the formal cover of Sufism. This must be dealt with by trying to intensify and institutionalize the formal Sufist movements, maintaining their traditional socialization practices and deepening their epistemological teachings. The Sufi leaders of Central Asia need to be better acquainted with the accumulated experience of historical virtue and power in Sufism. This goal is best achieved through regional cooperation amongst countries that already enjoy more moderate, rational Islamic institutions. This can even serve as an introduction for visualizing multilateral diplomacy in Central Asia that comes from the common need to combat extremism and develop true cooperative diplomatic initiatives. Thus, Sufism in Central Asia seems to have two potential future pathways. One leads to rationality, tolerance, and diplomatic cooperation. The other leads to fallacious teachings, intolerance, and judgmental condemnation. Hopefully the former path with win out over the latter.

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Central Asia

Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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Central Asia

Supporting Kazakhstan’s Commitment to Fiscal Consolidation and Long-Term Economic Transformation

Ato Brown

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Kazakhstan’s 2050 Strategy envisages a radical restructuring of the government and the economy by 2050 and recognizes that “the era of the hydrocarbon economy is coming to its end.” The world’s current oversupply of oil adds urgency to the need to accelerate broader reforms of economic structure and fiscal policy.

The World Bank Group’s recent Public Finance Review, Kazakhstan: Enhancing the Fiscal Framework to Support Economic Transformation, provides a set of recommendations to support the government’s move in this direction.

Kazakhstan benefited greatly from the oil boom of 2000–14, which led to income growth and poverty reduction, and helped build a fiscal cushion to stabilize the economy during downturns. As oil output more than doubled during the oil price super-cycle, the Government of Kazakhstan accumulated substantial fiscal savings in its National Oil Fund (NFRK). These funds were used for anti-crisis programs in 2007–10, during which time the fiscal stimulus program totalled US$18 billion (about 15 percent of GDP).

The Government injected more than US$30 billion in foreign-currency interventions in 2014–15, while the current fiscal stimulus package already exceeded US$20 billion (12 percent of GDP) in 2014–17.

As a result, the NFRK balance has fallen from US$73 billion in 2014 to a projected US$57 billion by the end of 2017. The Kazakh authorities moved to a floating exchange rate regime in the second half of 2015 to stop the leakage of foreign exchange reserves. However, an accompanying fiscal adjustment has not materialized. Some policy makers may still believe that the shock is cyclical and maintain hope that oil prices will recover.

Yet that might not be the case.

The low-oil prices environment is not a temporary crisis, but is rather a structural shift to a “new normal”. In this case, Kazakhstan needs to urgently adopt a fiscal consolidation strategy to promote diversified growth and high-quality job creation.

The NFRK’s new management rules, with advice from the World Bank Group and IMF, include:

  • The nonoil deficit, the main anchor of fiscal policy, is to be progressively decreased to 7 percent of GDP by 2020 and 6 percent by 2025;
  • Guaranteed transfers from the NFRK are to be reduced from the present US$8 billion to the equivalent of US$6 billion by 2020;
  • The NFRK is to be maintained at least at 30 percent of GDP;
  • Privatization revenues are to flow to the NFRK; and
  • General government debt and external debt of state-owned enterprises are not to exceed the size of NFRK assets.

Government projections have been made under these assumptions, but it is critical that oversight and reporting of the NFRK rules are applied rigorously.

Failure to consolidate as projected could result in a full depletion of net fiscal savings in around 5-10 years!

At the heart of successful fiscal consolidation should be two things: reducing inefficient expenditure that distorts private incentives while redirecting savings toward productivity-enhancing spending; and eliminating inefficient tax benefits that result in an uneven playing field for investment.

While pursuing a fiscal consolidation effort over the medium-term, there are potential benefits to reviewing Kazakhstan’s fiscal policy framework and institutions with the goal of strengthening their coherence, credibility, and flexibility.

All these major institutional developments will require considerable time, as well as extensive technical support. The World Bank Group suggests to develop a three-phase, time-bound Action Plan consistent with an immediate focus on fiscal consolidation as well as continuing the support programs that are already underway, notably by the World Bank Group, the IMF, and the OECD. Longer-term issues could be discussed at a high level with the authorities in 2018, with inputs from all the involved international bodies.

First published in World Bank

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Central Asia

Great Central Asia, America’s counter measure to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

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China’s ambitious global geo-political objective has raised concern among American strategists, which China attempts to Isolate America at the global level. The claim has become more evident during the G20 summit when China curbed president Trump effort to pass a joint declaration in order to condemn North Korea’s recent ICBM test.

(more…)

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