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

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Sufism, 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

China and Russia Build a Central Asian Exclusion Zone

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Last month, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the Chinese city of Xi’an. This is the second such meeting, which increasingly focuses (with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on geopolitical issues. More broadly, it signals China’s lack of concern for what Russia considers its vital economic and political interests in the region. Top of the agenda was Afghanistan, as China worries about possible spillover to Central Asia and its eastern provinces as U.S. and allied troops prepare to evacuate in September.

Yet the greatest issue in Central Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape is economics and trade. China promised a number of new projects during the Xi’an gathering. Increased cooperation was pledged in agriculture, health and education, trade, energy, transportation, and even archaeology. More importantly, China vowed to help Kyrgyzstan to alleviate its debt pile and pressed it to approve a railroad linking China to Uzbekistan. Set to play a major role in connecting China with the Middle East and South Caucasus, the project has seen constant delays. Partly, that is due to economic and political troubles in Kyrgyzstan, but Russia too is partly responsible, fearing the corridor would divert a significant portion of transit cargo from its railroad tracks. Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: each economic agreement makes the region more closely aligned to China.

China has recognized that large and unwieldy summits often fail to provide the expected results and now increasingly favors small meetings. It does the same with other regions, including South-East Asia. This is far more efficient and as by far the biggest power in the room, it can dominate the agenda and outcome.

Naturally, these developments have a significant effect on Russia, the traditional powerbroker in Central Asia, and invites the question of whether it has been eclipsed. It certainly maintains significant military capabilities — recently improved — through bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and intermittent military cooperation with the region’s other countries. Russia is also a powerful economic player: it is a major trade partner for the five states, a vital source of investment, and a significant source of remittances from Central Asian migrant workers. Furthermore, Russia has joint security and economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Last but not least, the region is close culturally to Russia through the use of Russian as the lingua franca.

China has taken aim at every sphere of Russia’s influence, and it would be surprising if these developments did not cause grievances. Certainly, there is a growing narrative in the West about an impending geopolitical showdown between the two sides in Central Asia.

The reality, however, might be more nuanced and the analysis mere wishful thinking.

To understand the nature of the China-Russia competition in Central Asia it is crucial to look into the evolving world order and what non-liberal powers seek to achieve. One of the peculiarities of the post-liberal order is the extreme regionalization of geopolitically sensitive areas. Large powers neighboring the region seek to exclude third powers. Russia pursues it successfully in the South Caucasus where together with Turkey and partially Iran, it seeks to dislodge the collective West. A similar process is underway in Syria and can be applied to the South China Sea, where China tries to settle territorial problems directly with its neighbors and without U.S. involvement.

Appearances might be deceptive. Russia and China are competitors, but they are unlikely to turn into rivals. The West should reconsider some fundamental aspects of its thinking in regards to this Central Asian partnership.

Engagement with Central Asia could certainly help, and its absence would simply hand over Central Asia to the two powers. The region is in a dire need of rebalancing, and more room to maneuver. Both Russia and China are appreciated and feared in Central Asia. The West’s position will be critical though, and it must formulate a coherent strategy for economic and political engagement with Central Asia, or be locked out.

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan under President Tokayev – transformation in all spheres

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Around two years ago, a change of leadership took place in Kazakhstan, when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as Head of State following presidential elections. Since then, numerous reforms have been implemented in the country. Prior to these elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president for almost three decades until 2019 and built a foundation that enabled Kazakhstan to become the biggest economy and top investment destination in the region. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also managed to build good relations with all its neighbours, as well as with Europe and the United States.

There has been a shift in focus after 2019. President Tokayev is concentrating not just on economic reforms and foreign relations, but also on political changes in the country. Prior to change in leadership, the country primarily focused on economic development and investment attraction. Indeed, Kazakhstan still has the ambition to become one of the top 30 most developed countries in the world.  Yet according to Kazakhstan’s current president, political changes are necessary to achieve economic development. One may wonder why these reforms matter outside of Kazakhstan. Yet the country is the top trading partner in Central Asia for the European Union and plays a key role in facilitating trade between China and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road project. Kazakhstan is also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is an active member of the international community, supporting the United States, Russia and other global powers in the resolution of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Ultimately, the political and economic course of Kazakhstan impacts not only the country itself, but also the wider region and beyond.

One of Tokayev’s most significant changes is bringing the population closer to politics, and establishing what he calls “a listening state” – a government that listens to the feedback and criticisms of the population. To enhance dialogue between the government and the people, a National Council of Public Trust was established by Tokayev in 2019. Its aim is to develop specific proposals for reforms and legislation, taking into account the suggestions of civil society and the wider public. Making the national and local government more accountable improves its effectiveness and enables it to better fight long-lasting problems, such as corruption. In this regard, the country’s legal system has been transformed by transitioning it to a service model of work, which calls for a more active and responsible role for law enforcement personnel.

Public administration also required substantial reform as it is plagued by serious bureaucracy. As such, Tokayev instructed the government to reduce the number of civil servants by 25% while also hiring younger cadres. The President, who himself frequently uses social media, also made it a priority to digitise government services to increase efficiency.

In addition to political reforms, Tokayev has prioritised diversifying the economy to avoid excessive dependence on natural resources. For this reason, despite the lure of focusing on oil, gas, uranium and other raw materials that Kazakhstan exports, Tokayev has instructed the government to maximise the potential of agriculture, especially due to the fact that Kazakhstan neighbours China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, which require vast amount of seeds, grains and livestock.

Social reforms have also been realised. Tokayev recently stressed that “economic reforms are justified and supported only when they increase the income of a country’s citizens and ensure higher standards of living”. In practice this means protecting the most vulnerable, as well as individuals and companies that depend on loans to start a business. As such, Tokayev is aiming to expand the amount of bank loans, and direct them to companies that increase value by means of innovation, while reducing the number of inefficient enterprises run by the state. To support those that suffered the most from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the president offered his support to cancel penalties for bank loans.

Another interesting social measure that is likely to have long-term effect is Tokayev’s attempt to gradually revert the idea that higher education should be the ultimate goal of every student. Instead, Tokayev aims to reduce the number of universities to promote vocational centres and colleges that teach specific technical skills. The belief is that this is necessary in order to adapt to the needs of the market, which requires a variety of specialists.

Overall, while it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Tokayev’s presidency and his reform programme, it is clear that he is trying to fight old demons domestically, by shifting Kazakhstan away from old Soviet thinking and system of governance. The interplay between the domestic and external challenges aggravated by the test of COVID-19 and its consequences, will demonstrate whether Tokayev’s reforms are strong enough to help the country cope with the new era.

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Central Asia

The Turkish Konrul: How Ankara Uses the Turkic Council to Re-Engage in Central Asia

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The countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are divided between the remaining influence of Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union, which plays a considerable cultural and military role (e.g., within the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the region, and the growing economic influence of China. Nevertheless, this apparent bipolar balance is incomplete, as the weight of a third country, Turkey, needs to be taken into consideration when we speak about the future of Central Asia.

Although Ankara is not in close geographical proximity to the region or has no nuclear arsenal, and therefore cannot be considered a superpower like Moscow and Beijing, it has managed to maintain its influence in Central Asia for several centuries—thanks to religion (Islam) and the Turkish language, whose significant impact is still felt in the region. Therefore, whereas China is now the first economic partner in the area, while Moscow is in charge of regional security, it is Turkey that has the most considerable soft power, an asset Erdogan is trying to reinforce through the Cooperation Council of the Turkic-Speaking States (the Turkic Council) to increase its global influence.

While it offers an alternative to the vision of a Central Asia under the bipolar influence of Moscow and Beijing, the Turkic Council is no less imperfect, as this article aims to show, but it has potential for development that might open up Central Asia and bring it closer to the Middle East, while allowing Turkey to reconnect with the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire.

In the end, it is through the Turkic Council that Ankara could become a global power again and, like the Konrul (a Turkish version of the Western phoenix), assert itself as a great power on the international scene, without having to resort to obtaining any nuclear arsenal.

The Turkic Council in the spotlight

The Turkic Council is an international organization founded on October 3, 2009 in Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, comprising some of the Turkic countries—states which are Turkic-speaking, of Turkic origins, or both—consisting of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so to say most of Central Asia.

It is noteworthy that the idea for the Council did not come from Turkey, which at the time was mainly focused on EU integration, but emerged from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, the same political leader who proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union, which became a reality in 2015.

The premise was simple enough at the time. Countries, like Kazakhstan, needed to find a way to be connected to the rest of the world. While the Eurasian Union could increase the economic and military relations with Russia, the Turkic Council would represent the cultural and religious interests of the Central Asian countries.

As many of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s projects, the Eurasian Union and the Turkic Council have moved on. The Eurasian Union has turned into a solely economic co-operation, and the Turkic Council is struggling with integrating states such as Turkmenistan, which is currently not a member of the Council because of its neutral status.

Nevertheless, the Council is among the fastest growing international organizations, and on 30 April 2018 it was announced that Uzbekistan would join. The country attended the summit of the organization before officially applying for membership on 12 September 2019.

Interest is growing and since the end of 2018, Hungary has had observer status and could potentially apply for full membership. Furthermore, in 2020, the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister, Emine Ceppar, stated that Ukraine wanted to be an observer like Hungary. Meanwhile, on 3 May 2021, Afghanistan officially applied for observer status. Overall, the potential is impressive as Turkish influence in the world remains substantial and could interest some countries with Turkic minorities, such as Gagauzia in Moldova, and possibly states, such as Germany, due to the Turkish diaspora (3-7 million people of Turkish origin currently live in Germany).

Differences between the participating states are evident, and while the Central Asian states are interested in membership to avoid dependence on Russia and China, some countries, such as Azerbaijan, are doing so to strengthen the relationship with Turkey and gain more support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its turn, Hungary is prospecting alternatives to the European Union.

The projects are clustered into six cooperation areas: economy, culture, education, transport, customs and diaspora. Examples of projects include the establishment of the Turkish University Union and the drafting of a common history textbook. The Turkic Council is also working on ways to stimulate economic development and functions as an umbrella organization for cooperation mechanisms such as:

– Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) in Baku;

– International Organisation of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) in Ankara;

– International Turkic Academy in Nur-Sultan;

– Turkic Cultural Heritage Fund;

– Center of Nomadic Civilisations in Bishkek;

– Turkic Business Council in Istanbul.

Unlike many other international organizations, the Council presents itself with labels of ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood,’ emphasizing the difference with the Western world. As such, the ties between members are rooted in blood and Islam, certainly a more emotional component than in the case of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union.

FinTech and crypto-currencies: A missed opportunity

In 2021, there are no plans to establish a digital currency or to adopt a common crypto-currency for all Council members. This approach may come as a surprise, as each member country has its own currency with significant fluctuation rates, which hinders the implementation of common projects and exchanges, in fine leading to the adoption of the U.S. dollar for large-scale projects.

The adoption of a new or existing crypto-currency (e.g., Stellar), whether centralized or decentralized, by all the states of the Turkic Council would strengthen economic cooperation between the members. Turkey’s recent attitude on this issue in the spring of 2021 could nonetheless delay the adoption of this technology.

A Turkish or Central Asian institution?

Looking at all elements, one can argue that Ankara is the main country interested in the Council because it remains the largest military, economic and demographic power there. Moreover, it reinforces Turkish influence, as joining the European Union is not a target to Ankara anymore.

Nonetheless, from the Central Asian states’ perspective, the Council seems to be more of a Kazakh project because it avoids the containment of Central Asia and provides an alternative to the two surrounding giants, Moscow and Beijing. As such, Central Asian states strengthening their ties with Turkey aims to ensure respect for Muslim values and develop new partnerships to export gas abroad, with Turkey being a large market. The Turkic Council thus seems to represent the variety of interests in the region, with each country having an interest in joining it.

A modern view of Islam?

Another interesting element is that the Turkic Council promotes a different view of Islam, which can be seen as a ‘soft’ Islam. The member states of the Turkic Council are less fundamentalist than the countries in the Middle East and there is no ban on alcohol consumption, while many families are monogamous. This is crucial as it could have an impact on the practice of Islam amongst prospective new member states, such as Afghanistan.

While Western organizations often enter into confrontation with the Muslim world (e.g., Iran-United States relations), the Turkic Council might present a better way to engage with other Muslim countries, as it is a softer version of Islam that nevertheless shares the same religious beliefs.

Opportunities and challenges of the Turkic Council

Although it has ambitions, the Council remains a complementary alliance and cannot substitute for security organizations (NATO for Turkey and the CSTO for the Central Asian states). Moreover, while it strengthens economic partnerships, China remains the main actor in Central Asia, and it is not possible for the Council to become an alternative to establishing commercial ties with Beijing.

The same is true for Azerbaijan, and while Baku has received support from the Muslim world in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the main decision-maker on the outcome of this conflict remains the Kremlin, as Russia is a nuclear superpower.

Another limitation of cooperation is that Beijing may want to strengthen its soft power in Central Asia in the coming years. So far, China has accepted to remain a mere economic power (with an attempt to strengthen its military power in the Wakhan corridor). Nevertheless, Beijing is expected to take a more active soft power approach by increasing its investment in promoting Confucianism and the Chinese language around the world, and more so in its neighborhood.

The Turkic Council has carried out many valuable projects, particularly in the field of education, and while its potential remains substantial, the Council’s members must ensure that it will work in line with Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East to avoid a confrontation.

Ultimately, the Turkic Council is a valuable tool for building up Turkish religious approach and soft power in Central Asia, but the economy and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies are likely to remain in Chinese hands, while Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union are complementary and might contribute to the emergence of a tripolar order in the region.

From our partner RIAC

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