Central Asia rediscovers its Muslim roots
By Maria Golovnina
Mon Jun 19, 10:10 AM ET
http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20060619/lf_ ... lasia_dc_2
TURKESTAN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - In Soviet days, people walked past the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi mausoleum, a holy Muslim site in the steppe of southern Kazakhstan, and pretended it wasn't there.
"It was as if there was nothing but empty space. People were afraid to notice it," Beisekul Aladasugirova, a middle-aged librarian, said as she pointed at the burial site of the 12-century Sufi mystic.
"But now people are making up for that. Pilgrims come here in thousands, just like in the Middle Ages," said Aladasugirova, who had traveled about 190 miles to pray at the site.
Today, the shrine with the blue-tiled facade is at the center of an Islamic revival rolling across Central Asia. Some 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is rediscovering its role as a center for study and pilgrimage.
Bearded men in robes, backpackers and scholars with copies of the Koran pray together underneath its green-and-gold dome, the largest of its kind in Central Asia.
But the revival does not sit comfortably with most of Central Asia's long-serving leaders who have been criticized by the West for using the Islamist threat as a pretext to clamp down on dissent and religious freedom.
"After the Soviet collapse, the ideological vacuum was filled with all kinds of false teachings. It is only now that people are beginning to understand true Islam," said Muzaffar Haji, a cleric in the ancient Silk Road town of Turkestan.
"Only now people are beginning to see that (Central Asia) is not just a backyard of the Soviet Union, but a region with deep historical roots. ... But it's a different question whether political leaders have the same goals."
RESURGENCE OF ISLAM
A resurgence of Islam and its practices in the dying years of the Soviet Union formed part of a desire to break with communism which had tried to quash religious traditions.
Mosques and religious schools have mushroomed across the region. Studying Islamic law and Arabic abroad -- mainly in Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- became popular among young people.
The revival has not been welcomed by the region's autocratic leaders, criticized for human rights abuses.
As in Soviet days, Uzbekistan tolerates only a state-approved version of Islam. It has cracked down on all groups operating outside the system as part of its fight against Islamist militants who, it says, seek to overthrow President Islam Karimov.
Karimov says Islamist "terrorists" attempted to stage a coup in the town of Andizhan last year. Witnesses estimate hundreds of unarmed people were killed when government troops opened fire on a large crowd. The government says 187 people -- either Islamist extremists or police -- were killed.
The West has criticized Uzbekistan for using the uprising as an excuse to step up its campaign against dissent.
Many Uzbeks fear they will be labeled extremists if they speak publicly about Islam. Many Muslims who have breached the tight restrictions imposed by the state have ended up in jail.
"We hear all the time about extremists, about (the puritanical form of Islam) Wahhabism, Hizb ut-Tahrir. It's all empty talk," said Umarali, 58, a pilgrim from Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley, where the Islamic revival has been intense.
His fellow pilgrims nodded but declined to talk.
Wahhabism, the official religion in Saudi Arabia, is a term used pejoratively in Central Asia and Russia to describe Islamic militants. Hizb-ut Tahrir, banned in Central Asia, calls for the establishment of a worldwide caliphate through non-violent means and campaigns mainly by issuing leaflets.
Experts say the only real militant force in Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is largely defunct after being wiped out by the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
"There are radicals and evil people in every religion," said Sayebek Kulmakhanbetov, a senior cleric at another holy site, the 11-12th century Aisha Bibi shrine near the Kazakh city Taraz. "Evil forces make people commit acts of terror."
Tajikistan, where Islamists and President Imomali Rakhmonov's Moscow-backed government fought a civil war in the 1990s, is the only Central Asian state with a registered Islamic opposition group.
Islam dates back to the 7th century in Central Asia, but the region is torn between its Soviet and Islamic pasts, with Muslim traditions often intertwined with communist habits.
In Turkmenistan, President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov tightly controls all aspects of life and tolerates no dissent. His book "Rukhnama" -- a collection of his thoughts and quotes -- is kept alongside the Koran in state mosques.
Absattar Derbisaliyev, Kazakhstan's chief mufti, is a former member of the Soviet communist party.
Now, young Central Asians, who matured after the Soviet collapse, want a clearer division, with many seeking an end to state meddling in religious matters.
Imam Esirkep Meiranbek is one of the youngest religious leaders in Central Asia. The 25-year-old says his purpose is to teach a form of Islam that has nothing to do with politics.
His mosque in the Kazakh town of Kentau was opened only a month ago, sponsored by a member of parliament. A leaflet explaining why extremism is bad is posted on one of the walls.
Meiranbek, wearing an embroidered skullcap, says the number of pupils at his Islamic school tripled to 90 after the opening. "We teach them how to be clean, how to eat healthy food, how to do good things. ... It's the first time in the history of our town that we have our own mosque," he said.
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