Thursday, December 27, 2007

Window on Eurasia: How Central Asian Countries Have Become More Muslim

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 27 -- Many analysts have focused on the rapidly increasing indigenous populations of the five Central Asian countries and the departure of ethnic Russians from them over the last two decades, but a new study highlights how these trends are transforming the balance between Islam and Christianity there.
In an article posted online yesterday, Aleksandr Shustov surveys the ways in which these demographic shifts have dramatically reduced the presence of Christianity as a faith and as a cultural definer in Central Asia and equally dramatically increased the role of Islam as both (
Members of Christian nationalities -- the so-called “ethnic Christians” -- and others who were converted to that faith formed “an absolute majority” of the population in Kazakhstan at the end of the 1980s, Shustov points out. But by the time of the 1999 census there, “ethnic Muslims” had displaced the them as the predominant culture.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, “ethnic Muslims” constituted a majority of the population already at the end of Soviet times, but their proportion of the population has significantly increased, at least according to the available data. And that in turn changes the way in which these countries and their leaders view the world.
In Kyrgystan, the percentage of “ethnic Christians” fell from 26.7 percent in 1989 to 14 percent ten years later, with the percentage of “ethnic Muslims” rising from 71 percent to 84 percent over the same period. Intriguingly, Shustov points out, the fraction of “ethnic Christians” there identifying as Russian Orthodox rose from 91 to 97 percent.
In Uzbekistan, over the same period, the number of “ethnic Muslims” increased by 29 percent while the number of “ethnic Christians” declined by 28 percent. As a result, the “ethnic Muslims” increased their share of the population from 86 to 92 percent, while the “ethnic Christians” saw theirs decline from 9.6 percent to 5.8 percent.
In Turkmenistan, reliable data are lacking, Shustov said, but “ethnic Muslims” certainly now constitute at least 90 percent of the population. And in Tajikistan, the share of “ethnic Muslims” has risen from 89.5 percent in 1989 to 98.5 percent now, with the percentage of “ethnic Christians” falling from 9.6 to 1.2.
Obviously, as Shustov notes, many of those who are members of groups traditionally identified with one or another faith do not practice the faith. In Kazakhstan, for example, only one or two percent of ethnic Russians actively participate in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. And only a relatively small number of Muslims go to mosques regularly.
The same situation is true elsewhere, but these shifts in the make up of the population do have an effect, reducing the influence of Christianity on the thinking of many people there and increasing that of Islam on both the population as a whole and the political leadership of the five countries.
Indeed, Shustov says, these population shifts help to explain not only the growing interest of many “ethnic Muslims” in the historical faith of their nations. One measure of that has been an increase in the number of mosques over the last decade in all of these countries.
Shustov reports that in Uzbekistan alone, some 3,000 mosques and 21,000 prayer rooms had been opened by the mid-1990s. In Kazakhstan by 1993 there were some 500 major mosques; in Tajikistan, some 130 major and 2,000 smaller mosques, and in Kyrgyzstan, approximately 1,000 major mosques, almost all of them opened after 1991.
Such growth, both demographic and organizational, has also contributed to an increase in the amount of influence of political Islam, which sometimes has taken the form of the radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement across Central Asia and at others in more nationally defined parties.
Given that there is no indication that the demographic trends of the last two decades will be reversed and that Central Asian countries thus seem certain to become more Muslim in a cultural and political if not always religious sense, it is entirely likely that the influence of such radical groups will grow.
And thus Shustov’s examination of the region in terms not of changes in the relative size of ethnic groups as has been the normal practice but instead with regard to religious shifts may be a more reliable indicator of where things are heading in a region whose peoples already face a broad variety of challenges.

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