Staunton, October 8 – One of the most widely and deeply held convictions among Western leaders and specialists in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that Iran would promote the spread of Islam and especially its more radical forms into the post-Soviet states while Turkey could be counted on to promote the growth of secular societies there.
That assumption reinforced the commitment of Western governments to seek to isolate Iran from contacts in the region, such as by the use of the OSCE, of which Iran is not a member, in dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and to promote Turkey in the post-Soviet states as a surrogate for the West more generally.
But as some analysts pointed out from the very beginning, there were serious reasons to question this assumption and its utility as a guide to policy. On the one hand, Iran’s brand of Islam had relatively few adherents in the post-Soviet states (only Azerbaijan had a Shiite majority) and Iran’s radicalism put off far more people there than it attracted.
And on the other, Turkey was never as secular as many in the West had assumed and has become less so with each passing year, and Turks because of their linguistic and cultural ties with five of the six Muslim majority former Soviet republics have enjoyed an influence there, on religion as well as on other matters, far greater than Iran.
In the 1990s, for example, Muslims in the post-Soviet states, including the Russian Federation, often travelled to Turkey either to study in medrassahs there or a way station on their route to Muslim educational institutions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Almost none of these people went to or through Iran.
And both the Turkish government and Turkish Muslim groups not only provided scholarship assistance to these people and religious literature for those back in the former Soviet republics but also provided enormous funds for the construction of mosques and religious schools in these countries, far more than Iran did.
One result of this difference is that the largest and most prominent mosque in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku was built by the Turks and one of the largest commercial facilities was the Bank of Iran, precisely the opposite of what Western governments and experts had expected and predicted.
Today brought two new reports which suggest that Turkey continue to play a far greater role in the rebirth of Islam in the former Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation. In the first, Gidayat Orudzhev, the chairman of the Azerbaijani State Committee on Work with Religious Structures, presented a report on foreign financing of mosques in that country.
According to Orudzhev, Kuwait has built the most, 71, but Turkey is in second place with 21, while Saudi Arabia has financed only one. He did not mention Iran’s role in this regard, but in the last decade at least, it has certainly been significantly smaller of that of Turkey and Turkish groups however much Iran has tried (www.islamnews.ru/news-27083.html).
The second report highlights Turkey’s role among Muslims in the unstable North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation. This week, a group of Turkish Muslim leaders and businessmen visited Ingushetia along with Bekir Gerek, the counselor for religious affairs of the Turkish embassy in Moscow (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/13837/).
The Turkish group was received by Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the republic, who discussed with them the building of a new mosque in the republic capital, Magas, something that the Muslims of that republic have long sought. The Turks promised to fund the construction of the mosque as “a gift” to the Ingush Muslims.
The two sides also discussed the possibility of young Ingush receiving Muslim higher education in Turkey, something Gerek and his Turkish colleagues said they backed and would be happy to take full responsibility for funding, something that will make such training especially attractive given the high level of unemployment in Ingushetia.