Although levels of religiosity vary, over eighty five percent of Central Asians self-identify as Muslim. The vast majority adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence. And, over 100,000 Pamiris in Tajikistan follow Shia Isma’ilism. Almost 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, many Central Asians, particularly youth, demand that Islam play a more central role in daily life. But, the governments of Central Asia have adopted strict secular regimes. Consequently, they frame certain religious activities as threats to national security, labeling them as “non-traditional” and “extremist.” Yet, Islamic civil society (ICS) actors have engaged in a range of activities, including education, pastoral care, peacebuilding, relief and advocacy.
Over three sessions between February and March 2021 the Center and its partners gathered a group of experts, representatives of civil society, and government officials to discuss the emergence of Islamic civil society in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The dialogue covered Islamic charities, mosques, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social media. The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and European Neighborhood Council served as program partners.
- How should we define Islamic civil society? Additionally, is it a useful concept?
- How popular is Islamic civil society in Central Asia?
- How is Covid-19 affecting the role of ICS in the region?
- Can ICS serve as a potential source of stability, human security, and development?
- What opportunities exist for dialogue with forms of civil society and assistance offered by NGOs and the state?
Conclusions: Islamic Civil Society in Central Asia
Islamic civil society (ICS) has grown in importance in Central Asia, but remains an understudied topic.
While participants sought no agreement upon a definition for ICS, it includes six types of actors: mosques, mahallas, charities, NGOs, jamaats and muftiates, all of whom frame their activities as being driven by Islamic norms and morality.
The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened ICS, which uncovered the weaknesses of state governance and offered opportunities for new actors to step in to provide services to the local population.
Dynamics of ICS vary across the region, with Kyrgyzstan hosting the widest array of groups and Tajikistan the fewest. (This report does not include Turkmenistan).
The growth of ICS in the region has been restricted by secular regimes who view the growth of religious sentiments as an alternative source of legitimacy and potential threat to social order.