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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements

Islamisme et pauvreté dans le monde rural de l’Asie centrale post-soviétique: Vers un espace de solidarité islamique?



This study seeks to show how rural notables (including those who identify with a fundamentalist form of Islam) have formed local networks, linked with other politically and economically based Islamic religious organizations and non-governmental organizations operating domestically and abroad, to work to reduce poverty in their villages through a revival of traditional forms of Islamic solidarity. These efforts are redefining the social environment for an Islamic population that feels abandoned by the state and faces increasing prospects of poverty. The emergence of these Islamic networks, which compete with central governments to control their societies, is rooted in the authoritarian political regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia, where authoritarianism is a characteristic of traditional societies in which the teacher-disciple relationship is still a prominent feature of the Islamic mystique.

The study, based on data from various field surveys conducted primarily during the summer of 2002 in three central Asian countries—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—covers three main topics. First is the issue of rural impoverishment, examined through the lens of “families” in traditional Central Asian societies. Here, it is worth noting that the end of the Soviet system and the introduction of market principles occurred in a troubled social and economic environment. De-spite the socioeconomic crisis, the major international organizations pressured the independent Central Asian states to transform their societies, a process that included land privatization. The crisis revealed the vulnerability of rural households and of certain social groups, including young people, whose living conditions were deteriorating rather than improving. This setting provided the essential prerequisites for the Islamic movement. During this period of socioeconomic change, the extended-family model prevalent in rural areas of Central Asia re-emerged—not out of a desire to revive tradition, but rather because this approach provided the best key to survival. The “return” of polygamy in both rural and urban areas is perceived as a source of “revenue”, inasmuch as it allows a divorced woman or a single mother to be provided for by an already married man. Also bearing on this situation is the privatization of land, which has a direct effect on family structure and the management of household finances. At the same time, the size of rural households makes the task of survival particularly challenging. It is against this background that one must view the inclination of some rural households to seek refuge in Islam, an act that is less a demonstration of ideological conviction than an expression of dissatisfaction.

Second, the study examines the dynamics by which the sense of exclusion felt by rural Islamic populations of Central Asia can impel them to join the Islamic movement. It provides a typology of Central Asian Islam, dividing the religion into state Islam, non-traditional Islam and radical Islam, with the latter divided, in turn, into a number of different movements, of which some, such as the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir, are banned. The study goes on to consider the impact of Islam on rural populations. This environment is conducive to the growth of the Islamic movement, given that the high degree of disorganization in production and in the management of economic resources—a consequence of privatization policies that exist on paper only—is felt directly. Islamic fundamentalists—particularly the clandestine Hizb ut-Tahrir militants, whose strong emergence coin-cided with the weakening of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan forces at the time of the American response in 2001—are quick to address the rural population’s demands for divine justice. In doing so, however, they face competition from the mullahs, including the official mullahs who make up the core of the local notables and who, though not themselves adherents of a fundamentalist Islam, engage in a highly conservative rhetoric.

The third focus of the study concerns the activities of these different mullahs. They are organized in local networks, forming a true clan culture in the sense of Ibn Khaldun (
acabiyya). A number of these have had access to land as a result of their clientist networks. A brief comparative ex-amination of the status of land reform in the three countries shows that land has primarily been distributed to prominent figures in the community, all heads of family, some of whom are also religious figures. With the exception of the notables, most do not manage to participate in the market, due to severe constraints—such as the persisting interventionist role of the state in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and the struggle to meet basic survival needs. It is clear that local political officials rely on the traditional social system to carry out the reforms dictated “from above”, preferring to deal directly with those who hold power, such as the mullahs. These mullahs, who not so long ago were themselves farmers, have developed ways of helping the poor—a strategy consistent with the spirit of the Islamic religion—most notably through various forms of char-ity, such as zakat. In reality, however, they are merely exploiting the prevailing confusion and sense of injustice, offering up Islamic solidarity as a balm. These disadvantaged Islamic popula-tions, having benefited from the aid, willingly adopt the religious ideals being promoted, in what is perceived as an effort to return the favor. In this way, aid to those most in need creates a relationship between the official mullahs and the leaders of the restructured agricultural organizations (raïs). This phenomenon is illustrated by the cases of two rural Tajik localities (near Gharm and Hissar), which highlight the complex political game in which religious figures and those who hold political and economic power confront one another in a struggle to control the wealth of the state and the trust of the people.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Nov 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD