In the 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia nations have been vexed by the question of how to integrate the region's rich Islamic heritage with state-building efforts.
Under the Soviets, Muslim Eurasia ties to the rest of the Islamic world were severed and religious expression suppressed. In recent years, Central Asian political leaders have increasingly tended to link Islam to militant extremism. Human rights observers, meanwhile, insist that officials are exaggerating the situation in order to enhance their own authority.
Given the current situation, the time may now be ripe for a new generation of Central Asians to attempt to redefine the region's Muslim identity. Such an effort might help Central Asia escape from the vacuum created during the existing "transition" period, in which the region has tried to imitate both Russian and Western cultural models of development with neither taking root or satisfying the needs to of the population.
If Islam is approached in terms of opportunity rather than as a threat for Muslim Eurasia a new vista of opportunity for social change and justice could open up. A socially and intellectually mobile generation has reached adulthood in the past 15 years and the regions strategic importance has become increasingly clear.
What the vast majority of the region's people want is a decent life and a minimum of social justice and security for themselves and their families. Opinions may differ on the way that is going to be achieved, but each of these competing notions still must be able to define what the region's identity is.
It can be argued that there are two chief components to ex-Soviet Muslim Eurasia's identity - a continuing Russian influence, given the common Soviet-colonial experience; and a historical legacy undeniably rooted in Islam, the cultural sphere dominant during the region's heyday. Both seem, but in fact are not necessarily, incompatible. What exists is a common bond of identity of Eurasian Muslims with Russian as the lingua franca. So is there potential in a Eurasian form of Islam not so much in terms of classical religiosity nor as a political system, but as an identity and social-normative system, i.e.
Bruno De Cordier is with the Conflict Research Group of Ghent University, Belgium and a regular contributor to the Belgian daily De Standaard. The views expressed in this article are the authors and not necessarily those of the CRG or any of its affiliates. Comments about this article are welcome at: [email protected]