Islam Surges in Central Asia

May 10, 1992

Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan has given a boost to the disparate factions eager to dislodge unreconstructed communists from power in Soviet Central Asia. The president of Tajikistan has already been deposed and a coalition of Islamic and secular opposition groups is in power. If unrest sweeps the region, old-line communist leaderships in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also may experience a challenge by Islamic groups.

It may be a long time before the Central Asian situation is sorted out. We are now witnessing the undoing of an empire Russian czars forged in the 19th century. This is historical re-orientation for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the absence of a strong central government in Moscow, these republics are returning to their natural geo-political context. As this process continues, they may develop close links to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China, which once shared goods and wisdom with the region as partners of the ancient Silk Route.

Under communism, the Central Asian republics were supposed to be Moscow's ideological show window to Third World countries. Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, became a propaganda center, where thousands of foreign students attended the university and Third World-oriented conferences on myriad topics were held.

Yet any true exchange of ideas with foreigners was impossible in the communist environment of suspicion and tight controls. Another problem: the Soviets simply could not figure out how to reconcile their atheistic dogma with the emergence of Islam as a defining regional social and political force.

With Moscow's controls gone, the Central Asian republics can go their own way. Some share cultural and linguistic heritage with secular Turkey. Some feel historic affinity to Iran. In Tajikistan, much of the recent national consciousness was fanned by the Tajik (Farsi) Language League, which in recent years has started talking about economic, cultural and scientific contacts with Iran. How much of this interest is cultural, how much religious-political is difficult to ascertain.

Tajikistan borders on Afghanistan. Recent developments in Afghanistan, where an uneasy Islamic partnership of guerrilla groups has taken over, may not affect Tajikistan directly. But the fact that Ahmad Shah Masood, the Afghan guerrilla leader, is an ethnic Tajik underscores how interwoven events can be in this

crossroads of culture and political influence.

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