The Internet and social media are slowly beginning to revolutionize the Islamic marketplace of ideas for Central Asians. Similar to processes identified by scholars like Peter Mandaville in other contexts, Central Asia’s access to digital Islam has been delayed by low Internet penetration, authoritarian controls on media and communication, and, in part, by Central Asia’s peripheral status in the Muslim world. Advances in communications technology and large-scale migration are rapidly eroding these obstacles, however, allowing Central Asians to increasingly participate in trans-national Islamic discourses through digital media.
As Central Asians engage with the global Muslim community, debates from other social and political contexts seep into local discourse. Religious quarrels between Saudi Salafi scholars and competing styles of Islamically-inspired women’s fashion from Turkey or Egypt more often inform debates about how to be a good Muslim among young Uzbeks and Kazakhs who have no personal connection to the Middle East. While most of the content in the marketplace centers around personal piety, others topics come with new political baggage, including calls to choose sides among fratricidal jihadist factions in Syria or al Qaida influenced hate rhetoric against other Muslims groups many Central Asians have never before encountered. The process of engaging in this global marketplace remains slow and affects only a minority of the population, but it is growing at a rapid pace and remains mostly undocumented and unmonitored by both academic and government analysts.
1) In spite of regional policy, globalization seeps through
Since the 1990s Central Asian governments have identified Islamic extremism as the primary threat to their stability and survival. Efforts to mitigate that threat, especially in Uzbekistan where Central Asia’s most organized Islamist groups had their roots, focused not only on traditional counter-terrorism and disrupting militant Islamist networks, but on controlling the entire discourse around Islam as a religion. All Central Asian governments, albeit with varying degrees of success and effort, have attempted to define and control a “domestic” Islamic discourse that they believe they can isolate from international influences, almost all of which they view with suspicion regardless of whether these are trans-national Sufi orders, reformist educational networks or genuine Islamist organizations.
Each country has created elaborate regulations for publishing and distribution of religious materials. Each attempts to carefully control both movement abroad to study religious topics and the ability of foreign religious organizations of any type to interact with its citizens. In Uzbekistan in particular, these policies are enforced by a consolidated authoritarian regime that has had a significant degree of success in controlling the public discourse on Islamic issues, limiting public discussion and publication to a small number of authorized representatives carefully monitored by the state.
These policies, combined with the Soviet legacy of public secularism, language barriers, the region’s peripheral status in the global economy and the isolation of from other Muslim-majority areas have worked together to limit the market of Islamic ideas in Central Asia. This situation, however, is rapidly changing as Central Asians increasingly access information on the Internet instead of in print and build new communities in diaspora outside the reach of authoritarian controls in their home countries. In some cases, a new generation of independent Islamic scholars who left to seek religious education abroad in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, or Syria in the 1990s or early 2000s have now come of age and are beginning to compete for authority with clerics trained in the Soviet era and increase the representation of trans-national Islamic trends.
An Uzbek imam originally from the Ferghana Valley, for example, earned a PhD at the University of Medina—the intellectual home of the Salafi movement—and has become an important representative not just of reformist Islam in an Uzbek context (as Obidxon qori Nazarov is) but of international Salafism and its internal debates that are entwined in political contexts very different from those informing mainstream Central Asian Islam. Though he continues to live in Medina, his social media accounts and digital publications allow him to attract followers among Uzbeks around the world.
Another popular young Uzbek imam trained in Pakistan and Syria has established his own madrasah in Istanbul with a robust digital outreach. Within the space of six months he made waves across social networks when he first defended the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a legitimate part of the worldwide community of Muslims, turned virulently against them when he learned they had slandered him, and produced a popular series of videos calling on Uzbeks to leave their homes to fight jihad in Syria with other groups he judged more legitimate.
2) Linking local Muslims to global grievances
This expansion of the discourse is not limited to Uzbeks, though the volume of material and debate available in the Uzbek language is the largest. Kazakhstan suffered its first ever suicide terror attacks in 2011 in an operation some analysts believe was also Central Asia’s first self-radicalized cell, a few individuals in a rural area who sought training and instructions over the internet from an al Qaida linked group in Pakistan with whom they had no personal connections. In 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant released multiple videos featuring Kazakhs fighting in Syria, some living with their whole families and struggling to establish a state in which they would train their children defend an alternate social and political order they contend better conforms to true Islam and to justice than the Nazarbaev government in Kazakhstan.
Other sophisticated web-based media produced by sites like Sodiqlar.org work to create a coherent “Islamic” perspective on world events that frequently borrows from and interacts with popular apolitical groups to enhance their reach and audience. The site’s authors, who describe themselves as journalists or translators, repost content on social media sites like Facebook and VKontakte that introduce Uzbeks to topics like “the danger of Shi’a heresy” or the “global war on Islam” that are not common in the discourse of Central Asian Muslims or their publications.
In 2013 a human rights activist based in the Feghana Valley in Uzbekistan reposted the status update of a Sodiqlar journalist about the “dangers” of Shi’a plots against Sunni Muslims, causing confusion among the hundreds of followers in his network–many of whom were unaware that they are Sunni or that other sects exist in Islam.
Many readers and those who interact with Sodiqlar journalists on social media networks appear to be also unaware that the site is produced by the Islamic Jihad Union, an al Qaida ally based in Pakistan. Once deeper inside the site readers find Uzbek translations of sermons by Anwar al Awlaki and instructions on waging guerrilla warfare from al Qaida’s former chief of intelligence. Access to the site is blocked inside Uzbekistan, but the level of technical control that can be exerted by Uzbek authorities is not sufficient to prevent anyone from accessing the same material when shared by Sodiqlar representatives on social networks and readily accessible to millions Uzbeks with Internet enabled cell phones.
3) Undermining controls on parameters of debate
These cases are only anecdotes, but the larger trend they demonstrate is that the Internet is finally beginning to have the effect on Central Asia that has been long predicted–of undermining authoritarian controls on free access to information. Groups and perspectives long proscribed in the country and sometimes members long ago forced into exile are re-entering the Islamic debate online, even on pages maintained by approved state-backed authorities. In January 2014, for example, a post from former Mufti Shaykh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf’s web administrator on Facebook meant to denigrate Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) with exaggerated claims about their theology instead prompted a surprise debate between HT and the Shaykh’s protégé, as HT members from around the world joined the comment thread to defend their theology and advance their own ideas. Directly contrary to the administrator’s intentions, his post became a platform for HT visible to his own much larger network.
In this and many other ways, digital media permit people, groups and ideas previously isolated or excluded from Islamic debates in the region to circle back and re-engage networks in their countries of origin. Uzbeks or Tajiks living abroad for long periods as part of growing diaspora communities often preserve and distribute indigenous work banned in their home countries, like dozens of videos of sermons by Andijon imam Abduvali Qori Mirzoev, who disappeared from the Tashkent airport in 1995 and is presumed to have been killed in the custody of Uzbekistani security services. But they also acquire new language skills and specialized education that enable them to translate Islamic media produced in Arabic, Turkish or even English into their home languages, introducing popular and sometimes proscribed texts into regional languages, from works by Said Qutb and Maulana Maududi to popular reformist televangelists.
These émigrés act as bridges between information environments, often creating branded digital media studios dedicated to bringing audiovisual content they believe is meaningful into their home language networks where it can be quickly shared by Bluetooth between cellphones even without an internet connection. Viral videos by popular Saudi clerics like Muhammad al Arifi calling on Muslims to rage over injustice in Syria cross into Central Asian language networks quickly by multiple vectors, promoted by both Uzbek jihadists as a recruiting tool and by individual users who find the message appealing and meaningful.
4) New community—and risks–for alienated migrants
Ties between global communities of Central Asians with better access to information sometimes pushes the state to allow the debates to expand, creating new space for Muslims to discuss issues that affect them. Compatriots abroad also at times introduce new material with the goal of drawing Central Asians out–to leverage a sense of global solidarity they build into mobilization for external causes, for foreign civil wars, to offer readers what they claim is a chance to create meaning for their lives by dying for a greater cause.
This desire to belong to a greater, universal identity appears to appeal most of all to the several million young Central Asian men who live separated from their home communities as labor migrants or refugees in countries like Russia. Routine experience of cultural and religious discrimination facilitates increasing awareness of themselves as members of a trans-national ”other,” ready to accept a narrative of universal discrimination and oppression that offers solidarity in suffering and alienation. Many see conflicts like the war in Syria as tragedies in which they have a personal stake as fellow Muslims, not just a news item from a foreign country.
While there are many possible responses to this solidarity, there are also a growing number of digital voices seeking to turn solidarity into mobilization. Their successes are demonstrated by the growing number of Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks and others whose Facebook pages are a chronicle of their path to war in Syria–documented every step of the way with photos they take of themselves smiling at arm’s length into a smartphone.
Islamic digital and social media in Central Asian languages and the expansion of the marketplace of ideas that they facilitate are rapidly evolving and remain under-researched and undocumented. The processes of recruitment into jihadist organizations have immediate policy relevance for the entire region, but the long term socio-political effects of these much broader religious debates are harder to predict and even more significant than what takes place at only the extreme fringes.
The Central Asia Digital Islam Project is a multi-year effort directed at this research. The project will be hosted by the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Michigan with program director Pauline Jones Luong and co-sponsored by the Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program at George Washington University and by Registan.net. The principal researchers are Noah Tucker (Registan.net and George Washington University), Sarah Kendzior (Al Jazeera English and George Washington University), Dell Schwab (Penn State University) and Alexander Sodiqov (University of Toronto).
The results of project will be made public in two parts: the first will publish weekly roundups that summarize popular trends and debates in Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik and Russian—the languages that at present have the most robust Islamic information environments online. These will be posted on the Internet (here and at a dedicated site at U of M) and on the project’s Facebook pages where we invite feedback, suggestions, additional sources and honest opinions. This project is not meant to be a one-way observation; while we can’t promote or endorse religious interpretations, we want most of all to accurately reflect Central Asian voices and interests and conducting research on social media offers new opportunities for the project to be interactive–if you use Facebook, for example, you can friend the project’s research profile Islomiy Ilm Loyihasi in addition to receiving updates and leaving feedback on the group page. The second portion of the project will produce policy papers that outline the findings of the research and put them in context and longer academic publications that treat each topic in greater depth.