Emerging Forms of Islamic Civil Society in Central Asia

Categories: Dialogue Snapshots,Regional Policy Dialogues

Although levels of religiosity vary, over eighty five percent of Central Asians self-identify as Muslim, with the vast majority adhering to the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence and over 100,000 Pamiris in Tajikistan following Shia Isma’ilism. Almost 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, many Central Asians, in particular the younger generation, are demanding that Islam play a more central role in public and private life. But the governments of Central Asia have adopted strict secular regimes, framing certain religious activities as threats to national security and labeling them as “non-traditional” and “extremist.” Yet despite this environment, Islamic civil society actors have proliferated and are engaged in a range of activities, including education, pastoral care, peacebuilding, relief and advocacy. In a recent unpublished survey by two of the participants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for an international donor, the majority of respondents exhibited a preference for receiving support from Islamic charities rather than secular ones.

Over the course of three dialogue sessions between February and March 2021, the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and European Neighborhood Council gathered together 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, including Islamic charities, mosques, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social media. The participants addressed the following questions:

  • How should we define Islamic civil society? Is it a useful concept?
  • How popular is Islamic civil society in Central Asia?
  • How is Covid-19 affecting the role of Islamic civil society in the region?
  • Is Islamic civil society a potential source of stability, human security, and development?
  • What opportunities are there for dialogue with forms of civil society and assistance offered by NGOs and the state?

Although the group had a wide array of viewpoints, they loosely converged around the following points:

  • Islamic civil society is growing in importance in Central Asia, but remains an understudied topic.
  • While there is no agreed upon definition of Islamic civil society, 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.
  • Islamic civil society was strengthened by the Covid-19 pandemic, 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 Islamic civil society vary across the region, with Kyrgyzstan hosting the widest array of groups and Tajikistan the fewest (Turkmenistan is not included in this report).
  • The growth of Islamic civil society 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.