Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Clampdown on Islamic Teaching in Turkmenistan

The president has tried to appropriate Islamic imagery and institutions, but his attempt to control all forms of religious expression could backfire.
By IWPR Reporters

The closure of Turkmenistan’s only university department of Muslim theology is believed to reflect President Saparmurat Niazov’s concern at the rise of radical Islam in the wider Central Asian region.


Islamic teaching and institutions are already tightly controlled by the Turkmen authorities, and in any case people have traditionally had little appetite for radical religious ideas. But some analysts believe poverty and the lack of alternative ideas could breed extremism in the future.


Turkish staff teaching at the Islamic theology faculty of the main country’s university in the capital Ashgabat had their contracts terminated by a June 30 presidential decree, and 20 students attending a preparatory course were told that their studies would not continue. When the university reopens this September, the theology department will be merged into the history faculty and the number of students reduced.


The disappearance of a separate theology faculty is a blow as it is the only institution in Turkmenistan that trains imams or mosque prayer leaders. While the merged department will continue to fulfil this role, “the reduction in its status and in the number of students will further reduce the quality and extent of Islamic education”, journalist Igor Rotar wrote in an article for Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious rights watchdog.


In the closed political and media environment of Turkmenistan, there was no discussion of the motives of President Niazov, who styles himself Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmen. But analysts suspect that the closure is an indirect consequence of turbulence in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where the government suggested Islamic radicals were behind protests which were suppressed on May 13 when security forces opened fire on crowds of demonstrators.


The Turkmen are of the same Sunni Muslim tradition as their Uzbek and Tajik neighbours, but because they lived as nomads in scattered communities until the 20th century, there was less of a tradition of formal Islamic education and few mosques of any size in this desert land. People tended to pray at home, and this continued even after Soviet strictures on overt religious practice ended with independence in 1991.


“The Turkmen were never excessively religious and the vast majority practiced a popular form of Islam derived from a centuries-old way of life,” said an Ashgabat academic who did not want to be named.


The attitude to religion of the government - and of Niazov himself - has been ambivalent. While allowing Turkmen Muslims and Orthodox Christian Russians to practice their faiths, the authorities have kept a close eye on these communities and harassed smaller groups, clamping down hard on Protestant churches operating without the necessary official license and jailing those held responsible.


In the early Nineties, as Niazov began his journey from the role of Communist Party chief of a Soviet republic to that of Turkmenbashi and unchallenged president of his country, Islam offered a useful component for his nation-building project.


A university lecturer who asked not to be named said the president had consciously sought to employ Islam - but only in a form defined and regulated by the state. “Turkmenistan, like neighbouring Uzbekistan, retains strict administrative control over religion,” said the lecturer.


Islamic imagery was deployed for the purpose of state-building with the construction of a huge mosque at Gök-Tepe, site of an important battle between the Turkmen tribes and imperial Russia; and last autumn an even bigger one was opened in the president’s home village.


As Sunni Islam in Turkmenistan had no formalised structure, Turkmenbashi perpetuated the Soviet system of a clerical hierarchy as de facto government institution.


However, this system ran into problems as Turkmenbashi began shaping his own spiritual philosophy for the nation, embodied in his book, the Ruhnama. This work is a collection of the president’s thoughts, anecdotal stories and random historical accounts which is supposed to serve Turkmen as a handbook to life. It is mandatory reading for civil servants and kindergarten pupils alike, but devout Muslims were riled when it began to be treated as a sacred text. There was outrage when mosques were required to have a copy on display, as if it were on a par with the Koran.


Two years ago, Turkmenbashi’s entourage even floated the idea of proclaiming him a prophet – an idea shelved when they realised that Muslims around the world, for whom Muhammed is the last prophet, would regard the announcement of a new one as heresy.


As Turkmenistan’s chief Muslim cleric at the time, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was head of “official Islam” and generally compliant with Turkmenbashi’s wishes - but even his patience ran out when it was decided to decorate mosques with quotations from the Ruhnama alongside Koranic verses; normally the only permissible text. Ibn Ibadullah reportedly refused to declare the president a “messenger of God”.


The authorities retaliated swiftly, first sacking the cleric and, in March 2004, giving him a 22-year jail term for “treason”.


But while Turkmenbashi has tried to control Islam through the system of official clerics and mosques it controls, teaching of Islamic principles has continued apparently unnoticed by the authorities through a network of schools run by Turks.


Turkey is one of the few countries that Turkmenbashi regards as a friend, and he has encouraged Turkish firms to come and invest in major projects. As in other Central Asian countries, business development was followed by the appearance of Turkish schools, and as these were generally privately run rather than sponsored by the secular Turkish state, they provided some teaching in the basics of Islam.


Many of the schools are associated with the network of Fethullah Gülen, a major Turkish theologist and educationalist whom some regard as an enlightened progressive, and others – particularly in Turkey itself – see as trying to impose Islam on the state through the back door. Whatever his ambitions, Gülen’s widely-publicised views are very far from those of radical fundamentalists. He has actively promoted work in Central Asian republics because of their common Turkic bonds they share with Turkey.


However, many former citizens of the strongly atheist Soviet Union remain deeply suspicious of any Islamic trend, and also of pan-Turkism – a philosophy which would seek some kind of union between Turkey and the Central Asian states.


A member of Turkmenistan’s intelligence service told IWPR on condition of anonymity that most of the Turkish schools – and the theology faculty too – had been funded by Turkish groups which advocate both Islam and pan-Turkism.


“Supporters of these Islamic organisations, which have representatives in over 40 countries of the world, are preparing the practical foundations to implement the idea of uniting all the Turkic nations around Turkey,” he said.


After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkey’s government began promoting political and commercial ties with the newly-independent Turkic states, but the relationship never developed into anything resembling the extreme pan-Turkists’ ambitions. Turkmenbashi proved the Turks’ keenest partner in Central Asia, as other leaders wanted to keep their options open by developing relations with various countries while maintaining ties to Russia.


The dismissal of Turkish nationals teaching theology in Ashgabat is thus a significant move, and may indicate that Turkmenbashi wants to put a stop to all imported ideologies even if they come from his closest ally, Turkey.


The influence of other Islamic movements in Turkmenistan appears to be limited. The authorities have kept a close eye on Shia institutions such as the Ali Reza mosque in Ashgabat, but Iranian-style Islami has limited appeal among the Sunni Turkmen and most Shia mosque-goers here are ethnic Azerbaijanis.


Radical fundamentalist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a group with a significant underground presence in the other Central Asian republics, especially Uzbekistan – have either not found it possible to develop in Turkmenistan, or if they have they remain invisible.


IWPR was told by a former prison inmate that such groups are most visible and active within the penitentiary system.


“Extremist religious cells have been operating for a long time within the correctional facilities,” he said. “They do not seek to identify themselves in any way. I can’t say whether they are Hizb-ut-Tahrir or something else. But I can say for certain that the ideas they advocate are to overthrow the current authorities and build a united Islam caliphate.”


According to this interviewee – whose account could not be verified from other sources – the Islamic groups in jail appear to have enough funding to be able to help anyone who joins. “It’s obvious what world views people will have when they leave prison, and what ideas they will bring to their impoverished families,” he concluded.


The academic to whom IWPR spoke thinks such fundamentalism could be on the rise, and that Turkmenbashi has made a grave miscalculation in believing that he could harness Islam and reshape it into a policy instrument while ignoring religious sentiment and social discontent at grassroots level.


“Niazov missed the moment when the popular form of Islam that was traditional here could have filled the ideological gap that appeared after the collapse of the USSR,” he said. “Instead, he built grandiose mosques which the impoverished people will never attend.


“However much Turkmenbashi tries to protect himself from the threat of Islam, he himself must bear the blame for the fact that in our country, people who are reduced to despair are forced to become adherents of extremist trends.”