Religion and Security in the Heart of Asia, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series on Central Asia. 

It is easy to forget that the states of post-Soviet Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—are only 23 years old. Before 1991 they existed only as administrative divisions of the Soviet Union, which gave them their current names and borders. The Soviets did their best to mold the peoples of Central Asia into “Soviet men,” hijacking Central Asian cultures and customs to communist ends. When communism collapsed, the five newly independent states of Central Asia were left with no guiding ideology and only a weak conception of nationhood.

This is a dangerous situation. In part 1 of this series, I gave an overview of the Institute for Global Engagement’sconference series on religion, security and citizenship in Central Asia. But now I’d like to address why religion and national identity are so important. If the citizens of the Central Asian republics do not identify closely with their new countries, competing identities will draw them away. Central Asians are divided among national, clan, ethnic and religious identities; if national identity is weak, the other identities could create fault lines that threaten the existence of the state.

It is not surprising, then, that these countries have done their best to patch together new national identities from fragments of their pre-Soviet past. While it is difficult to generalize about such a diverse region, in each case, governments have done their best to ensure that religion, especially Islam, does not challenge this new narrative. Central Asian governments, like the Soviets who preceded them, tightly regulate religious groups for this reason.

The situation today is not the same as it was in the Soviet Union, which promoted atheism. In modern-day Central Asia, governments use religion to bolster their narratives of national identity, requiring each ethnicity to adhere to the religion deemed “traditional” for that group. Members of the titular nationalities, in almost all cases, are expected to follow a specific type of Sunni Islam, and Slavs must be Russian Orthodox. Ethnic minorities must also belong to the religion “traditional” for their community, whether Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist. Religions not tied to an ethnic group with long roots in Central Asia, such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Scientologists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are regarded with suspicion, or even seen as a threat to national security.

This creates a situation where some religions are completely excluded from the public square, while others, such as Islam and Orthodox Christianity, are officially protected, although only within narrow, government-controlled confines. There are two key problems with this. First, the Central Asian republics are not creating truly inclusive national identities. In such a diverse region, where ethnicities and religious groups do not fit neatly within national borders, this is a liability. Excluding certain religious groups from the public square gives them no stake in society or the state. Second, people of faith can strengthen society if they are allowed to live out their beliefs in a genuine way—the best of faith defeats the worst of religion. Suppressing the faithful robs society of these contributions and disenfranchises moderates, who are then unable to police their own ranks against extremists.

For society to flourish, it requires a civil public square in which everybody can participate as equal citizens under the rule of law. Religious and ethnic minorities cannot be excluded, nor can they be expected to leave their traditions behind and assimilate into the majority culture. Rather, society must celebrate its diversity, not suppress it or begrudgingly tolerate it. Minorities, new arrivals, and “non-traditional” groups must feel free to bring their identity into the public square.

Singapore provides an example of what this could look like in practice. A religiously and ethnically diverse society, Singapore recognizes that the security of state, society and religious groups are inseparable. Unless all religious groups feel secure, no part of society truly is. To establish this security, Singapore does not rely on coercive legislation alone, which is of limited use during peaceful times. Instead, it encourages faith groups to live out the best aspects of their traditions, encouraging them to love their neighbor, promote universal principles and values, and be a model for the rest of society. It gives religious groups a stake in their country, who in turn work to ensure that religion does not become a source of conflict.

Singapore shows us that, in a diverse society where multiple identities compete for primacy, every identity should be accepted and celebrated. The state should use positive incentives, not coercion or repression, to encourage religious individuals to see themselves first and foremost as citizens of their countries. Such incentives can only be developed through sustained dialogue among government and grassroots leaders. The result, however, will be citizens who use the best traditions of their faith to strengthen society. Diversity must be an asset, not a liability. In a globalizing world, there is no other alternative.

-Cory Bender is Program Officer for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-and-do tank working at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.