Religion and Security in the Heart of Asia, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a series on Central Asia. 

For Central Asia—and for everybody who watches it—the year 2014 is a much-anticipated, much-dreaded milestone. Entire conferences have been held on “Central Asia post-2014,” accompanied by countless policy papers and op-eds. Debate has raged back and forth as to whether the region will collapse, or nothing will happen at all.

Post-Soviet Central Asia borders Afghanistan, which will face a significant drawdown of U.S. troops this year. Nobody knows what will happen in Afghanistan after the withdrawal; there are reasons to doubt that the U.S.-trained Afghan National Army will be able to control the situation, and recent events in Iraq probably bolster those arguments.

Its location next to Afghanistan means that Central Asia is at risk of experiencing a “spillover” of instability from the south. This geographic proximity has already brought the region enough misfortune, especially in the form of rampant drug trafficking, but now it faces the prospect of Islamist insurgents, freed from their struggle with U.S. forces, crossing the border to cause havoc.

Most experts would discount that possibility, or at least downplay it, for a number of good reasons. But even the prospect of that occurring has a lot of people—especially in Russia, China and not least Central Asia—paying close attention to radical Islam in the region, or anything resembling it. In some cases, this has led to dangerous policiesthat may actually stimulate the growth of violent extremism. Therefore, the time is ripe for a discussion of religion and security in Central Asia.

One organization having this conversation is the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), a non-profit that works to build sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. As the program officer for Central Asia, my team and I work transparently through local partnerships with government and grassroots leaders to ensure that all people—of any religion or no religion—have full freedom of conscience and can participate as equal citizens in public life.                                                                                     

Religious freedom, when properly implemented, benefits stability and security in any society. There is ample evidence for this, which can be found in the pages of IGE’s journal, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, in an increasingly large library of academic books, or in the pioneering work of Brian Grim and the Pew Research Center, which produced a TEDx talk on the subject. It may be easiest to show this by arguing the other side of the coin: oppression of religious groups marginalizes the faithful and drives them underground, increasing the risk that they will resort to violence to express their displeasure.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of motivations, one of which is to counter violent extremism, many countries have undercut freedom of religion and belief. In Central Asia, where there is a long Soviet-bequeathed tradition of strong state control over religion, broad crackdowns on religion have been the default reaction to a resurgence of Islamic activity over the past three decades. Restrictions on religious groups, however, have done little to improve Central Asia’s security, while creating more potential for religious tensions to boil to the surface.

Central Asia needs a safe space for dialogue among religious, civil society, and government leaders to discuss these issues and learn from each other. IGE, in partnership with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been creating this space through a series of conferences on “Religion, Security and Citizenship in Central Asia,” focusing on three issues at the crossroads of religious policy and national security: religion and identity, religion and education and religion and gender. The resulting conversation will help Central Asian states evaluate their religious policies with the input of those they affect.

Religion’s role in the construction of national identity is a crucial question that Central Asia has been facing since independence. How do Central Asian states preserve their unique ethnic identities, of which religion is an inseparable aspect, while accommodating other ethnic and religious groups within their borders? So far, the answer has been a policy of “religious tolerance” for minority faiths, while giving pride of place to the local varieties of Islam, the majority religion in Central Asia. While this is better than many of the alternatives, “tolerance” connotes a grudging acknowledgment of the other, rather than the respect for diversity that would enable minority faiths to participate as equal citizens in Central Asian society. The Central Asian republics must foster such respect to thrive as multiethnic, multi-confessional states.

Religious education, out of all of these issues, may have the most direct connection to national security. Education, not the secret police, forms the first line of defense against extremism. Violent extremist ideologies are distortions of religious teachings, so citizens who understand their faith are much less likely to be recruited by extremist organizations. Although all countries struggle with these problems to one degree or another, religious education throughout Central Asia is in especial disrepair. Compounding the problem, government restrictions on religious education often alienate believers. Central Asia must build systems of education that cultivate robust citizenship and understandings of pluralism across all faiths.

Finally, the role of religious women in Central Asian society is an important topic that is often overlooked. In Central Asia, some women are deprived of property rights due to the religious traditions of their families. Other women, victims of domestic abuse, seek shelter in extremist organizations. Governments have not taken adequate steps to protect women, empower their contributions to the flourishing of society, and prevent cycles of radicalization. Nor have scholars adequately researched these critical issues in Central Asia.

All three of these areas—identity, education, and gender— deserve the close attention of Central Asian policy makers, their understanding deepened by a dialogue with civil society and informed by international experts. Improved policy would mean more stability, more social cohesion, and, as government restrictions are lifted, better relations with the West. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring the conversation that is taking place at IGE’s conferences in Central Asia on each of these three issues.

-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.