Carnegie assembled a four-way discussion via video-conference with a group of specialists in Astana, Bishkek, Moscow, and Washington. The panelists discussed whether, and under what conditions, Islam poses a security threat to the countries of Central Asia.

The event was moderated by Carnegie’s Martha Brill Olcott in Bishkek, Fatima Kukeyeva of the Al-Farabi Carnegie Center on Central Asia in Astana, Carnegie Moscow Center’s Aleksei Malashenko in Moscow, and Carnegie’s Thomas De Waal in Washington.

Defining the Threats

Panelists focused on defining the threat of religion in the region and analyzing the real threats facing it.

  • Different States: When discussing the issue of religion and the potential threat it poses to Central Asian countries, one must recognize the differences between each country and state structures in the region, Olcott noted.
  • Islam as Threat and Solution: In evaluating the “threat of religion in Central Asia,” experts in Moscow defined radical Islam as a threat and moderate Islam as its solution. They also questioned whether the “threat of religion” is merely a myth created by Central Asian governments.
  • Real Threats: In discussing the real threats faced by the region, the participants highlighted outside influences on Islam in Central Asia and globalization as important factors in evaluating the threat of religion in Central Asia. They also drew attention to the potential consequences of eventual U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Kyrgyzstan: With respect to Kyrgyzstan, a country currently re-examining its national identity, real threats include the concurrent factors of a growing interest in Islam and the lack of education and public fora for discussion of the role religion plays in society, added the panel in Bishkek.

The Balance Between State Security and Religious Freedom

  • Proliferation of Islam: Religious freedom and the separation of state and religion are important factors in weighing the threats posed by the proliferation of Islam, stated the panelists.
  • Government conflict: The conflict within government about different views toward religion and a lack of continuity in governmental policies regarding religion exacerbate the uncertainty about the role of religion in society, noted the experts in Kazakhstan. The panel further recommended that governments of Central Asia should clarify and strive towards continuity in their policies toward religion.
  • Policymaking: Lawmakers should avoid policies that exacerbate threats rather than reduce them, panelists in Astana added. Mistrust toward religion as the starting position within governments and the creation of legislation geared to restrict religious freedom will lead to further radicalization.
  • Different roles of Islam: Discussion should not focus on “too much influence of Islam in society,” but rather on “too much politicization of Islam,” panelists in Moscow said. Participants discussed the historically different roles of Islam in Central Asian societies, citing Uzbekistan as the country that traditionally had a long-term practice of religion, where the social influence of Islam was retained within each mahalla, or neighborhood, in the country, compared to other countries that have no traditional fora for religious education and practice and are currently trying to define them.

Dialogue and Education as Solutions

The panelists agreed on the importance of dialogue, education, and acknowledging the role of religion in society as a means of countering the possible threats religious radicalization could pose to state security.

  • Education about Religion: The youth and citizens of each country should be educated and knowledgeable about religion, and religious organizations should be allowed to participate in society’s dialogue regarding the role of religion and the definition of societal values, added the panelists in Astana.
  • Societal Discussion: Dialogue about religion should not just take place between the government and religious organizations, but rather be a wide societal discussion, the panel in Astana said.
  • Open Debate: Participants highlighted the importance of an open debate in Central Asia about the role and influence of Islam, adding that this must include schools, universities, and other societal institutions. In addition, panelists warned against employing legal punishment not just against religious extremists, but also against youth trying to learn more about religion.