CAP Papers 170, CERIA Series, July 2016
By Vincent M. Artman
Islam’s growing political, cultural, and social influence in Central Asia has become a major preoccupation of analysts and policymakers since 1991. Much of this discussion, however, has focused on questions related to security, extremism, and terrorism. A characteristic motif in this literature is the juxtaposition of “moderate Islam” with “Islamic extremism.” The struggle between moderates and extremists, in turn, works to shape a broader geopolitical meta-narrative in which Central Asia is constructed as a place of instability, violence, and political repression. Some have even depicted the region as being faced with the possibility of a Eurasian “Arab Spring” scenario.
Not surprisingly, the actual religious landscape in Central Asia is substantially more complex than this binary admits: rather than a stark division between local moderates and foreign extremists, closer inspection reveals a myriad of different theologies, religious groups and movements, and discourses about the proper role of religion in society. In the end, attempts to conceptualize Islam in terms of generalized moderate and extremist variants obscures the very real diversity that exists within such categories. The end result is an inaccurate and unhelpful depiction of the role of religion in Central Asia today.