The Central Eurasia – Religion in International Affairs (CERIA) initiative promotes a better understanding of religion in Central Eurasia, a region that includes Central Asia, Caucasus, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. It approaches religion as a “societal shaper” that has broader implications in affecting politics, economy, and culture. It investigates three fundamental research axes: religion and the nation state, religion and identity, and religion and entrepreneurship. CERIA offers a platform of dialogue between the policy community, which tends to have a security-centered reading of the role of religion in Central Eurasia, and the scholarly community, which look at religion in a more societal and cultural context.
CERIA understands religion as an element that has broader implications in shaping politics, the economy, and culture; however one that does not promote an essentialist or primordialist reading that would analyze everything happening in Central Eurasia through the prism of a uniform and atemporal Islamic – or Buddhist – “civilization.” A societal shaper makes sense only in interaction with other phenomena – of political, economic, cultural, or ideological natures. It states that religion is not a given but a construct, which articulates itself with the other aspects of life. It can thus take on multiple colors and identities, from a purely transcendental faith in God to being an ideological ferment for political ideology, via diverse culture-, community-, and history-based phenomena that help people situate themselves in the world. By this approach, CERIA hopes to contribute to a broader discussion on the role of religion in international affairs.
To develop this analysis of religion as a “societal shaper,” CERIA builds on existing internal strengths at the Central Asia Program specifically and on the research already underway at the George Washington University (see below). Three main thematic research axes have been identified: religion and entrepreneurship, religion and identity, religion and the nation state.
Religion is increasingly understood as an integral part of personal or group identity. In post-Soviet Central Asia and in Mongolia and Tibet young generations tend to valorize their religious identity and various related practices – food prohibitions, the fast of Ramadan for Muslims, Buddhist feast days for Mongolians and Tibetans – as a way of manifesting their difference, or even their opposition to previous generations. They also often display more clearly ethno-nationalist convictions than their parents – this one can see both in Central Asian or Russian Islam and in Tibetan Buddhism – and instrumentalize religion as an ideological ferment for political struggles. This re-traditionalization makes it possible both to reaffirm the social fabric in a socio-economic context of massive upheaval and to mark individual identities in harmony with the times but respectful of what is understood as national tradition. The local traditions of submission to the authorities, of respect for long-standing hierarchies, of assimilating religion as an integral part of the community, whether national or local, are therefore in open competition with imported models in which religion, and in particular Islam, is lived as a more universal religion, less subordinated to the national or local social tradition, more contestatory and more individualist.
Through this research axis we will investigate how religion articulates itself both through localized identities, based on community belonging, kinship, ethnic or national references, and with globalized identities (the Ummah or the figure of the Dalai Lama, some transnational brotherhoods, proselytizing groups, Internet-based communities). At both the individual and collective levels, the traditional ways of expressing religion are anchored in local processes and understood as code of social conduct. But they also increasingly interact with new transnational belongings such as Deobandism, Wahhabism, or Internet preachers. We will also discuss how religion participates in shaping generational struggles and in accentuating the dissociation between rural regions and a more globalized urban landscape. Finally we will investigate how it can be used as a tool to express societal transformations and therefore open new political spaces for mediating them.
In post-Soviet countries, the relationship between Islam and the state has a schizophrenic character: Islam is glorified as a religion of the nation, local pilgrimage sites are valorized, the great national figures linked to Sufism are celebrated, but at the same time religious practice is monitored, sermons in the mosques are controlled, religious education bridled, and interactions with the rest of the Ummah looked upon with suspicion. Leaders are afraid of any kind of alternate legitimacy that could impact not only regime security, but also the ethnic majority-minorities balance and/or modify the civic consensus and the social contract. In Afghanistan, and Mongolia, the relation of the state to religion is more symbiotic and the two are deemed to be intrinsically related, and the nation state is largely apprehended as the “natural” framework for religious identity to be preserved and expressed publicly.
Through this research axis we will explore the role of faith and values in debates about the nation state, both at the legal level (the role of religious laws compared to traditional laws and to secular legislations), and at the social one (the place of religious references in national symbols, national landscape, and in education and technology). We will also discuss the role of religious institutions in helping to build state capacity (good governance and rule of law, training of state employees, participating in electoral life) and how transnational movements and donors claiming a religious identity (from radical Islamist movements to the Aga Khan Foundation) contribute to the consolidation or hampering of the statehood process.
Trade and piety are closely linked in Islamic culture. In Central Eurasia, small and medium-sized private entrepreneurship has been a driver of the market economy, especially in the wealthy Ferghana Valley, which is the economic and demographic heart of Central Asia, and around the Afghanistan-Xinjiang nexus. The majority of local businessmen have constructed behavioral patterns and narratives about the role of Islamic values in conducting business. They criticize the moral void left after the collapse of Soviet ideology, and denounce the “nihilism” both of the ruling elites with their oligarchic interests, and of the criminal groups that fuel the shadow economy. In response to these difficulties of reconciling money, political power, and morality, a whole new stratum of businessmen has tried to introduce a market-oriented moral code based on the Islamic values of solidarity and sharing. These businessmen have thus set up communities (jamaat) of solidarity and self-help groups which rival, or fill-in for the absence of, the state in several social and charity domains by offering mutual financial support, aid to the most impoverished, schooling, religious and medical supervision, and so on. They are the driving force toward the re-Islamization of public spaces in Central Eurasia and finance mosques and madrasas (Koranic schools) in their villages of origin and places of business, as well as go on to the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), while also acting as middlemen between local authorities and religious personalities.
Though this research axis, we will inquire into the growing phenomenon of “bazaar ethics” and the interaction between piety and prosperity. We will discuss the ways in which entrepreneurial activities promote Islamic conservative mores, especially in gender and family relations, and implement new religious practices in public spaces at the local level. We will investigate the role of this Islamic entrepreneurship in anchoring market principles in Central Eurasian societies that have hitherto considered the market synonymous with political chaos, ideological “nihilism,” and the absence of the state. We will also study the role of trade associations in developing community solidarity and self-governance, and therefore their contribution to establishing a society whose values and social mechanisms are autonomous from the state. Finally, we will look at the complex connections between these Islamic-oriented business associations and religious groups such as the neo-brotherhoods and Salafi movements.