The vast majority of the population of Central Asia adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. But in addition to the Tajik Ismailis—who live in an autonomous region in the Pamirs and are followers of Aga Khan—the region also has a Twelver Shiite minority of Azeris and Ironis. They are only able to practice their faith under relatively difficult, sometimes illegal, conditions. Many factors—internal and external, political and religious—hamper the acknowledgment by Central Asian authorities of the existence of Shiism in the region: Shiia tend to be national minorities that are not recognized by the state, is equated with Islamism, and therefore the risk of terrorism, and is also seen as an agent of Iranian influence.
BACKGROUND: The Azeri minority in Central Asia practices Twelver Shiism. According to the 1999 census, they numbered approximately 78,000 in Kazakhstan and 15,000 in Kyrgyzstan, and according to the 1989 census, there were 44,000 in Uzbekistan and 33,000 in Turkmenistan. Despite the relatively large size of this population, Kazakhstan has not officially authorized any Shiite mosques. However, many places of worship operate informally under a permanent threat of legal sanction. In Kyrgyzstan, only one Shiite mosque exists. Located in Bishkek and led by an Azeri imam, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Muslim Spiritual Board of Kyrgyzstan, which does not recognize Shiite institutional autonomy. Iranian businessmen and diplomats and members of the Azeri minority attend the mosque. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where authorities are particularly suspicious in regard to religious matters, Shiia find themselves in particularly difficult situations. It is harder for them to make the hajj than it is for Sunnis.
More so than other minority faiths, Shiism is a major target of religious repression in Turkmenistan. Any cultural reference to Shiism is punishable under the law. In 2004, the Turkmen author R. Esenov was imprisoned for depicting, in his novel Bayram Khan, a 16th century regent of the Mughal Empire as Shiia and for refusing to bend to the will of Saparmurat Niyazov, who believed he was Sunni. Severely strained relations between Ashgabat and Baku have added to the many difficulties facing Shiites in this republic. No Shiite mosques have been able to officially register and very few more or less clandestine prayer rooms in Sunni mosques are open to Shiites. There were only five such establishments in 2008. A Shiite mosque in the village of Bagyr, near Ashgabat, was demolished in 2005. The last Shiia imam of Turkmenbashi, a city that is home to a large portion of the Azeri community, was forced to leave the country that same year. With its protected diplomatic status, the Iranian embassy in Ashgabat does have its own mosque, but it remains inaccessible to citizens of Turkmenistan.
In Uzbekistan, Shiism is represented not only by the Azeri minority but also by Ironis, a Shiite population some of whom speak the Uzbek language and some Tajik. Although there are no official figures, there are at least 300,000 in the country, mainly in Samarkand (200,000) and Bukhara (100,000). The delicate subject of Uzbek nationalism, and its promotion of Uzbek identity and Sunni Islam, further complicate the situation of the Ironi minority, which is seen not only as a Shiite, but also “too Tajik” and/or too close to Iran. Shiia in Uzbekistan complain of government repression. The Muslim Spiritual Board does not recognize them as separate, therefore Shiia do not have any institutional autonomy. Three Shiite mosques are registered, two in Samarkand and one in Bukhara, but they remain subject to increased police and state administrative surveillance because they are suspected of maintaining ties with Iran. Shiia tend to practice their religion in private and therefore do not encounter a great amount of institutional difficulty. But processions associated with the Ashura or Muharram celebrations are the subject of tensions between the Shiite community and Uzbek authorities. The latter systematically reject applications to open new mosques or to create a Twelver madrasah. The question of religious education is particularly problematic. No Shiia are allowed to receive religious training abroad, but Twelver Koranic education is also prohibited inside the country.
IMPLICATIONS: The unwillingness of Central Asian authorities to come to terms with the existence of Shiite minorities is compounded by the strained relations between the states of the region and Iran. Very briefly in the early 1990s, Tehran tried to project regional influence through religious means, among others. The Mashhad office of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution managed the Khorasan region, as well as bordering states. The Iranian regime had financially and politically supported the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, in particular its two leaders, Said Abdullo Nuri and Hoja Akbar Turajonzoda, even while participating in the reconciliation process that led to the 1997 peace agreement. However, Iran quickly reevaluated its strategy in Central Asia. From the second half of the 1990s, it no longer sought to use religion in a way that would harm regional relations or the development of economic cooperation.
While the dissemination of Shiite and pan-Iranian thought is extremely limited in Central Asia, Iran is still suspected of spreading these ideas by offering free religious education in Iranian cultural centers and through charitable foundations like the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, which has been present in Tajikistan since 1994. Tehran may not seek to influence or to interfere with the Sunni traditions of the Central Asian population. But the Iranian regime is concerned about the dissemination in the region of Salafi theories, which it sees as ideological Arabization and detrimental to its interests in the Middle East. It seems that some of Tehran’s policy moves, like the use of the Guardians of the Revolution, are meant to quietly support the most traditionalist groups in the hope that they will protect against Salafism; however, the Iranian regime’s room for initiative on this question is extremely limited.
Iran also continues to maintain close ties with the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, which had an internal Shiite branch. The number of its activists grew in the region of Kulyab with the support of the party vice-chairman Saiduram Khusaini and especially with Nuri’s successor, Muhiddin Kabiri, who is more anti-Western than his predecessor and more open to Iranian influence. In addition, about 300 Tajik students are currently studying in religious institutions in Iran. The development of radical Iranian Shiism in the mountainous parts of Kulyab is of particular concern to Dushanbe, which has very limited control over this area, where past tensions related to the civil war have not disappeared. However, Iran must proceed with caution, as Central Asian Sunnis whose views of Islam have become politicized do not necessarily “convert” to Shiism.
CONCLUSIONS: The political and religious pressures suffered by Shiia in Central Asia vary widely. Azeri minorities are not well tolerated, especially in Turkmenistan, while Ironis are subject to forced Uzbekization from Tashkent. More so than Sunnis, Shiia have been the victims of restrictions on religious education and the right to pilgrimage imposed by the Central Asian regimes. They also have repeatedly been suspected of forming a fifth column of Tehran, even as the link between Shiism and Iran is not a given. Finally, the real political risk is constituted by the radicalization of Sunni Islam, not Shiite revolutionary theories that Tehran no longer tries to export to Central Asia. However, any strengthening of Salafism in the post-Soviet region could cause Tehran to increase its pressure not for conversion, but in order to maintain regional balance with the Sunni powers in the Middle East.AUTHOR’S BIO: Sebastien Peyrouse is a Senior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center (Washington/Stockholm). He is the co-author of China as a Neighbor: Central Asian Perspectives and Strategies (Silk Road Monograph, April 2009) and the author, co-author or editor of seven books on Central Asia in French.