By Paul Goble
Among the factors promoting Islamic radicalization in Central Asia, Rakhimbek Bobokhonov says, one of the most serious at present consist of the gastarbeiters (foreign workers) from that region now in Russia, what happens in their families while they are away, and how they themselves behave after their return.
In the course of a major study of the history of Islam in Central Asia, Bobokhonov, who is a senior scholar at the Center for Civilizaitonal and Regional Research of the Moscow Institute of Africa, says there are many indigenous reasons for Islamist radicalization but that gastarbeiters are playing an ever-increasing role (centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1443906600).
At the end of Soviet times and the beginning of the post-Soviet period, he argues, ignorance among the population about Islam, the result of Soviet anti-religious policies, left the peoples of Central Asia available for mobilization by radicals from abroad who came as missionaries and who offered training in other countries.
Later, he says, the Islamists gained in numbers and influence because of the lack of any other channels for expressing their views or even solving personal problems like healthcare, given the authoritarian nature and weak development of public institutions in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Over the last decade of so, outmigration from the region and especially from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan “also has an indirect relation to the process of Islamization of contemporary Central Asian societies” given the specific features of the gastarbeiter movement and its impact on members of migrant families left behind.
In the summertime, Bobokhonov notes, “when many mmigrants leave for work in Russia, the number of parishioners in mosques throughout Central Asia is much reduced,” but that has consequences: “Many migrants from the region are rural residents who earlier strictly observed shariat norms at home.”
“When [such people] come to Russia and find themselves in a secular urban milieu, they become even more religious.” There are several reasons for this, the Moscow scholar says. Most of them work at large construction sites where Muslim groups are already functioning, and they have to become part of these to get along, especially “in the first months of their life abroad.”
And while the migrants consist of many different nationalities, on arrival in Russian cities, they organize themselves less on that basis than on the basis of religion. That reduces the importance of ethnicity for them and increases that of religion, a trend that plays into the hands of Islamist radicals who maintain that faith takes precedence over national identity.
Other facts of life in Russia also push Muslim gastarbeiters toward the Islam. “Some migrants, while working in various cities of Russia and observing unemployment, alcoholism and drug use among the local population, become as a result more responsible themselves and more committed to their faith.”
And other migrants who work in cities like Kazan, Ufa, and Yekaterinburg which have “major Muslim communities” and Muslim infrastructure assimilate to that and in doing so see their religious consciousness increase as a result, Bobokhonov continues.
But there are other ways in which the gastarbeiter experience promotes Islamist radicalization, he says. Gastarbeiters earn more money and thus are able to “acquire new communications technologies and use the Internet, video, and satellite antennas.” As a result, they visit varioius social sites and are drawn into Islamist conversations.
A second and perhaps even more significant way in which gastarbeiters promote radicalization, he continues, is the impact their departure has on gender roles in Central Asian families. With their husbands in Russia, Central Asian women are forced to assume “many traditional male obligations.”
Among these are the religious education of children, something the traditionally more religious female part of the population may push even harder than did their husbands. And consequently, when Central Asian governments try to restrict mosque attendance, these women take their children to underground mosques whose mullahs are often far more radical.
As a result of all these factors, “the Islamization of contemporary Central Asian society is consistently intensifying the role of political Islam,” something new everywhere in that region except Tajikistan and something the other governments have not yet figured out a way to effectively oppose.