03/20/2007, 00.00
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Islam’s expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia

Located in the heart of Eurasia and a crossroad of cultures, the Caucasus/Central Asia region is going through tough times. This is favouring the expansion of Ilamic fundamentalism with potentially destabilising consequences, this, at least, according to scholars from Warsaw’s Centre for Eastern Studies who are participating in an important conference in Rome.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The collapse of the Soviet Union, Western focus on economics rather than human rights, Moscow’s errors and its violent reactions to demands for independence in the Caucasus are favouring the expansion of Islamic fundamentalism, this according to Centre for Eastern Studies. Tomorrow, professors Jacek Cichocki, Maciej Falkowski and Krzysztof Strachota from the Warsaw-based institute will present a conference titled “Islam in the current context of Central Asia and Caucasus: A Socio-Political Approach," organised by the Pontificia Università Gregoriana and Polish Embassy to the Holy See.

The starting point of the thesis elaborated by the Centre and presented in various studies is that that the Caucasus and Central Asia are located in the heart of the Eurasian continent and represent a borderline where the European, Russian, Chinese and Islamic civilisations meet.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union a number of independent states emerged in the both areas: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Southern Caucasus, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in the Central Asia. However, it also marked the rebirth of nationalist sentiments in many republics in the northern Caucasus that are part of the Russian federation. These, in many respects, are closer to the southern Caucasus and Central Asia than the rest of Russia.

Complicating matters is the fact that this region has now become an area of competition between Russia, USA, China and regional powers like Iran and Turkey in what some have started calling the New Great Game. However, the West has played an ambiguous role as it appeals for democratisation and the respect of human rights, but often sets its own economic interests above everything else.

Above all, after decades of enforced Soviet atheism, Islam is re-emerging as the dominant religion, except for Georgia and Armenia which remain Christian.

Islam is a key identity marker for the nations that occupy much of the Caucasus and Central Asia, a pillar of the regions’ customs and a natural ideology for the region’s native populations.

Local Muslim societies have traditionally been tolerant towards Christians (mostly Orthodox), but any attempts to convert Muslims tend to trigger aversion and even violent hostility. Increasingly Islam has become the basis for national identity, especially in the Russian Federation.

As time goes by, the former Soviet, now independent states leave the post-Soviet space and become an integral part of the Ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims, and are thus affected by its unstable situation, particularly by the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. More and more, radical Islamic movements and countries like Iran play a role in the region.

Moscow’s incompetent handling of the conflict in Chechnya and its attempts to crush nationalist movements in this and other republics have favoured Islam’s growth.

The deteriorating economic and social situations in the region, especially among the young who see no future for themselves, make matters worse.

In many places tensions have already reached the boiling point—good examples are the revolts in the Uzbek city of Andijan (May 2005) and the Nalchik city in the northern Caucasus (October 2005).

Local governments reacted crushing the protest movements as the West limited itself to verbal criticism.

In Russia’s northern Caucasus the lack of freedom and the violent repression of autonomist and independentist aspirations have fuelled Islamic fundamentalism which has become the only venue many young people have to protest and express their aspirations.

For the Centre for Eastern Studies “the influence of political, social and economic factors that stimulate the development of Islamic fundamentalism is unlikely to decline, [and] one can expect that Islam’s influence on the both regions will rather be a destabilising one.”

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