Revised on December 23, 2003.
Discussions on Islam is always a controversial topic for Central Asians. When I was in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan between the years 1997-1999, the Wahhabis and Taliban were considered the main threat to the region and Islam. Central Asians, including many Muslims, were worried that the Wahhabis and/or Taliban would force their archaic brand of Islam on them. The bombings in Tashkent, in 1999, and the incursions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into southern Kyrgyzstan heightened their fears even more.
Despite their perceptual fears of the Taliban and Wahhabis by the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, these two extremist groups had relatively no influence with the Muslims in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan I have met (Muslim in this context means a Muslim who practices and follows the 5 Pillars of Islam (Shahadah, Salat (Namaz), Ramadan (Ramazan), Zakat, and Hajj). On the other hand, other groups did have a strong influence on Muslims. One such group of Muslims was known as the Nurcu (pronounced Nur-ju).
The Nurcu Movement
Nurcus are Turkish Muslims who follow the teachings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and/or Fetullah Gulen (there are more than one group of Nurcus in Turkey). Said Nursi is famous for his books, "The Words" (for more information on Said Nursi and his works, visit: http://www.sozler.com.tr/). The Words have inspired many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, including myself. When Nursi Said died, Fetullah Gulen, currently exiled in Pennsylvania, USA, continued his teachings placing a very important relationship between religion and science (for more information on Fetullah Gulen, visit: http://www.fgulen.org/). In essence, a world governed by science alone results in moral decay, pollution, decadence, etc. A world governed only by religion results in lack of innovations, narrowmindness, etc. When combined, you get a world that mimics the past Islamic Caliphates (which ended with the Ottoman Sultanate). This is a world where Muslims are a strong entity because they have strong religious and scientific beliefs (an argument that easily be attested to if you watch PBS's "Islam - Empire of Faith" http://www.pbs.org/empires/islam/).
Inspired by Fetullah Gulen's teachings, many young Turkish Muslims (It should be noted that Nurcus do not call themselves Nurcu, per se. This is the term that has been given to them by other Muslims. Instead, Nurcus identify themselves more with the term, Hizmet (or any other Turkic versions of Hizmet such as Kuzmyet in Kazakh). Many young Turkish Nurcus who were educated in the Nurcu schools throughout Turkey left for Central Asia and the rest of the world to form new schools and universities. The most well known are the Turkish Lyceums, such as the Kazakh-Turkish Lyceums in Kazakhstan (Please note that the Kyrgyz-Turkish Lyceums and other Turkish Lyceums throughout Central Asia and the world are not connected with each other. They are each, in themselves, different entities funded by various Nurcu business groups across Turkey). With these schools, many other Turkish Nurcus began arriving to teach in these schools.
Despite the schools current successes in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia (excluding Uzbekistan where they were shut down), the Turkish Lyceums started to face resentment by Central Asians for being elitist in their selection process. Many of the students accepted to the schools were either children of government officials and/or children from well to do families. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Muslims, were not being accepted into their schools (Unfortunately this is a common problem with the Nurcu movement in Central Asia, Turkey and the rest of the world. Emphasis seems to be always placed on the middle and upper class rather than the lower class. This is a problem that some Nurcus are trying to address with little or no success). This by far is not the only problem Nurcus face in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Nurcus are also slow to acknowledge that their form of Islam, considered extreme in relation to the moderate form of Islam practiced by Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, may be creating a rift between them and the main Muslim population in these two countries.
Turkish Nurcus are devout Muslims (definitely more devout than the Taliban and Wahhabis but not as extremist and narrow minded). Many had practiced their religion at home or in their dormitories most of their lives. To them, Islam is the only way of life. In Central Asia, on the other hand, many Central Asian Muslims are still new to Islam (with many even questioning the legitimacy of Islam in the region). Both groups follow the Hanafi school of thought in regards to Islam. The difference between the two is that the Kazakh and Kyrgyz tend to follow a more moderate interpretation of Islam than the Nurcus.
Instead of being acceptive of the views and practices of Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims, Turkish Nurcus have taken the route of "correcting" these Muslims, sometimes aggressively, using the Quran and Said Nursi's "Words," as their source of justification. In short, the Turkish Nurcus have adopted the "We are right, you are wrong" attitude in dealing with Central Asians (this is attributed to the Turkish thinking that they are the "Big Brothers" while Central Asians are their "Little Brothers." which is greatly resented by Central Asians. A Turkish Nurcu Aby I once met explained to me that "Allah had chosen the Turks to rule over all other Muslims" as a premise for Nurcu Turks to enter Central Asia). Because of this attitude, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have become distrustful of the Turks (In Kyrgyzstan, there is even a deep hatred of the Turks which I never really saw in Kazakhstan).
Despite some of the problems the Nurcus have faced in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Nurcu activities in these countries have not detered. Students in their schools are learning about Islam and I have met many who are quite happy to be "Nurcu" and Muslim. Other students I have met stated that they were glad to leave the school but none complained about being forced to learn Islam (many did mention that the Nurcus provided many opportunities to learn about Islam outside of the classroom). One major complaint, though, were from students who were accepted into exchange programs to the US. In Kyrgyzstan, any student who decided to take part in a US-sponsored exchange program (such as the one I admistered with the American Councils and Freedom Support Act) lost their diplomas (Ironically, in Turkey, Nurcus encouraged their students to study abroad, especially in the US where a large Nurcu population exists across the country). I complained to the Nurcu Abys in Turkey about this, at the request of several Kyrgyz students. Hopefully the matter will be looked into.
Yeni Asya Waqf Nurcu Movement in Kazakhstan
Another offshoot of Said Nursi are the Nurcus associated with the Yeni Asya Waqf (for more information, visit their web site at: http://www.yeniasya.org.tr/ - in Turkish only). Their influence on Muslims in Kazakhstan are quite different from the other Nurcus who follow Fetullah Gulen. They primarily focus on Muslims who are not associated with the elite. They are very successful in attracting young Kazakh students to Islam (in Taraz, I met students from the local military academy who participated with this group. There were also many secondary school students participating). This group holds meetings at Darihanas (medresehs) in various parts of Kazakhstan. Many Nurcus also meet and pray at these locations too. While in Taraz, a popular Kazakh Aga attracted Muslims as far away as Turkmenistan. He did a great job in discussing "the Words."
While Fetullah Gulen's group gets criticized for dealing with only the elite, this group gets criticized by Kazakhs, many who do not consider themselves Muslim at all, for focusing on the poor and criminals (a big stereotype in Kazakhstan is that only the poor, young, old and criminals become Muslim). One Kazakh girl I met mentioned to me that she knew a Kazakh boy who used to commit crimes and now is a Muslim (not mentioning, of course, that the boy no longer commits crimes). When I met with this group in Taraz at one of their darihanas, I did see a mixture of poor and middle class students. Many adult Muslim males also attended these meetings (though sometimes at different times due to space considerations. Darihanas are generally crowded. More so than in the local central mosque. One big difference between these darihanas and the Kazakh-Turkish Lyceums were that there were no Turks in attendence. The Kazakhs led all aspects of prayer and teachings in the darihanas.
Overall, both Nurcu groups, Fetullah Gulen's group and the Yeni Aysa Waqf group, should be praised for their work with the Central Asian youth and Islam. In countries such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, their work is praised by the population. They have even taken on the task of creating and running schools in the United States. Where most schools in the inner city fail, the schools run by these groups will succeed. They should be thanked for their hard work, despite some of the problems associated with this group.
Islam in Karatau, Kazakhstan
When I lived in Karatau from 1997-1999, Islam had not taken a deep root yet. Turks did arrive to build a mosque in the center of town. Due to a lack of funding, the Turks left the year before I arrived in Karatau. In 1999, the Muslims in Karatau decided to finish the mosque on their own (they had asked for Saudi assistance but were turned down). Since there were relatively a few practicing Muslims in Karatau, this will be a long task to complete.
Many of my Kazakh students did know the Arabic verses which were part of the Muslim prayers. Most did not want to learn how to pray saying that only the little kids and older people pray in Kazakhstan. One of my older students mentioned that she was a Muslim in heart. For her that was the safest way to be a Muslim. A big criticism my students made about trying to learn about Islam is that there were too many people willing to teach it to them. They did not trust the Turks or Arabs. They definately did not trust any other Kazakh Muslim. They all felt these particular Muslims were all extremists (in some respect they may be right if you take into consideration that many of the Muslim missionaries want new Muslims to adopt Islam 100 percent after their conversion).
My students told me that they only way they would start practicing Islam was if they were taught by a Muslim who was not an Arab, Turk, or Central Asian. They said that if an American Muslim would teach them about Islam, they would listen. This is something many converts in the West as well as in the rest of the Muslim world should take notice if they want Kazakhstan and Central Asia Muslims to transition into a more moderate form of Islam.
One final note, I did meet a young mullah in Karatau. He was a physical education instructor at one of the local schools. We talked on several occasions about how Muslims pray. He even gave me a copy of the Quran for my birthday. This mullah had told me that he was educated in an Islamic university in Uzbekistan. That school would be later shut down by Uzbek authorities forcing him to return back to Karatau. I am curious to see what kind of progress he has made in my former Peace Corps site since I left Karatau in 1999.
Hizb ut Tahrir in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
One recent development since I left Central Asia that surprises most people was the emergence of the Hizb ut Tahrir in Central Asia. It amazes many Muslims outside the region that Central Asians are so fascinated with the Hizb ut Tahrir when many Muslims around the world do not even take this group seriously. The Hizb ut Tahrir has a credibility problem with Muslims. In short, since Muslims around the world do not take the Hizb ut Tahrir seriously, Muslims in Central Asia should also not take them seriously too.
That has not happened for several reasons. For one, all the Central Asian governments have declared the Hizb ut Tahrir an illegal organization (In the US and UK, Hizb ut Tahrir can operate legally though they have been banned in Germany for their anti-Semitic rheoteric). This, in turn, has marginalized the Hizb ut Tahrir helping them gain sympathy of the Central Asian people. A second reason why the Hizb ut Tahrir have not faded in Central Asia deals with the fact that the Hizb ut Tahir has managed to also garner sympathy of the media and journalists in Central Asia as well as the West. These media elements have kept the Hizb ut Tahrir in the limelight further increasing their popularity among Central Asians. A final reason that the Hizb ut Tahrir have not faded in Central Asia deals with academia focusing a lot of research on the Hizb ut Tahrir in the region. Many times, scholars, so-called experts on the region, and even the Hizb ut Tahrir themselves have overinflated Hizb ut Tahrir activities in the region for their own personal interests (stories about the Hizb ut Tahrir draws a lot of attention). As with the second reason, this makes the Hizb ut Tahrir a more attractive organization in Central Asia which adds to their continued presence in the region.
For the rest of the world, though, the Hizb ut Tahir are not an attractive organization. Many Muslims even laugh if you mention anything about the Hizb ut Tahrir. It is hard to say what their real intentions are in Central Asia but from my experience with both Muslims in Central Asia and Hizb ut Tahrir members, the Hizb ut Tahrir will never succeed in the region. They will fail much like they have failed in the rest of the Muslim world.
Kevin Miller, Jr.
Peace Corps Volunteer - Kazakhstan (1997-1999)
Program Recruiter - ACIE(ACTR/ACCELS) - Kyrygzstan (1999)