The five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) are secular states with a majority Sunni Muslim population — and each has a Shiite minority population. Sunni-Shiite tensions in other countries have escalated into violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. So what’s the story on Central Asia’s Shiite groups?
Who are the Shiite in Central Asia?
Central Asia has three main Shiite Muslim groups:
- Azeris, the largest group, descend from ethnic Azeris who migrated from modern-day Azerbaijan before and during the Soviet regime. In 2009, there were approximately 85,000 Azeris living in Kazakhstan and an estimated 18,000 in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. Up-to-date estimates are scarce: There were 35,000 Azeris in Uzbekistan in 2000 and, according to the 1989 census, 33,000 in Turkmenistan. All of these groups make up less than 1 percent of the population.
- Ironi are the next largest group, descended from Iranians who migrated to what is now Uzbekistan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today at least 150,000 Ironi live in the Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. As most are Tajik-speaking, the Ironi tend to be tallied as part of the Tajik (primarily Sunni) ethnic minority in Uzbekistan.
- Pamiris, the smallest group, comprise an ethnic minority (around 3 percent of the population) in Tajikistan. They live primarily in the Pamir Mountains in the eastern part of the country and are Ismaili, a Shiite denomination that follows Aga Khan IV.
Why are these groups under close watch?
Historically, Central Asia has not seen the violent Shiite-Sunni relations that other Islamic countries have experienced. But all five governments keep tight control over minority groups, fearing the spread of religious-based extremism, terrorism, and even political opposition.
Officially, all central Asian countries allow freedom of religion. But Shiites are often restricted in their religious practice and sometimes find complying with government rules restrictive and costly. As a result, they often practice their faith in private or even outside the law. Whether Shiite or Sunni, minority groups not sanctioned by the government have great difficulty opening their own mosques. Mosques and any other worship community must register with the respective ministry of internal affairs.
In practice, several Central Asian nations maintain tight controls over Shiite activities:
1) Turkmenistan has only five registered Shiite communities. Shiite practices, such as observing the month of martyrdom, Muharram, are mostly carried out underground.
2) Kazakhstan has cracked down on Shiite activities. In 2012, a court ruled that Islam has no ethnic-based divisions and, consequently, there can be no specifically Azeri mosques. This forced the closure of Almaty’s Azeri Shiite mosque and may pose a threat to other unofficial Shiite places of worship. A 2014 United Nations survey on religious freedom found that the country’s 2011 Religion Law outlawed “unofficial” mosques.
3) Uzbekistan has rejected applications to open new Shiite mosques since the late 1990s, leaving just three registered Shiite mosques in the nation — two in Samarkand and one in Bukhara. Consequently, many Ironi practice their religion in private. The Uzbek government has regularly stepped up its opposition to unauthorized religious practice, claiming that unregistered groups could be violent, anti-state and extremist. Concerned that political Shiite Islam could be imported from other countries, the government does not allow Shiites to receive religious training abroad and prohibits Shiite Koranic education inside the country.
4) Tajikistan reports some religious tension, according to a 2013 Pew Center study. However, these tensions may actually come from ethnic, economic or political rivalries. For example, for several years, the Shiite Pamiri population and the Sunni Tajiks from the Dushanbe region have been competing to control economic niches in the profitable overland trade with China. That commercial competition may have increased sectarian tension
5) Kyrgyzstan, with a very small Shiite population, seems to have few conflicts. Its sole Shiite mosque serves the Azeri minority in Bishkek.
Are the central Asian Shiite a conduit for trouble from Iran or the Islamic State?
Central Asian governments strongly distrust Iran — and that affects how they treat their own Shiite populations. They suspect Iranian mullahs of wanting to broadcast their brand of political Shiite Islam into Central Asia, as they have in the Middle East.
And in fact, the Iranian government has increased both cultural and economic activities in Central Asia, including funding several new cultural centers in the region and opening Iranian studies programs in universities in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These centers sometimes offer free informal courses to educate locals about Iranian Islamic views.
The Iranian government also has funded projects to help Shiite communities in Uzbekistan, including restoring Samarkand’s Panjob mosque. The Uzbek government has been extremely wary of these moves.
Hundreds of Central Asian students reportedly study religious curricula in Iran. While a minority of the some 300 Tajiks in Iran focus their studies on Shiite coursework, those who do are considered Shiite “converts,” which makes them likely to come under government scrutiny when they return to their home countries.
But an Iranian-fueled Shiite uprising in Central Asia doesn’t seem likely. For its part, Iran presents itself as a pragmatic partner, more interested in wider regional interests such as hydrocarbon trade and economic investments. Even when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in September 2014, he did not discuss the rights of Kazakhstan’s Shiite minorities. Moreover, as Iran steps up its efforts to halt the spread of the Islamic State, it wants the support of these five Sunni states, all of which have repeatedly condemned political Islam, the situation in Syria and attacks against Shiite populations.
Nor is the Islamic State likely to find many recruits in Central Asia. While the Islamic State does produce videos and other online recruitment tools aimed at a Central Asian audience, most recruitment of Central Asians actually takes place among migrants workers in Russia. Moreover, the Shiite demographics in Central Asia are markedly different from those in Iraq, where the Islamic State was able to take advantage of strong existing anti-Shiite sentiment among the Sunni majority. And only one percent of Central Asians are Shiite, compared to some 30 percent of Iraqis.
Shiite and Sunni in central Asian countries appear to have an uneasy truce — for now
While Shiites have faced religious repression in Central Asia, political authorities in the region have become less tolerant of religion in general; it’s not clear that anti-Shiite crackdowns are a harbinger of more repression to come. More recently, tensions between the two communities perhaps emanate more from economic, regional or clan rivalries. Barring major political upheaval, the tension between Shiite and Sunni in Central Asian countries may stay just that — with widespread sectarian conflict less likely to erupt.
Sebastien Peyrouse, PhD, is a research professor at George Washington University. He has authored, co-authored and edited several books on politics, economy and religion in Central Asia, including “Turkmenistan: Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development.”