Moderate Islam? Look to Central Asia

For more than a decade, the United States has been reaching out to the Muslim world, courting Islamic moderates even as it wages war with religious extremists. Washington’s efforts have been concentrated mostly on the Middle East, with little success. The Americans might do better to focus on another region that has an equal claim to being Islam’s true heartland — the new nations along the old Silk Road through Central Asia.

While violence rages on in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the predominantly Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are experimenting with secular governments and free markets. Their efforts have had many fits and starts, but the West should recognize that their struggle to come to terms with modernity holds huge potential for the Muslim world as a whole, and may someday serve as a template for promoting peace among warring nations. Yet Washington continues to underestimate their cultural importance and potential impact.

In the tumultuous years after 9/11, America’s concentration on the Arab world seemed to make sense. After all, the Middle East was a source of Islam’s most virulent strains. Moreover, the importance of Mecca, Medina, Cairo and Jerusalem seemed to justify the assumption that the battle to win Muslim hearts and minds must be waged in that region. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both spoke glowingly of the Arab world’s spiritual and scientific contributions to humanity. Both men counseled the Arab people to embrace a “true Islam” that champions intellectual tolerance and embraces secular learning. But against their wishful words lay the reality that fewer foreign books were being translated and published in the entire Middle East than in Spain. Nor did either president seem to realize that, though many of the greatest geniuses of the centuries between the fall of Rome and the European Renaissance wrote in Arabic, most of them were not, in fact, Arabs.

For nearly a thousand years, Central Asia was the one point where the trade-based economies and great cultures of the Middle East, Europe, India and China all met. No one was better positioned than the people who lived along the great Silk Road to study and improve on ideas, inventions and manufacturing techniques from across Eurasia.

Thus, for many centuries, Central Asia — not the Arab Middle East — was the intellectual and political center of the Muslim world. The second holiest book of Islam, “Sayings of the Prophet,” was assembled by a scholar from Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. It was in places like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that Islam’s powerful mystical movement, Sufism, found its greatest exponents, and it was from there that Sufism spread across the Muslim world. And among medieval theologians, few thinkers stood higher than Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, from the city of Tus on the borderland between Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, who exerted a profound influence on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Central Asia can also claim a lion’s share of the greatest names in Islamic science and philosophy. The codifier of algebra, to whom Mr. Obama referred his “new beginning” speech at Cairo University in 2009, was also from Khwarazm, in what is now Uzbekistan. Called Al-Khwarazmi in Arabic, he gave his name to algorithms, which lie at the heart of modern computer science. Also from Uzbekistan was Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna to the West, whose great “Canon of Medicine” gave rise to the medical sciences in the Middle East, Europe and India. Another great intellectual, Al-Farabi, who revived and greatly added to Aristotle’s logic and who wrote the greatest medieval study of music, was from what is now Kazakhstan. And the pioneering astronomer Abu-Mahmud Khojandi was from Khujand, now in Tajikistan.

True, all these people wrote in Arabic. But a Japanese who writes in English is not an Englishman. All of them — and scores of other innovators from the Muslim world whom we are accustomed to think of as Arabs — belonged to various Central Asian branches of the Persian peoples, or were Turks, not Arabs.

Today, the countries that are heirs to the old Silk Road are struggling to reclaim their heritage. The task is not easy. Many of their leaders are attracted to the authoritarianism that has brought relative stability to Russia and tremendous prosperity to China. The people of Central Asia have no prior experience with democracy, ethnic tensions persist, and many of their leaders rule with a heavy hand. Yet these countries remain secular states and are more tolerant of other religions than most of their counterparts in the Middle East. Their economies have grown steadily and they have embraced modern secular education, sending tens of thousands of youths to study abroad. They are developing new universities of their own, largely on the American pattern. Many use English as the language of instruction. And all can boast a rising generation of men and women drawn to the ideals of an open society.

Unfortunately, in the eyes of many Central Asians, America’s interest does not extend beyond gas and oil. Washington’s decision to pull back from Afghanistan in 2014 will likely erode American influence at the very moment when it could do the most good — especially as rising prosperity increases pressure for governments to loosen their grip. Greater freedom presents great dangers, as the disillusions of the Arab Spring have so sadly demonstrated.

Yet it may be in Central Asia, rather than the Middle East, Pakistan or Indonesia, where the ideals that both Presidents Bush and Obama have espoused will be most actively pursued in coming years. This is not to suggest that Washington pay less attention to the Arab world, but perhaps it is time for us to listen to our own lectures on the possibilities of a peaceful and intellectually open version of Islam, and to back those societies that are trying most successfully to advance it today.

S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is author of Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.

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