Relations between Turkey and the five states of former Soviet Central Asia have never been as close as one might expect, given their shared religion and Turkic heritage (Tajikistan aside). Despite this, Ankara has still played some role in the region following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, one that has included a significant religious component. In recent years, Turkey has had interactions of another kind with Central Asian citizens: as many as 4,000 natives of the region traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State (ISIS), and many transited through Turkey. Given this, it is a worthwhile question to examine what role Turkish state and nonstate actors have played in Central Asia, especially in the sphere of religion and (counter)radicalization.
Following their independence in 1991, Turkey initially harbored grand designs on Central Asia, seeing the region as a natural sphere of political influence owing to linguistic and cultural links. This optimism quickly gave way to more pragmatic concerns, however: the newly-independent states were more concerned with establishing their own identities than forming any pan-Turkic brotherhood, leading Ankara to opt instead to focus on supporting the existing regimes there out of a wish for stability. Some pan-Turkic initiatives have reemerged in the past decade, perhaps most notably with the creation of the Turkic Council in 2009, but their effect has been minimal.
It is in the religious realm where more interaction has taken place. Turkish influence on Islam in Central Asia has been delivered via two separate, though generally complementary, vehicles. The first is the Diyanet, Ankara’s Religious Affairs Directorate, and the second is through non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Created shortly after the foundation of the Republic, Diyanet’s activities, once limited solely to the domestic sphere, have expanded beyond Turkey’s borders in the last three decades. While it has played a much greater role in the near abroad of the Levant (especially Syria), it has also taken initiatives to grow the role of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia, starting with aid to local and national clergy in all five republics. Its most ambitious project, the Eurasian Islamic Council, held its first summit in 1995, although the body has not met since 2012. Despite broad ambitions, the Council’s work seems to have fizzled out, with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan expelling their attendant Turkish religious attachés in 2002 and 2011, respectively.
Simultaneously, outreach has occurred via a number of Turkish non-state religious actors, best described by Turkish scholar Bayram Balci in his 2018 work “Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus Since the Fall of the Soviet Union.” One of the most prolific was the organization established by Suleyman Tunahan (1888-1959), a Sufi Naqshbandi sheikh whose group founded a significant number of small madrasas in both Kyrgyzstan (especially the restive southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad) and Kazakhstan. Another group, following the teachings of Kurdish scholar Said Nurcu, has also been active in four of five Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan excepted). Finally, the infamous cleric Fethullah Gülen’s organization has also experienced significant success in most Central Asian countries.
Gülen’s Hizmet movement, which was the most active of Turkey’s religious organizations in Central Asia, providing educational opportunities and community services on a substantial scale, was different from the others in that it acted essentially as an arm of the Turkish state — until 2013. At that point, this most influential of Turkish religious NGOs broke with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and has seen its role in the former Soviet space greatly diminish. As a counterpart to the purges of Gülenists from the bureaucracy at home, Ankara asked the Central Asian states to close the schools. At least one (Tajikistan) has fully complied, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan still host Gülenist institutions. It is safe to say that the Gülenist schools are no longer Turkish government policy instruments in any way.
Turkey’s goal in both these vectors — through the Diyanet and the NGOs — has been to export a comfortable and largely moderate version of Islam to the Central Asian republics in lieu of the lack of appetite for any pan-Turkic nationalist initiatives among them. With the ascension to power of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, this goal became increasingly intertwined with the idea of pushing a more conservative strain of Islam as a pillar of government policy, or at least as a bulwark from which the government can draw support. While this effort may have been quite muted in reality, given the relative lack of attention paid by the AKP administration towards Central Asia, the perception of this goal among Central Asian capitals was much different. Perpetually paranoid about any religious movements, most regional governments quickly grew wary of the openly pious AKP leadership, and the Islamic organizations they saw as its vessels. Uzbekistan swiftly expelled even the few Diyanet representatives it had accepted, while Turkmenistan increasingly restricted their activities before sending them packing in 2011. Tajikistan, not itself a Turkic nation, had never figured prominently in Turkey’s activity in the region, while Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan also narrowed the space available for Diyanet and Gülenist activities. Only in Kyrgyzstan, traditionally one of the weaker central governments in the area and thus more willing to accept outside influence (as well as less able to counter it) did Turkish-backed religious movements continue to exercise a significant presence.
Has Turkish Islamic activity played any role in the wave of radicalization that swept the region in 2012-2017, as the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts and their attendant extremist Islamist militant groups (including ISIS) reached their peaks? It seems highly unlikely. It is true that to the extent that Turkish religious proselytization occurred on any significant level in Central Asia, it was largely concentrated in southern Kyrgyzstan, in the same regions (Osh and Jalalabad) that produced the majority of the country’s foreign fighters. But this is coincidental. Although AKP officials today would surely be eager to point to this overlap as evidence of the malignant influence of the Gülenist movement, there is simply nothing to suggest that these local initiatives, which remained relatively small in scope, had any impact on extremist tendencies. None of the existing scholarship, which is increasingly extensive on southern Kyrgyzstan, mentions or supports this hypothesis. If anything, Turkey has likely served as an outlet for the young men from impoverished backwaters such as Osh, providing a labor migration destination; again, this is merely a circumstantial effect, not a direct one.
To conclude, Turkey’s religious influence in Central Asia has been a mixed bag, but not one of major consequence one way or the other. Turkish state and non-state actors have and do function in the region, but not on a scale that would be significant for furthering Turkish interests in Central Asia. Turkish Islamic organizations furthermore seem to have played little role in either preventing or enabling radicalization, at least insofar as the extant information allows us to say. Perhaps in the future Turkey will become a more decisive player in Central Asia; at the moment, it is not.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.