Central Asia's Muslims Shy Away From Adopting Iranian Model

Radical Islamic influence has been slow to take hold in the larger cities of central Asia, as residents struggle with dire post-Soviet economic woes

THE collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a power vacuum in central Asia that many thought would be filled by a radical swing toward Islam. But the area's predominantly Muslim population seems more impressed with the example of secular, Western-oriented Turkey than with its fundamentalist Iranian neighbors.

"Not many people are going to the mosques," says the resident official at the central mosque in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan. "It was very difficult before.... We used to gather in private homes and the militia would come and break up the meetings. People are not used to freedom yet."

The few mosques left open after 70 years of communist rule remain underused, attended by a mere handful of believers at Friday prayers. The Saudi Arabian government is building a new mosque in Ashkhabad, authorities say, but few expect attendance to be in the hundreds.

The larger cities in central Asia, such as Ashkhabad, and Tashkent and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, are filled with thousands of ethnic Russians whose influence on the local Uzbek and Turkmen populations is still considerable.

Few local women cover their heads and most prefer to wear Western or traditional-style dresses. Their menfolk regularly celebrate festive occasions with Russian vodka, even though Muslims do not drink alcohol. Some observe important religious holidays, but few will pray openly or even fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"They've just won their freedom from one form of repression," says an anthropologist doing research in Ashkhabad. "They don't want to submit to another."

Some women, especially those of Russian extraction, worry that a wholesale swing toward Islam would threaten their comparatively autonomous position in society. "I don't know what will happen," says Irena, an ethnic Russian Aeroflot hostess. `We're learning Uzbek, we're wearing longer dresses. Maybe we'll have to wear the veil soon."

Others spurn the idea of staying home to bring up good Islamic families. "Prices are too high for women not to work," says Uzbek teacher Munira Arifbaev. "No family could afford to live without the income that the wife brings home."

Some Islamic leaders acknowledge that strict religious dogma will not pluck their region from its dire post-Soviet economic condition. Imam Amangelde, the highest religious authority in Turkmenistan, speaks approvingly of the products laid out before him at a recent exhibition of Western technology in Ashkhabad. "Under the Soviet Union, we had no quality," he explains. "Now we want high quality in agriculture, in the telephone system, even fax machines. I agree these products will change our lives but th e change will be for the better."

It is partly this pragmatic approach to religion that is baffling Iranian businessmen and diplomats who venture into central Asia. The newly independent region at first appeared to be a prime target for Iran's brand of Islamic idealism. But cultural, linguistic, and religious differences between Iran and the central Asian states are hampering close ties.

Most central Asians, except for citizens of Tajikistan, speak Turkic languages that are unconnected to Persian. Most follow the Sunni branch of Islam, shunning the Shia practices of the Iranians. Uzbeks and Turkmens are descended from the Mongolian tribe that spawned 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane, whereas the Iranians' ancestry stretches back to the Zoroastrian emperors of southern Iran.

"Culturally, it's very different here, which makes it very difficult to trade," says Hossein Matinrad, managing director of Mashhad Carton Company in Iran. "They don't understand Farsi [Persian] or English. No one wants to make decisions. There is no central decisionmaking authority. Everyone has to have the agreement of someone else."

Nasr Marami, operations manager of Iran-based Saderat Bank's branch in Ashkhabad, echoes Mr. Matinrad's complaint. "No one has any knowledge of banking or trade. We just cannot rely on local people."

Even Iranian diplomats in newly opened embassies seem uncertain about their welcome. Privately, Uzbeks confide they do not much like the Iranians, which probably explains the frosty reception they give most Iranian newcomers. Uzbeks, along with other central Asians, feel happier looking to secular, Western-oriented Turkey as their link to the outside world.

"We all have the Turkic language," says Ubaydulla Abdurazzakov, Uzbekistan's foreign minister. "The president said he's very fond of the Turkish model. Of course, we won't accept everything from Europe. We'll keep our own language and culture, but we'll accept Turkey's progressiveness."

He will also presumably accept $250 million in Export-Import Bank credits granted by the Turkish government to Uzbekistan earlier this year. Turkish businessmen have been flocking to central Asia since the visit in April of Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel.

One such speculator, Tekin Arel, general manager of Istanbul-based Birpa Group's leather goods operation, confirmed that his leather-tanning joint venture in Uzbekistan was flourishing.

"It's going pretty well," he confides. "This place has great potential. We can speak their language. And the government is helping us as much as it can."

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