IN the past two years alone nearly 5,000 new mosques have been opened in the six Muslim former Soviet republics, once collectively called Turkestan. Secular Turkey and fundamentalist Iran are quietly getting sucked into this vast part of the post-Soviet political vacuum. They're trying to open air routes, establish banks, and build railways across a mineral-rich land mass nearly the size of India, where 80 million Muslims reside.
Western diplomacy, traditionally focused on Europe, views the Muslim republics as a side show to the Slavic theater. But rapidly widening Muslim-Western gaps pose an even greater threat to world stability than inter-European discord.
Turkestan can be nurtured as part of a Western-friendly Muslim belt which, with Turkey as its linchpin, will stretch from Bosnia and Albania, opposite Italy, to Kazakhstan, on China's threshold. The West should encourage Turkey's embrace of the former Muslim Soviets. Iran should be kept away from them.
A rapidly democratizing and gradually post-industrializing Europe is shrinking demographically, while to its south and east looms an autocratic, pre-industrialized Muslim world with the globe's highest birth rates.
Escaping economic misery, millions of Muslims are immigrating to the West, legally and illegally. The consequent haphazard Muslim-Christian encounter feeds racism and violence not only in France - where Jean-Marie Le Pen has made of this friction a political career - but also in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Spain. The Mediterranean is becoming a dangerous fault line between rich Christians and poor Muslims.
The formerly Soviet Turkic belt can become a testing ground on which will be built Muslim states whose rulers will provide for their populations better than other Muslim regimes and whose concern for world peace will be greater than Muammar Qaddafi's and Saddam Hussein's.
Turkey has a clear edge in the race for influence in the Muslim republics, though it is separated from them by rugged mountains and the Christian republics of Armenia and Georgia. As many as 50 million people in the Muslim republics have some command of Turkish, and their proficiency improves daily through special Turkish TV satellite broadcasts.
Fewer than 10 million former Soviets are Shiite Muslims who speak Iranian dialects.
Moreover, Turkey's secular-Muslim state has a stronger appeal in places like Samarkand and Tashkent, centuries-old parts of intercontinental trade routes, which even under communism have prospered and preserved a cosmopolitan character.
KAZAKHSTAN, the largest, richest, and most solid of the Asian republics, is already developing a special relationship with Turkey. President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently signed a cooperation agreement with Turkey. Uzbekistan, with a promising cotton industry and rich natural resources, is next in line.
The Iranian mullahs know they are in no position for an immediate, far-flung penetration into the post-Soviet vacuum. They're waiting patiently for the newly independent republics to fail to deliver prosperity.
A new train route from Teheran to Baku is part of a larger Iranian design to prepare predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Azerbaijan as a future springboard into other Muslim regions. Iranian emissaries are already roaming the republics, trying to win Uzbek, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, and Tajik converts to their version of anti-Western Islam.
In remote Tajikistan, on the Afghan order, an outlawed fundamentalist movement with ties to Iran already threatens to topple the incumbent regime. This is all the more alarming because Iran covets Tajikistan's uranium for its nuclear program.
The need for improvements in Turkey's human-rights record should not distract Europe from the Muslim challenge it is sure to face within a few decades, if not earlier. Turkey, warts and all, offers one of a very few keys to an improved Christian-Muslim discourse. Turkey has one broad shoulder under its Muslim-Asian part. If allowed to join the European Community, she would have the European-Christian shoulder as well.
The alternative for an exclusively non-Muslim, economically prosperous, and demographically shrinking West would be an even angrier, abysmally poor Muslim world with ever-improving access to weapons of mass destruction.