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Many religions face uphill battle in Central Asia
Many religions face uphill battle in Central Asia
By Dan Schwind
Central Asian nations rank among some of the most religiously restrictive countries in the world, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released December 16.
The study, “Global Restrictions on Religion,” found that the seven Central Asian nations all ranked “high” on an index created to examine governmental and social restrictions on the practice of religion.
“Religious restrictions are common in every part of the world”, said Brian Grim, a senior researcher for the Pew Forum and primary investigator on the study. “Central Asia stands out. That area tends to have restrictions almost on-par with the Middle East or North Africa.”
According to Grim’s research, the Middle East and North Africa are the most restrictive regions in the world for religions, while North and South America are least restrictive.
The study was conducted by surveying national constitutions, and collecting reports by governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on refugees and religious freedoms. The report reviewed 192 nations and six self-governing territories.
To measure governmental restrictions, Pew researchers identified 20 criteria for their survey, including constitution religious freedom clauses, government censorship of religious materials and symbols, and violence or intimidation toward religious groups.
To measure social hostilities toward religion, researchers looked at 13 issues ranging from incidents of mob violence targeting religions, religious-based terror activities in the nation, and acts of religious extremism, such as honour killings.
The responses were then compiled and nations were ranked on a scale of zero to 10 scale, with 10 being the most restrictive.
Pakistan was ranked most restrictive among Central Asian nations with an average of 7.54. It ranked 8.4 on the social hostilities index. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan were considered least restrictive among Central Asian nations, but still averaged 3.6 each, which is still considered “highly” restrictive on the index. Both had low scores for social hostilities, but high scores for governmental restrictions. Grim said much of the reason for religious restriction in Central Asia stems from ongoing fallout from the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Coming out of the Soviet Union, these nations found themselves trying to establish their identities”, he said. “Not just governmentally, but socially and culturally”.
Grim said several nations in Central Asia have become religiously restrictive as the government strives to create a national identity. In doing so, those governments feel they must sometimes temper the rights of those they perceive to be threats to the government or national security.
Uzbekistan, for instance, ranks third on the Pew report for most governmental restrictions on religion in the world. The report notes that, as a former Soviet republic, there is an inherent distrust of religion as a whole as a threat to the government.
“Government restrictions on religion in Uzbekistan, in part, stem from the attempt to restrict the activities of religious groups perceived to be a security threat such as Islamist groups, and in part the attempt to control the growth of some newer religious groups that Uzbeks join that are considered non-traditional, such as evangelical Christian groups”, Grim said.
Shafoat Akhmedova, an Uzbek religious activist, agreed with Grim’s assessment, saying the government worries that Muslims could pose a threat to national stability.
“Every mosque, every square is under the control of law enforcement agencies. The government monitors everyone who wears religious clothing: the hijab, dresses. Even though they’re peaceful Muslims and don’t preach extremism and radical viewpoints”, she said. “Any expression of free religious thought is harshly repressed and they are immediately accused of following such branches of Islam as Wahhabism or Hizb ut-Tahrir”.
In other cases, however, Grim says the restrictions come not from the government, but from society itself. According to the Pew report, three Central Asian countries ranked higher on the social hostilities index than on governmental restriction.
Often, in those cases, Grim said those nations have vocal minority religious groups that are striving to have their voice heard. Kyrgyzstan, for instance, ranked 5.5 on the social hostilities index, in part because of tension in the Ferghana Valley between Muslims and other religious groups.
Akhmedova pointed out that religious groups in Uzbekistan also face social hostilities – Uzbekistan was given a 3.1 rating for social hostilities on the Pew Index, which would be considered moderate – specifically those who are not Muslim. “Police roundups in the gathering places of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Society of Krishna Consciousness have become routine”, Akhmedova said. “They are called traitors. They are considered to have betrayed Islam for having changed their views.”
Akhemedova said police often take Christians into custody for “identification”, where they are “insulted, humiliated and later released” and added that the nation is 88 percent Muslim.
Grim said that could be cause for concern for an increase in governmental restrictions in the future.
“The study showed a statistical link between government restrictions and social hostilities”, he said. “Restrictions foster animosity from religious minorities, animosity from religious minorities cause more government restrictions”.
Grim said that was the main reason for why both Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked so high on the list. In both cases, religious extremists have created a tense and often violent atmosphere, especially for those of other religious views. That power has created a fear by both governments that religious extremists could gain more power and topple the existing leadership, leading them to crackdown on religious freedoms.
“In Pakistan, religious minorities are faced with discrimination problems at every level”, said Hasan Khan, a correspondent for Central Asia Online. “Especially after the emergence of extremism and the sectarianism phenomenon”.
Khan said Pakistani law dictates that minorities can not run for president of Pakistan. Under precedent a minority also can not be a religious minister, though a Muslim can be a minister for minority affairs.
Grim said the Pew Forum expects to update the report annually to monitor religious freedom worldwide.
Rashid Musaev in Tashkent and Hasan Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.