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Turkmenistan's Islam: Between Religion and State

Semi-nomadic Turkmen women camp out in the Karakum desert. Photo: wildfrontierstravel.com.

Semi-nomadic Turkmen women camp out in the Karakum desert. Photo: wildfrontierstravel.com. Creative commons.

When news of the Charlie Hebdo shootings filtered through Turkmenistan's incredibly tightly controlled Internet, the main responses of citizens in the post-Soviet Central Asian state were surprise and befuddlement. Cut off from the world by their government, they were never likely to join the global conversation about the shootings. 

In Turkmenistan, the government prohibits independent religious activities and does not tolerate any divergence from state-endorsed Hanafi Islam. There have been several reports about the destruction of independent mosques in the country, while Islamic groups that do not fit in with the state's national vision for the religion, are hounded just as Christian groups in the country are. 

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Turkmen women in traditional dress.
Shared on Vkontkte.

Islam is Turkmenistan's main religion and Islamic traditions are embedded into local culture and practices. According the the American Foreign Policy Council's World Almanac on Islamism:

In the twenty-first century, Turkmenis continue to be governed less by Islamic law than by tribal customary law, or adat, which has been passed down for many centuries. 

Both of Turkmenistan's first two presidents visited Mecca and Medina, and the state invests budget money into the construction of officially approved — and typically enormous — mosques. By 2013, Turkmenistan had an estimated 395 registered mosques. 

However, for ordinary citizens, waiting lists to complete the Hajj pilgrimage can be over ten years long and Islamic practices as a whole in Turkmenistan baffle many Muslims living outside the country.

When the government banned the Hajj completely one year in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, it set up a series of national pilgrimages to local shrines, some of which had only limited connection to Islam. First President Saparmurat Niyazov “in direct violation of sharia…ordered that passages from his Ruhnama book be inscribed alongside passages from the Koran. On the walls of the mosque in Gypjak; an inscription above the main arch reads: ‘Ruhnama is a holy book, the Koran is Allah’s book.'”

The Ruhnama, covered several times by Global Voices, is a ‘book of the soul‘ based on folk wisdom rather than religion. President Niyazov, who authored the book, used it to position himself as the ‘Father of the Turkmen’ and built statues to the book in the capital, Ashgabat. While his successor eliminated the book from school curricula and national driving tests, some netizens believe that decision may have created an ideological vacuum, which Islamic radicalism can now fill.

Worshipping via Turkey?

Following its exit from enforced Soviet atheism, the traditional Muslim community of Turkmenistan has been more oriented towards Turkey than the conservative states of the Middle East, to which travel is strictly controlled. 

In 2013, RFE/RL's Turkmen service Azatlyk reported on governmental harassment of people studying Islam in Saudi Arabia:

Once I left Turkmenistan, [the authorities] came to my father, telling him ‘bring your son back’ [from Saudi Arabia] and putting my relatives under pressure, such as calling them in for questioning. That's what we went through. 

The popular Russian social network Vkontakte serves as a platform for discussion of the questions related to religion among Turkmen. There are a number of groups where Turkmen freely express their affection for Islam, such as Turkmen Islam. The issues raised in the group are simple and unsophisticated, tending to re-inforce existing Turkmen values, such as respect for parents.

In the group, there appears to be an Imam followed by many Turks, Mahmud Efendi en-Nakşibendi,el-Müjjeddidi,el-Halidi Hazretleri, who is also popular among Turkmen living in Turkey:

Says Mgk Mgk:

men rewshen agan aydyan zatlary gaty gyzyklanma doredya

I think [the Imam] tells stories in a very interesting way

Wahabbis are also a big topic of discussion in the group. Yakup Halmamedow starts multiple posts and reveals some commonly-held beliefs among Turkmen about wahabbis, such as the belief they are agents of the West.

Wahhabilerin Alamaty eziz doganlar dinlan aldanman.Bu yoldan cykan wahabilere asla aldanman.(Rasul Davut-Ogly) (Rowsen) su ady agzalan oglanyn wagyzyna ya-da nesihatyna unus berman cunki ol wahhabilik yollaryny size gizlin sekil bn dusundurya.

Don't listen to these wahabbis who have lost the true ways and gone astray. Do not listen to the preaching of a person named Rasul Davut-Ogly Rowsen or others. Do not listen to the preaching of this wahabbi man because he uses unknown methods.

Nurmyrat Ahun explains that Wahabbis deny other Muslims the right to visit places where Prophet Muhammed traveled or where sacred people are buried (other than Mecca and Medina): 

Owulyalar hakynda.Owulyalar hakdyr.Yone wahabiler inkar edya.Sebabi olar Angliyan bokun iyya.

About these sacred pilgrimage places. They are true and legitimate. But Wahabbis deny these things. Because they are obeying England and do what the English want them to do 

There are no comments on Turkmenistan's religious policy in the group and videos of Muslims praying in tightly controlled mosques in the country are met only with joy and praise. 

Turkmen on Juma namaz  Adopted from https://vk.com/albums-68868281

Turkmen pray in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on Juma namaz
Shared on Vkontakte.

What do Turkmen say about Charlie Hebdo?

With Internet speeds too slow for social media in the country for the most part, and many foreign websites inaccessible, local forums play a key role in sharing information. They also reveal that many Turkmen are completely disconnected from world news and debates over religion.

This can be briefly illustrated in the context of the Charlie Hebdo incident, when a user called Gowşut rages in a post that translates I am guilty for drawing the caricature of the Prophet Muhammed:

BIR ZADA DOGRY DÜŞÜNIŇOW: terroristler Yslamyň adyny garalanoklar. ony MEN we men ýaly özüne musulman diýip, parhsyz, nalaç edeýin, pes durmuş ýaşap ýörenler garalaýar. biz “erkin sözüň” tarapdary diýdiler. hormatly Şarli diňe pikrini beýan etdi. ol siziň Pygamberiňizi şeýle hasaplaýar we şeýle-de çyzýar. muňa siziň garşy çykmaga hakyňyz ýok diýdiler we diýýärler. ähli özüni öňde hasaplaýan ýurt baştutanlaram, hormatly BMG'yň başlyklaram bulary goldap çykyş etdiler. beýleki dünýä gazetleri bolsa biz öz kärdeşlerimizi sylaýas diýip “alyň, bagryňyz köýsün, janyňyz ýansyn. ölüň. çüýräň, trýapka boluň” diýip, ýene we ýene karikaturany çap etmegi dowam edýärler.

YOU SHOULD UNDERSTAND ONE THING: Terrorists are not the disgrace of Islam, but indifferent so-called “muslims” like ME and those who are like me. They say that the respected Charlie expressed his opinion about our Prophet, and they call it freedom of speech and act as if we cannot protest against the freedom of speech… they tell you not to tell your truth. All leaders of the developed states and the UN made statements in support of that. And all the newspapers of the world continue to publish this offensive caricature in support of their colleagues with the message “here you are, go and die and let your souls burn”.

Whether due to the omni-presence of the Turkmen state or cultural Stoicism, Turkmen forum users tend to shy away from controversy.

Çagry beg quickly enforced posting etiquette in response to the unusual rant:

Gaty agyr tema bolupdyr. Sonyny gaty bulasdypsyn. Beydibem zat dusinjegem gaharlanyp okaman cykar temadan. Yada sögusden dolar. Narmanly tewsirem yazmazlar..

This is a very hard topic for discussion. You made the ending of your post very hard. If you continue this way, everyone will get angry and leave the discussion, or there will be many quarrels. You should make normal entries.

While Amina responded dumbstruck:

Awtor gyn gorman shu karikatura temasyny ginden dusundirayseniz,dogrysy men habarym yok nam bolp gecenlerinden,aslynda nahili waka boldy???gyn gormeseniz takyklygna dusundirayin???

Author could you please explain what does this caricature mean? I am not very well aware of the recent development??? If you don't find it hard, please explain what is going on???

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