• Report

Transnational Religious and Ideological Influences in Modern Central and Inner Asia

Report of: 


Friday, 5 June 2015 to Saturday, 6 June 2015


Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS), Regensburg University Regensburg


The Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies (GS), and the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS), Regensburg University, Germany
The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden, The Netherlands
The International Unit for Central and Inner Asian Studies (IUCIAS) 

Convenors: Irina Morozova (Regensburg) and Willem Vogelsang (Leiden)


The seminar took place in the context of the three-year IIAS programme “Rethinking Asian Studies in a Global Context”, which is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York. The seminar followed up on a previous meeting, with the title “Knowledge Production and Knowledge Transfer in and on Central and Inner Asia”, which was held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on 5-6 August 2014. The Regensburg seminar brought together twenty scholars from America, Central and Inner Asia and Europe. They discussed how socio-political processes in Central and Inner Asia are intersecting with global ideological trends and what their impact is on current nation-building policies, social identities and people’s loyalties. Abstracts of the papers were distributed in advance of the seminar, thus allowing for maximum time for discussion.

In the region, various external and internal social actors compete for material and non-essential resources, while forming and framing ideological, religious and spiritual fields. On the one hand, despite the last 25 years of post-socialist transformations, the meanings and symbols of socialism (in particular the idea of social justice) retain their resonance in opposition to the social erosion that accompanied the neo-liberal reforms. On the other hand, the reformist trends in Islam, various Christian churches (next to those historically present in the region, such as the Russian Orthodox church) and New Age religions have found many followers, particularly since the end of the 1980s, sometimes institutionalized, but more often challenged or prohibited by the states. The seminar participants discussed governments, officialdom, and the national ideologues’ quests for the “purity of traditions” found in “national religions” (be it Buddhism or Islam).  The seminar also addressed the development of the broadly-diversified and commercialized sector of mystics, shamans and traditional healers (as existing in most Central and Inner Asian states), uncontrolled by the government. In addition, the seminar considered how transnational communication and global socio-economic processes (for example, new media technologies, migration and informal trade networks) add to the development of religious and ideological fields.


  • Leila Almazova (Kazan Federal University)
  • Jigjid Boldbaatar (Mongolian Academy of Science, Ulaanbaatar)
  • Ulf Brunnbauer (IOS, GS, Regensburg University)
  • Klaus Buchenau (Regensburg University)
  • Sam Chuluun (Institute of History and Archaeology, Mongolian Academy of Science, Ulaanbaatar)
  • Robert Crews (Stanford University)
  • Johan Elverskog (Southern Methodist University, Dallas)
  • Tim Epkenhans (University of Freiburg)
  • Nienke van der Heide (Leiden University)
  • Slavomir Horak (Charles University, Prague)
  • Irina Morozova (IOS, GS, Regensburg University)
  • Parviz Mullojanov (International Alert, Dushanbe)
  • Catherine Poujol (INALCO, Paris)
  • Morris Rossabi (Columbia University, New York))
  • Rustam Sabirov (Lomonosov Moscow State University)
  • John Schoeberlein (Nazarbayev University, Astana)
  • Sharad Soni (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)
  • Mukaram Toktogulova (American University in Central Asia, Bishkek)
  • Willem Vogelsang (International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden)
  • Irina Yerofeeva (Institute for the Studies of the Nomads, Almaty)


The intensive discussions of the two-day seminar highlighted some significant aspects of the transnational religious and ideological influences in modern Central and Inner Asia. One of these, not surprisingly, was the importance of the particular historical background of the pertinent country or region. As was discussed by Irina Morozova in her introductory paper, when comparing the socio-political roles of Buddhism in Mongolia and Islam in Soviet Central Asia, it is clear that the relationship for much of the twentieth century between Islam and the Soviet Union in Central Asia was very different from that between Buddhism and the communist regime in Mongolia in Inner Asia. In Soviet Central Asia, Islam, and especially the Muslim clergy, were often strongly incorporated in Soviet politics and given more latitude, a phenomenon already recognized by many Western scholars. But for the Mongolian communist rulers, Buddhism was regarded as a potential enemy ‘from within’. One of the reasons for the situation in Central Asia was the wish of the Soviet leaders to win over the Muslim population and their leaders, first in the war against Germany in the 1940s, and afterwards the Kremlin’s desire to develop better relations with the Muslim Middle East. In Mongolia, the threat by the Japanese, with its sizeable Buddhist population, in the 1930s and 1940s, and the political opposition to China (mainly from the early 1960s) made the Buddhists in Mongolia into a perceived enemy acting from within. Added to that was the position of Buddhism, and especially Buddhist monasteries, in Mongolia before the introduction of the communist regime in the 1920s, which was regarded as oppressive by large parts of the Mongolian population. In Soviet Central Asia, despite the degrading knowledge among the people of Islamic tenets, Muslim rituals did not disappear from public view, but competed against and merged with socialist rites. In Mongolia, where (mainly) Buddhist rites became lost for the general public, people still retained much of their former religiosity (in the attitudes to sacred objects, for example). Both in Mongolia and Muslim Central Asia after the fall of communism, religiosity (Buddhism, Christianity, shamanism, Mormon Church) witnessed a strong revival, also affirmably endorsed by political groups coming to power.

Another aspect that was discussed at length during the seminar was that of foreign influences, or at least international contacts in the field of religions and ideologies, in the modern developments in Central and Inner Asia. Behind many of these developments, as remarked by one of the participants, is the accelerated pace of life everywhere. Mongolia was again taken as a very informative case study. After the fall of communism, Buddhism, although still regarded as part of Mongolian culture by many, was very much dependent on foreign support. The then Indian ambassador to Mongolia, Kushok Bakula (he died in 2003) played an important role, and so did the Dalai Lama, who regularly visited Mongolia. But also many Buddhist groups elsewhere in the world supported Buddhism in Mongolia. There was, however, local opposition to these outside influences. On a governmental level, the close links with Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular the Dalai Lama, were regarded as perhaps being hostile towards the Chinese government. But also ideologically, many Mongolian Buddhists preferred a more ‘Mongolian’ form of Buddhism, rather than strictly following the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism.  Buddhism has consequently not become the dominant religion of the country, in spite of most Mongolians feeling a strong sympathy. Between c. 1990 and 2000, some 160 Buddhist temples and monasteries were built. But the negative role of Buddhism in Mongolia in the past, when it served as a tool for the Manchu administration to colonize the Mongolian population, is not forgotten, and the erection of huge and expensive Buddhist monuments in modern Mongolia, often with foreign support (in cooperation with one or another Mongolian politician with presidential ambitions), also raised some doubts among the present Mongolians. Another religion, rivaling Buddhism, that has emerged in Mongolia after the fall of the communists is Christianity. By 2005 there were some 70 Christian churches. It is now still a rapidly growing movement (as it is in China and Korea). The same applies to the Mormon Church, which allegedly especially attracts Mongolian women.  However, while in the 1990s and early 2000s Christian missionaries were very active in providing a means of living to many Mongolians, now other organisations, including the state and commercial enterprises, are also providing this role, thus reducing the influence and importance of Christianity in the country. Even Shamanism in Mongolia, although often regarded as being very locally organized and part of Mongolian culture, feels the influence from abroad, with many shamans travelling across the world for conferences and other meetings, a development that is regarded with some suspicion by many.

Foreign influences and contacts cannot be stopped, although some governments in Central and Inner Asia would like to do so. What many of them do, however, and which is very significant, is to try to turn a dominant religion in their country, as for instance Islam, into part of, as it was called in one of the papers, the “genetic blueprint” of the state, as part of its “cultural legacy”. Basically, Islam is being ‘folklorised’, as the process was being described by one of the participants. We saw the same phenomenon with some developments of Shamanism in Mongolia. In some cases, as in Volga Bulgaria, this leads to the support by the rulers of a more traditionalist form of Islam. This in some cases runs parallel with a government’s policy that professes to be secular and to distinguish sharply between the state and religion, but at the same time, by promoting ‘local’ Islam, the dividing line between state and religion becomes blurred. Rituals believed to be ‘religious’ slowly penetrate state ceremonies and top politicians’ summons. The ‘folklorisation’ of religions, according to one of the participants, also goes hand in hand with New Age esoteric fashions, so much visual in Europe, for example, in the forms of practicing Ayurvedic and various other ‘untraditional therapies’. As argued by some participants, such processes should be viewed as the ideological field of neo-liberal policies, as they guarantee such form of compartmentalization of religion that does not compete against, but supports the interests of large businesses. 

This policy of promoting ‘state and national Islam’ is partly instigated by a fear of more radical, and international Islam, but also by the deliberately ethno-nationalistic ideologies of Central Asian states, which want to promote a strong feeling of ‘nation-hood’, in which there is little space for trans-regional religions and/or ideologies. The fear of the external influences has a history for the last 27 years of post-socialist transition. Scholars have already researched the activities of Turkish Islamic groups, as well as Persian (in the case of Tajikistan), Saudi Arabian and other Arab countries’ Muslim groups and communities. The promotion of a ‘local’ form of Islam by Central Asian governments as an integral part of their state ‘security’ is evident. Periodically alarms are raised (especially in the case of Uzbekistan), against possible terrorist attacks claimed to be connected to radical Muslim groups. However, the emphasis on the local character does not always succeed. Some papers presented at the seminar discussed other forms of external contacts, as for instance that of missionaries of the Tabligh-i Jama’at in Kyrghyzstan, mainly from South Asia, whose influence affects the ‘local characteristics’ of Islam, and that of Shi’ite clerics who via social media exercise a large degree of influence on the Hazara (Shi’ite) population of Afghanistan. In both cases the national governments regard these developments with some suspicion.

Building nationhood is also carried out in other ways. One of the papers presented at the seminar discussed the use of symbolism, and in particular that of architecture. Many of the rulers of new states in Central Asia want to portray themselves, often literally, as the modern leaders of a secular nation with a long history. In reality, they relate aspects of religiosity to their invented symbolism, trying to support their concept of the state by folklore. In the case of Turkmenistan, the current president, Berdimuhamedov, and his predecessor, Turkmenbashi, both started a policy of building impressive monuments, mainly to glorify themselves. These monuments are meant to impress the Turkmens, and foreign visitors, and to promote nation-building.

At the end of the seminar, some general issues were discussed, among others the future of Central and Inner Asian Studies. Participants stressed the necessity to broaden the field, and to make Central and Inner Asia also more attractive to other regional studies and disciplines. The study of Islam in Central Asia, for instance, would certainly contribute to the wider field of Islam Studies. At the same time, Chinese scholars should be asked and encouraged to partake in academic discussions of the subject. Also the spread of Christianity in Inner Asia should attract scholarly attention. What also needs to be scrutinized is the role of art and artistic symbolism in Central and Inner Asia: their role in religious expressions, but also in state and nation-building activities. It was also said that scholars of Central and Inner Asia should make their subject perhaps more attractive; there is nothing wrong with setting up an exhibition on the Silk Road and in this way popularizing the field.