Sunday, March 1, 2015

Central Asian refugees in Saudi Arabia: religious evolution and contributing to the reislamization of their motherland

Bayram Balci
Director, French Institute of Studies on Central Asia, IFEAC, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

The Uzbek and Uighur refugees that fled the communist regimes around the 1930s and 1950s in Central Asia formed cohesive communities in Saudi Arabia while their original identities suffered a downward slide throughout the XXth century.
To appeal to Saudi sympathy on arrival in Saudi Arabia, these refugees claimed either their regional identity as Turkistani or their ethnic identity as Kashgari, Bukhari or Kokandi, as the Saudis were better acquainted with religious thinkers and eminent personalities from Central Asia than the region or its peoples. It was after the collapse of the USSR, when these refugees were able to revisit their countries of origin, that they gradually started to reclaim their national identities as Uzbeks and Uighurs.
For purposes of social integration, a large majority amongst these refugees had given up typically Central Asian mystical Islamic traditions and converted to Saudi official wahhabism or salafism. Since Uzbek independence in 1991 and China's opening in the 1980s, these recently converted returning Central Asian refugees and their descendants contributed to the reislamization of their countrymen. Some initiatives were personal while others were through more organized channels. Saudi religious authorities recruited and mobilized Uzbek and Uighur community members as missionaries sent to the field to proselytize in Central Asia and to encourage increasing numbers of pilgrims to Mecca.