Central Asia, Culture and the Islamic World
Whilst we, in the West, have spent the last week or so preparing for and celebrating Christmas, around the world the picture was not always so ‘snow-covered’ or ‘tinsel-coated’. Although this is to be expected, as most of Central Asia and much of the wider world is not Christian. However Christmas, unlike many religious holidays, has taken on a global status, transcending the religious connotations and becoming a secular celebration.
Uzbekistan is a prime example of where Christmas has taken root as a secular celebration. This Central Asian nation is overwhelmingly Islamic, with around 90% of the country’s population identifying themselves as Muslims. However the influence of Russian Orthodoxy and the USSR, during many years of Russian occupation, has meant that the cultural traditions of Christmas have become highly prevalent within Uzbek society.
Father Christmas (known locally as Grandfather Frost) and the Snow Maiden were commonplace characters within Uzbek culture. Featured in much of the broadcasting during December these characters were remnants of the former Soviet regime which brought many Western traditions to Central Asia. However, alongside cultural traditions surrounding the Russia New Year, these Christmas traditions are under threat from a rising Islamic Orthodoxy.
The Uzbek government has been actively trying to discourage ‘Western’ forms of culture, be they religious or secular. These ‘Western threats’ are not simply European or American but also Russian and even include several pre-Islamic traditions. For many people attempts by the Uzbek government to end perceived ‘threatening’ cultural traditions, such as Valentines Day or Zoroastrian wedding conventions, that date back to Ancient Persia, before the Islamic invasion of the 7th Century AD, are symptomatic of attempts by officials to reimpose a stricter Islamic and nationalistic legal and social framework on the country. In short Uzbekistan is an Islamic state and the traditions should be either Islamic or traditionally Uzbek, with nor foreign cultural or religious influences.
This pattern of rising Islamic Orthodoxy has been replicated across Asia and the Middle East. In Dagestan, in the Caucasus region of Asia, an increasingly powerful Islamic orthodoxy is taking hold. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore the atheism of the Communist government, Islamic Orthodoxy has been reasserting itself across the region. It has attempted to push out the Soviet traditions of the last hundred years, the Russian Orthodox traditions of Imperial Russia and even certain aspects of Islam itself, such as Sufism, that are accepted under Russian rule. This Islamic Orthodoxy, which has also seen elements of Islamic extremism develop, has threatened not only the culture of Southern Russia, but also the stability of the region.
But even in the heartland of the Islamic world, in nations that have seen far less external cultural influences, Islamic Orthodoxy is rising in prevalence. The Arab Spring resulted in elections throughout the Middle East where Islamic governments were formed in both Tunisia and Egypt. These governments, in addition to bringing about a pro-Islamic legal and social structure, has triggered a rise in Islamic thought and sentiment throughout the wider population. It is this rising prevalence of Islamic traditions that have threatened those communities within Central Asia and the Middle East, such as the Christian Copts in Egypt, that do not conform to Sharia law or Islamic Orthodoxy.
The Coptic community, which underwent great changes in 2012 following the death of Pope Shenouda III, have felt that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist politicians to senior ministerial positions (including Mohammed Mursi to the position of President) has threatened the culture and political future of this group. They worry that if Sharia law became the law code of Egypt, over the secular legal framework of previous regimes, that the freedom of this community to follow Christian law and traditions would be compromised.
It is certain that Central Asia and the Middle East is going through a great change in which the secularism of the military strongmen has been replaced by a growing adherence to Islamic orthodoxy. Many eras in Islamic history have seen similar changes in culture, swinging to a stronger Islamic identity. However Islam is not necessarily always a religion of exclusivity and purity. Under the Umayyad and early Abbasid Caliphs, Islam saw influences in politics, science and culture from all over the world. Under the very first Abbasid Caliphs a huge library of scholarly work was put together in the capital Baghdad. Islamic scholars, poured over Greek, Byzantine, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Arabic and African texts on culture, philosophy, political thought, science, literature etc collating all the work to create a society, that not only assimilated other cultures, but actively sought to embrace other culture’s traditions.
Whether or not Grandfather Frost makes an appearance in any future Uzbek Christmases, or even if there will be future Uzbek Christmases is up for debate, but whilst Islamic Orthodoxy takes hold across Central Asia and the Middle East is must be remembered that culture is always in a cycle. In a hundred years time what is traditional and considered culturally acceptable may change, but for the moment we must say farewell to Grandfather Frost.