Sebastien Peyrouse – Religion in Central Asia: Diversity & Challenges


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The Historical and Current Diversity of and Challenges to Religion in Central Asia

Keywords: Religion, Islam, Sunni-Shia, Islamization, Judaism, Bukharan Jews, State-Church relations, Soviet religious policy, Radicalization, Orthodox Church, Religious minorities


Religions have played a significant role in the history and culture of Central Asia and in the lives and identity of Central Asian people. This lecture presents the history and evolution of Islam and minority religions and explains that the religious revival which has taken place in the Central Asian countries since their independence is not just a resurgence of these religions, which supposedly were suppressed by the atheistic Soviet regime and restored by the newly independent “democratic” governments, but rather a diversification of approaches to and practices of religions. This has been demonstrated by the increasing religiosity of Central Asian populations in the context of their domestic cultural and historical legacies and their current political, economic and socially troubled situations. This lecture also highlights the impact of globalization on religions in Central Asia, where traditional and local beliefs and practices compete with increasingly globalized ones, and, although in a more limited way, with processes of politicization of religion. Finally, it discusses how the states of Central Asia are still far from implementing the right of individuals to practice the religion of their choice and from recognizing the diversity of approaches to religion, and in particular to Islam. The strict control of religion by the current political authorities has led in some cases to a reduction of religious freedom more drastic than during the latter part of the Soviet regime and led some believers to interpret it as an assault on religion and especially on Islam.

Sebastien Peyrouse, PhD, is a research professor at the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (George Washington University). His main areas of expertise are political systems in Central Asia, economic and social issues, Islam and religious minorities, and Central Asia’s geopolitical positioning toward China, India and South Asia. He has authored or co-authored several books on Central Asia such as Turkmenistan. Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe), The ‘Chinese Question’ in Central Asia. Domestic Order, Social Changes, and the Chinese Factor (London, New York: Hurst, Columbia University Press) and Globalizing Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development (Armonk: ME Sharpe), and published many articles, including in Europe Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, China Perspectives, Religion, State & Society, Journal of Church and State.

Download the “European Handbook of Central Asian Studies: History, Politics, and Societies” (Ibidem Verlag, 2021) here for fee:

Published under a CC BY-NC-ND License – This license allows reusers to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, for noncommercial purposes only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator. (Sébastien Peyrouse)


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