As the U.S. marks the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading U.S. think tank in Washington, D.C., held a conference on "Secular and Moderate Islam in the South Caucasus and Central Asia: Models and Challenges." Azerbaijan featured prominently in as experts, representing policy, business, media, and diplomatic communities, shared their opinions on the role of faith in the region.
The Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the US State Department, Farah Pandith, a Muslim-American woman, began her opening remarks with a moment of silence to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001. The Special Representative set the tone of the conversation by stressing the importance of faith, culture, and identity to the future development of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Farah Pandith mentioned the identity crisis of many young people in the region who are grappling with the vacuum left by the USSR. "The public turns to religion trying to express itself and to understand its heritage," Pandith said. "Unfortunately, due to the Soviet crackdown on religion, in many of these countries, young people don't have the educational tools needed to navigate the complex spiritual terrain."
"The loudest voices trying to provide information about Islam are not from the region and they "prey on the vulnerable youth," she added. "The State Department official meant the emissaries of Iran, the Gulf states and Pakistan who often bring extremist views to South Caucasus and Central Asia."
"In order to avoid the rise of violent interpretations of Islam, there is a need to institute programs and initiatives that give the next generation a voice and provide them with all the necessary and diverse instruments to form their own opinions and make their own choices, including social media," she said. "The Obama administration puts a lot of emphasis on giving dignity to all, and engaging with Muslims around the world."
"As could be expected, "Soviet legacy" was a common thread through the first panel of the conference," Dr. Svante Cornell, a Research Director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at School of Advanced and International Studies of Johns Hopkins University said. Cornell explained the role of an unchangeable "institutionalized ethnicity", as part of the Soviet policy. "In order to combat this mindset, Georgia has made an effort to change the perception of what it means to Georgia on the basis of citizenship, rather than ethnicity," he added.
"One of the main obstacles facing the countries of the region as they develop religious identity is the lack the capacity and understanding by the local governments of how to address the transformation happening in the region as people search for authentic expression of religion," he added. "Many governments have passed draconian laws to address the threats of terrorism and violent agendas of political and violent Islamists."
The speakers agreed that the evolution of the role of Islam and of national identities will play a major role in influencing the future security, economic development, and political transition in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
"Over the last twenty years, Eurasia as a whole, to include Russia, has been experiencing the trend of politicization of religion, while at the same time there is a corresponding process of continuing efforts to make politics a part of religion," Dr. Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College said. "This is a dangerous mix."
"American interest are at stake in the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia," Dr. Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow of The Heritage Foundation pointed out in conclusion of the first panel. "This is especially true, as the U.S. budgets will continue to dwindle and following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan," he said. "The way the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, and other countries engage in the region will reshape its future."