Central Eurasia is characterized by historians as one of the most diverse places on the face of the earth, with its distinct and colorful characteristics. For centuries this geographical region has been at the crossroads of continents, religions, philosophies, ideologies, trade routes, geopolitical and strategic interests. Various cultures and civilizations of West and East have flourished and intermingled through the course of the history in this part of the world. Central Eurasia has experienced a rich history of generally peaceful co-existence of various religions and cultures. Owing to the interpenetration of different traditions, customs, and practices, it has become home to diverse cultures, providing an environment within which the rich experience, aspirations, and customs of nations can be effectively shared. Since ancient times, in particular during the era of the Great Silk Route, cultural values as well as material values and riches have moved between East and West. In Central Eurasia, many imprints have been left by historical dialogues, which have provided linkages and bridges between regions, cultures and civilizations.
Roughly speaking, the bulk of Central Eurasia consists of Central Asia and the Caucasus but also stretches to such regions as Turkey, the Turkic/Muslim regions of southern Russia, northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia, Tibet and Mongolia. Largely due to Turkic influence, shaped historically by a tolerant understanding of co-existence as enjoined in Islam, this region has won prestige internationally for its peaceful efforts in this diverse geographical area.
Such leading U.S. universities as Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of California in Los Angeles, and the University of Indiana in Bloomington offer graduate courses on Central Eurasian studies and languages. The notion of a “clash of civilizations” promoted by Huntington in the era of globalization has never been accepted by many people throughout Central Eurasia in their rich historical experiences of living in “mosaic societies.”
Pluralistic Islam at the heart of Eurasia
Unfortunately, for last couple of decades the experience of the diverse pluralistic Islam of Central Eurasia has been obscured by the political trends of Islam in the Middle East. The latter, rather than the former, has become the focus of most academic scholars of social sciences and humanities and media. Historically, while Turkey formed the western boundary of the Muslim world, Central Eurasia has largely represented the northern and north-eastern boundaries of the classical Islamic world. Islam in Central Eurasia emerged mainly through remarkable Sufi masters like Ahmet Yassavi, Korkyt Ata, Mevlana Rumi, and Baba Tukes. The merchant caravanserais of the Silk Road that traversed vast areas between the Middle East and China came into existence through peaceful means, and new Muslims in this area were very tolerant toward the many religions and cultures of their neighbors. Although the revelation of the Qur’an started in Arabia, most of its scholarly interpretations and the hadith compilations were compiled in Central Asia. The greatest contributions to almost all areas of religious and positive sciences, engineering, art and culture were witnessed in this part of the world between the ninth and fourteenth centuries ce. The works of such outstanding intellectual figures as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Farabi (Alfarabius), Al-Khwarizmi still benefit
people all over the world. The largest library in the world in the thirteenth century ce was in Otrar (a city in present-day southern Kazakhstan), which was later totally demolished by Genghis Khan during Mongol invasion.
In the period between the seventh and thirteenth centuriesce, the Muslim world was ruled predominantly by Arab caliphs of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. However, starting from the twelfth century up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Muslims of Central Eurasia of predominantly Turkic origin became the foremost rulers of the Muslim nations. Among them were the famous states administered by the Seljuks in Central Asia, the Golden Horde in Russia, the Baburides on the Indian subcontinent, the Mamluks in Egypt, and the Ottomans in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
The Golden Horde’s legacy of tolerance toward Christian, Jewish and Buddhist communities laid the foundation for the flourishing of Moscow and the Russian
Empire, which became heir to the Golden Horde’s legacy. Saray, which was the capital of the Golden Horde from thirteen to fifteen centuries, and which was located very close to the border of modern-day southern Russia and western Kazakhstan, became a center of intercontinental diplomacy as envoys and ambassadors representing princes and popes sought audiences with the Muslim khans of the Golden Horde.
Dialogue between world religions in Central Eurasia in the modern secular context
After more than two hundred years of Czarist rule, the ex-Soviet Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, being one of the most diverse countries in the world, the home of 120 ethnic groups and many world religious communities for the last seventeen years became the active initiator of peace, dialogue, integration and reconciliation initiatives across not just the Eurasian states of the former Soviet Union, but also the larger international community. After independence, to ease tension among superpowers Kazakhstan’s government decided unilaterally to dismantle the huge nuclear arsenal left as the Soviet legacy of the cold war. Following the breakup of the USSR, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s proposal to form a “Eurasian Union” was praised by many leaders across Russia and the ex-Soviet republics. The late pope John Paul II met Nazarbaev in Astana on September 11, 2001.
Muslim–Jewish dialogue in Central Eurasia
In 2002 Kazakhstan served as the facilitator of Islamic– Jewish dialogue in Eurasia, an event which took place in the new capital, Astana. At the conference, thirty rabbis from various countries noted that the only way forward in the relationship between Muslims and Jews is through constructive dialogue. They also expressed their wish to see Kazakhstan as a center of Muslim–Jewish dialogue. The fact that the headquarters of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) was placed in Almaty, the largest city in Muslim Kazakhstan, at a time when there is growing instability in the Middle East, is a sign of the huge potential of the mutual trust between Muslim and Jewish communities in Eurasia. Alexander Mashkevich, the head of the EAJC, considers Kazakhstan a unique example of cooperation and peaceful coexistence between various peoples and religions. He also noted that the largest synagogue in Central Asia, which was opened in Astana, best characterizes Muslim Kazakhstan as the land of inter-ethnic peace and inter-confessional harmony.The latest phase of this dialogue at the First International Conference of Peace and Accord was held in Almaty the previous year. Presidents of the leading Jewish organizations of the United States, leaders and plenipotentiaries of the states of Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and members of the leadership and the Council of Rabbis and Central Asian Muslim leaders condemned terrorism and declared that there are no antagonistic contradictions between Judaism and Islam.
Dialogue between world and traditional religions at the heart of Eurasia
At a time when some dark forces are trying to bring about a clash of world religions and civilizations, Central Eurasia offered an unprecedented challenge to these dangerous trends by initiating a series of high profile civic activities bringing together members of the clergy of world and traditional religions in the heartof Eurasia in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in 2003 and 2006. A unique role model for intercultural communication and dialogue, Kazakhstan, with a number of other countries of Central Eurasia, showed the whole world that traditional values can be reconciled with liberal norms in the formation of a successful, peace-loving, civil, mosaic society. Leading Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, active promoter of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, valued this significant interfaith event in Eurasia highly and said, “The only way for humankind to solve its problems is by way of dialogue: meeting, learning and talking to each other…With all my heart I state that all these initiatives done out of pure intentions will serve to establish peace and stability in the region, to improve relationships among nations and also to build lasting peace on the whole planet.”
Dialogue Eurasia: “DA”
A number of Turkish people are working to pave the way for dialogue in the Eurasia region.,  Diyalog Avrasya (Dialogue Eurasia), a publication of the Dialogue Eurasia Platform, has been the voice of common sense in seventeen countries, from Moldavia to Mongolia, since its founding in 2000. A bilingual quarterly published in Turkish and Russian, DA adopts an approach to conflict with reconciliation, using the slogan, “Dialogue starts with ‘DA’” (“Da” in Russian means “yes” in English). DA representatives recently gathered in Istanbul and discussed the latest developments in the Eurasia region. DA stressed that its ideology is knowledge and love, and that convergence, compromise and understanding constitute the backbone of their policy. Renowned Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aytmatov, who passed away recently, also served on the journal’s advisory board; he described DA as “the business card of Eurasia.” Garnering great interest in the countries where it is published, DA also brings together Eurasia’s famous writers, intellectuals and civil society volunteers. In addition, opinions and essays of leading politicians frequently appear in the journal.
Interestingly, present and past dialogue efforts in Central Eurasia go hand in hand with positive trends in education, which for the last decade or so, has experienced quite a renaissance. Hopefully, dialogue efforts combined with excellence in education will yield great fruits in the future in this important region of the world, which will benefit the whole of humanity again as during the region’s golden ages between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. There is hope that the dynamism of inter-cultural diversity which has prevailed for centuries on the Eurasian continent with its multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious characteristics will gain momentum in future again.
Dr. Zhandos Utegulov is researcher at University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
2. Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72(3): 22-49.
3. Ali Unal, Alphonse Williams eds. Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gulen, 2000, The Fountain Publications.
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9. Interview with Fethullah Gulen in Kazahstanskaya Pravda, Sept 15, 2006.
12. Ismail Demirkan, Aksar Beketov. “Islam, Science, and Free and Open Inquiry,” Physics Today, January 2008, p. 11.