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Islam in Asia360°CONTEXT

Islam originally spread through Asia by way of Central Asia, but has since spread to the southern regions of the continent. Radical Islam has been feared by governments throughout history.

While South Asia now harbors the majority of the worldwide Muslim population, the religion underwent the most tumultuous development in Central Asia.

Islam was first introduced to Central Asia by nomadic tribes but was only truly established in the region after The Battle of Talas in 751 AD. The victory of the Abbasids over the Chinese Tang Dynasty ended the latter’s western territorial expansion, and precipitated the mass spread of Islam through the Central Asian Turkic cultures.

Jump forward to the 20th century: following the rise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Russian Empire in 1917, Islam was oppressed by the communist regime, who saw it as a threat to the new state. The Basmachi Revolt, which began as a reaction to Muslim conscription in 1917, continued through the 1920s before continued defeats ended the uprising by the decade’s close. In the aftermath of the movement, the Soviet government enacted regular purges and smear campaigns against the religion.

Nevertheless, Islam survived the Soviet purge, and following the collapse of the USSR, experienced a revival in Central Asia. However, the newly formed, independent governments have remained apprehensive of the religion as well, expressing concerns that it could become a potentially powerful tool against them. The rise of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) that took part in the Tajik Civil War in 1992 only reinforced the fear of radical Islamic movements and the political clout that the religion might gain.

While Islam is more prominent in the cultures of Central Asia and the Middle East nations, the most populous Muslim nations are in Southern and Southeast Asia. The Asian Pacific is now home to approximately 61.9% of the world’s Muslim population. Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are home to over 670mn Muslims.

Radical Islam has continued to emerge on the political scene of Southeast Asia; however, it is comparatively tame and isolated from terrorism than in other regions.

The post-9/11 era has seen the emergence of both a heightened fear of fundamentalist Islam and the rise of “global Islamic consciousness,” under which the religion’s international proponents have united to defend their faith. This nascent international community sees it as their duty to raise awareness about cultural misrepresentations and slandering portrayals of Islam.

Quick Facts:

  • Islam has become the largest religion in Asia, with over 1bn adherents
  • 62% of the Muslim population is located in the Asia Pacific.
  • Sunni and Shia Islam are the two most common denominations of the religion.