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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Central Asia

The Religious History of Central Asia from the Earliest Times to the Present Day by James Thrower (Studies in Asian Thought and Religion: Edwin Mellen Press) Given this work is a fine historical study of mostly Islamic religions in Central Asia and pretty much ignores the influence of Buddhism and shamanism in the same regions, it lacks the social cultural comprehensiveness needed for the region.

However with that proviso aside the volume is an important contribution in English about the religious development in the former Soviet states.

A decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire in Central Asia, it is still too early to measure its full impact on the religions of the region. The ending of Moscow's rule led to a bitter civil war in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, as predominantly ethnic factions backed respectively by Moscow and Tashkent, fought for the legacy vacated by the old Soviet nomenklatura. Though presented by Moscow as a struggle for independent, secular Tajikistan against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism flowing from across the border in Afghanistan, most observers considered this view exaggerated. A more plausible explanation for the cause of the war was the growing regional rivalry between Moscow and Tashkent, formerly the Soviet Union's third city, now the capital of a newly emergent and confident Uzbekistan. Despite the efforts of Iran and Saudi Arabia it is still far from clear if Islamism will supplant the new post-communist as the governing political ideology of the region.

The religious history of Central Asia, as revealed by Thrower in his final book, suggests that the puritanical forms of Islam favoured in Iran and Saudi Arabia will not find fertile territory in the future. Built as they are from different layers, including shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Manichean Gnosticism and Sogdian Christianity overlaid by the Sufi mystical traditions dominated by the Kubrawwiyyah, Qadiriyya, Yassawiyya and Naqshbandiyya orders, the Islamic identities of the region are complex composites, in which ethnic and tribal divisions remain stronger than religious allegiances. As Ahmed Rashid has pointed out, it has proved difficult for Islamic parties to build movements across ethnic lines: ethnic minorities (which abound in the region, with a high proportion, for example, of Tajik-speakers living inside the boundaries of Uzbekistan, and many Uzbeks in Tajikistan) "will not join movements led by ethnic majorities, and vice versa." 27 The high levels of literacy which is perhaps the most positive legacy of Soviet rule, militates against the simplistic messages of groups funded by petrodollars from one of the world's most culturally undeveloped regions, whose message is narrow, and puritanical. Ill-informed Wahhabi attacks on local Sufi customs as constituting "Zionist and Turkish conspiracies against Islam" will cut little ice in the heartland of Timur (Tamerlane), the conqueror and unifier of Central Asia who is buried in Samarkand. Sufism as a deeply personal, silent expression of the Islamic faith kept it alive during seven decades of communist rule. The nationalist cultural revival which is taking place throughout the region contains many Sufistic elements, with yoga, meditation and alternative medicine being revived alongside interest in ancient (including pre-Islamic) poetry and literature. The Islamist condemnation of such activities and non-canonical practices, including pilgrimages to the tombs of local heroes and saints, as "jahiliya" (ignorance or paganism) goes against the grain of local patriotisms and traditions.


The survival of Islam under Soviet Rule and its revival in the post-Soviet era is largely due to the way in which Sufism (unlike Wahhabi-style "exoteric" or legalistic Islam), can adopt multiple forms in public while retaining its devotional character. In the initial period after the October Revolution, anti-religious policies were implemented in the Muslim-majority areas with considerable caution, partly because the communists considered Muslim society to be "feudal," lacking a revolutionary proletariat, and partly because of the way that Islam, without the institutional structures that pitted the Bolsheviks against the Russian Orthodox church in the West, impinged on every facet of individual and social life. As Thrower shows in Chapter 9 of this book, institutional Islam suffered serious assault during the 1930s when Stalin launched his "second revolution" from "above." Mosques were placed in the hands of the Union of Atheists, to be turned into museums or places of entertainment, while two of the five "pillars" of the Islamic faith, the pilgrimage to Mecca and the collection of zakat (the religious dues used to maintain mosques and provide funds for the needy), were effectively forbidden. The religious establishment was further crippled by the state take-over of the awqaf (religious trusts), depriving mullahs of their income and starving mosques and theological schools of funds. The Sharia and Adat (customary) courts were abolished. The ban on Arabic script imposed in 1929 ensured that future Soviet generations would have less access than in the past to their own history and to the Islamic canons, making them dependent on the Soviet authorities for material printed in Latin or Cyrillic scripts.

The potential for political solidarity among Central Asian Muslims was attacked by a deliberate policy of divide and rule. Today's Central Asian states owe their territorial existence to Stalin who responded to the threat of pan-Turkish and pan-Islamic nationalism by parceling out the territories of Russian Turkestan

into the five republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The prosperous Fergana Valley, which lies to the core of the region and had always been a single economic unit, was divided between Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Stalin's policies demanded that differences in language, history and cultures of these mainly Turkic peoples be emphasized in order to satisfy the Leninist criteria on nationality, which required a common language, a unified territory, a shared economic life and a common culture. To the new territorial configurations were added the straightjackets of collectivization and monoculture. Under Khruschev's Virgin Lands scheme vast tracts of Kazakhstan were given over to cereal production, and when the mainly pastoral Kazakhs resisted, Slays and other nationalities were imported to do the work. In Uzbekistan more than 60% of Gross Domestic Production was turned over to cotton. This served the interest of the ruling party elites, some of whose members became involved in gargantuan frauds based on the systematic falsification of production figures, but left a devastating environmental legacy by starving non-cotton crops of irrigation and drying up the rivers and lakes, including the Aral Sea.

Although there were undoubted benefits resulting from industrialization and the introduction of almost universal literacy, the retreat of Soviet power following the jihad in Afghanistan inevitably saw an upsurge of non-communist ideologies, including local nationalisms, pan-Turkism and militant forms of Islam. Suppressed for nearly three generations, the Islamic faith has made a remarkable come-back among ordinary people. Mosques and religious schools are flourishing. Yet despite the retreat of Russia, the general disillusionment with Soviet rule and the collapse of the local economies, the old communist nomenklaturas have managed to cling to power under new "democratic" labels that barely conceal the reality of authoritarian nationalism. Even in Tajikistan, where the opposition was for a time sustained by the Afghan mujahiddin forces of the Tajik Ahmed Shah Masoud (assassinated, it is thought, at the behest of Osama bin Laden on September 9, 2001, two days before the attacks on New York and Washington) and the Uzbek leader General Dostom (now deputy defence ministerin the interim Afghan government) the neo-communists have managed to claw their way back to power, though the cost in human lives, estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000, has been terrible.

The resurgence in some cases and in others the survival of the old communist nomenklaturas in Central Asia is in marked contrast with the collapse of communism in the West. Paradoxically the political and administrative structures may have endured because they were far less dependent on Marxist ideology than in the European Russia where the realized eschatology of Marxism emerged out of (without wholly replacing) the deeply rooted eschatological traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Islam has its own eschatological yearnings. They are institutionalized in the Shiite minority tradition. Among the Sunni majority, though they function less formally, they persist, as was shown in the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of Saudi militants in 1979. Like their Christian counterparts, who are fed eschatological fantasies by popular preachers such as Jerry Falwell, Muslim students in America and other western countries are being targeted with popular reprints of hadiths predicting the triumph of Islam in a cataclysmic Day of Judgement that will occur at an unspecified time in the none too distant future. The fundamentalist mind-set involving the collapse of mythos and logos as a psychological bulwark against the disorienting effects of modernity is pervasive among Muslim students residing in the West, as in the Middle East. It may only be a matter of time before the poison spreads to Central Asia.

There are, however, some contrary indications. The presence of Russia for a century and a half in Central Asia, the partly integrated character of the ruling communist institutions, which encouraged (and in many cases depended on) the participation of local elites, may have, paradoxically, inoculated the newly-emerging intelligentsia against espousing the kind of political mythologies that failed to sustain the empire to which their parents belonged. As Rashid suggests, although Russians may not always be popular and Slays and Muslims tend to live separate social lives, there is a "shadowy acceptance" of their

presence rather than a "clear distinction" between colonizer and colonized, along with a "grudging admission that the Russians did much `civilize' Central Asia. As Thrower shows in Chapter 8, the reformist tradition among Muslims known as Jadidists (renovators) go back to the eighteenth century, a response to the Tsarist encroachments on the original Central Asian emirates. Some 8 million Russians still live in the area. With the population of Kazakhstan almost 50% Russian, and despite a substantial exodus from the region's leading metropolis, Tashkent remains a mixed European-style city in the heart of Asia. Perhaps, as Rashid predicts, those who remain will not learn local languages and will increasingly come to live in Russian ghettos outside the mainstream society.

Yet, both the duration of Russia's presence and its character - a mixing of populations and traditions rather than an unambiguous difference between settlers and natives, may soften the social boundaries and historic resentments on which nationalism (and a fortiori, religiously-based nationalism or fundamentalism) depend. Recent Russian scholarship suggests that the Eurocentricity of the Soviet planners, their very ignorance of local conditions, made it easier for Central Asians to impose their own patterns of authority on communist institutions. The privatization of property in land, which was beginning when Central Asia was incorporated into the Tsarist empire, was abruptly halted after the revolution. Far from benefiting the peasants the Bolshevik take-over had the effect of boosting what Sergei Polyakov calls "an authoritarian-patriarchal type of management in the collective farm system, based on `patron-client' relations between superiors and subordinates." This, argues Polyakov, suited the traditional Islamic order, "leaving the customary way of life unaffected."

The pattern is similar to that which is to be found in many Middle Eastern Muslim societies where political and economic life is dominated by patron-client

relationships. The late Albert Hourani, in his magisterial History of the Arab Peoples argued that a sound analytical framework for the persistence of patron-client relationships in Arab-Muslim societies could be found in the writings of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Arab philosopher of history whose theories of cyclical renewal and concept of `asabiya still provides a useful frame through which contemporary events may be viewed. In Ibn Khaldun's theory, the earliest form of human society was that of the hardy people of the steppes and mountains where authority was based on ties of kinship and group cohesion - `asabiya. A ruler with `asabiya was well placed to found a dynasty, since citied folk tended to lack this quality. When dynastic rule was stable and prosperous, city life would flourish. But in Ibn Khaldun's era every dynasty bore within itself the seeds of decline, as rulers degenerated into tyrants, or became corrupted by luxurious living. In due course power would pass to a new group of hardy rulers from the margins. "To borrow and adapt an idea from Ibn Khaldun," wrote Hourani, "it could be suggested that the stability of a political regime depended upon a combination of three factors. It was stable when a cohesive ruling group was able to link its interests with those of powerful elements in society, and when that alliance of interests was expressed in a political idea which made the power of the rulers legitimate in the eyes of society, or at least a significant part of it." The cohesion of Arab regimes now depends on factors - such as personality cults disseminated through visual media and the ubiquitous presence of the intelligence and security services - which were not available to rulers in the past. Moreover in most states the power of government now extends into the remotest parts of the countryside, including mountain valleys and steppes, where its writ was either weak or practically ignored. But in modern Arab politics the `asabiya of the ruling group is still an important if not the crucial factor in the acquisition and maintenance of power.

Similar considerations may have applied in Central Asia. As the Pakistani journalist and leading authority on Central Asian politics Ahmed Rashid has pointed out, before perestroika and the Gorbachev era the local party leaders who ruled in Central Asia either as communist party secretaries or their deputies built up "formidable party machines fuelled by patronage, corruption and clan loyalties" - an example of `asabiya operating under the aegis of communist institutions. In some cases the institutions themselves could be blended, without either a real change of function or system of control. For example Polyakov suggests that in terms of their legal status and the official protection they enjoyed the new Soviet institutions did not greatly differ from the Islamic awqaf (religious trusts) in place before the revolution. "Despite legal changes in property relations and the political organization of society, the real forms of property in rural areas have generally remained as they were before incorporation into Russia. There have been changes in name, but not in substance." Valentin Bushkov makes a similar point with regard to collectivization in Tajikistan. For the Tajiks the collectivization of the land introduced in the 1930s coincided with previous notions of clan property, and the first collective farms were actually organized on a clan basis, with the heads of families becoming farm chairmen and the collectivized property consisting of avlod or clan lands. Thus in Central Asia sovietization reinforced, rather than undermined, traditional social structures. In Bushkov's view, however, this was not - as Polyakov and others have suggested - the result of faulty sociology, but of deliberate policy. "It was central government policy to preserve village traditions and the underdeveloped economy because this encouraged Central Asian agriculture to accelerate and expand cotton production." However, the details of how the clan system operated at the macro level, sustaining Soviet power, are not yet clear from material published in the West. To obtain a more precise picture, one would need to know how party and

clan memberships overlapped and how far Soviet institutions buttressed tribal authority.

The resilience of the clan system had an important bearing on the survival of the local power structures after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also helps to account for the survival of Islam during seven decades of communist rule. Meshed into the social system, Central Asian Islam did not depend on official institutions for its survival. A recent Russian scholar, Alexei Malashenko, suggests that the local elites, attached to Islamic customs and recognizing a degree of affinity between Islamic and socialist values, cheated on their anti-religious activities as assiduously as they faked their cotton production figures. Gatherings of old men reading the Quran would be described to zealots of the Society for Scientific Atheism as meetings of Great Patriotic War veterans. The custom of taqiyya, concealing one's beliefs to void persecution, was practiced not only by the Shia and also by Sufi orders such as the Naqshabandiya, which have deep historical roots in Central Asia. The public resurgence of Islam after 1989 was not so much a religious revival, as the resurfacing of something that was already there.

All of this might have provided fertile ground for the Islamic radical groups which mushroomed, especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, during the Gorbachev era of glasnost and perestroika, while the defeat of Soviet power in Afghanistan at the hands of the mujahiddin confirmed the failure of Marxism-Leninism, adding an immeasurable boost to the idea that Islam could fill the ideological void. As Thrower shows in his final chapter, however, the future of Islam in Central Asia is more likely to follow the path of accommodation to secular nationalist government demonstrated in post-colonial Indonesia and Malaysia (the two Muslim countries which have undergone successful industrial revolutions without being wholly dependent on oil) rather than trying to emulate

the Islamist movements in Iran and the Arab world which aim to rebuild or "restore" the idea of an Islamic state governed by the Sharia law. Despite the warnings from Moscow and from western statesmen (including James Baker, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, who on a tour of the Central Asian republics in 1991 urged their leaders to emulate secular Turkey rather than Islamist Iran), the rise of political Islam in Central Asia remains a case of "the dog that didn't bark."

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