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Phantoms of Ideology

Will Islam replace communism as the governing political ideology of Central Asia? Neither of these books gives an unambiguous answer. Dilip Hiro’s workmanlike survey, Between Marx and Muhamad: The Changing Face of Central Asia, chronicles Soviet involvement in Central Asia since the Russian Revolution, with impressive attention to the twists and turns of policy, but less insight into the complex religious and ideological currents flowing through the region. His is an outsider’s view, based on materials generally available in the West. Vitaly Naumkin’s selection of essays by Soviet specialists, State, Religion and Society in Central Asia, published during the glasnost era, makes a useful supplement to Hiro, by explaining in more detail how, despite official persecution and harassment, Central Asian Islam continued to sustain itself in secret during more than seven decades of communist rule.

In the period after the Revolution, as Hiro explains, 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 ‘impinged on every facet of life, individual and social’. Nevertheless, institutional Islam was attacked during the 1930s, when 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 faith, the pilgrimage to Mecca and the collection of zakat (the religious dues used to maintain mosques and provide funds for the needy), were forbidden. The religious establishment was further crippled by the state takeover of the awqaf (religious trusts), depriving mullahs of their income and starving mosques and theological schools of funds. The Shari‘a and Adat (customary) courts were abolished. The ban on Arabic script imposed in 1929 ensured that future Soviet generations in Central Asia would have less access to their own history and to the Islamic canons, making them dependent on the Soviet authorities for material printed in Roman or Cyrillic scripts. The solidarity of the Central Asian Umma (Muslim community) 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 parcelling out the territories of Russian Turkestan into the five republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Hiro also includes the Transcaucasian state of Azerbaijan in his survey, though strictly speaking it does not belong to Central Asia.) The prosperous Fergana valley, which lies at 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 culture between these mainly Turkic peoples be emphasised 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 straitjackets of collectivisation and monoculture. Under Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands scheme, vast tracts of Kazakhstan were given over to cereal production, and when the mainly pastoral Kazakhs resisted, Slavs and other nationalities were imported to do the work. In Uzbekistan, more than 60 per cent of domestic production was turned over to cotton. This served the interests of the ruling party elites, some of whose members became involved in 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 rivers and lakes, including the Aral Sea.

Though there were undoubted benefits resulting from industrialisation and the introduction of almost universal literacy, the retreat of Soviet power following the war in Afghanistan has seen, not surprisingly, an upsurge of non-communist ideologies, including local nationalisms, pan-Turkism and militant forms of Islam. Suppressed for nearly three generations, Islam has made a remarkable comeback 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 nomenklatura have, except in Azerbaijan, managed to cling to power under their new ‘democratic’ labels. Even in Tajikistan, where the opposition is sustained by the Afghan Mujahidin, the neocommunists have managed to claw their way back to power.

Though they were written in 1990, before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the civil war in Tajikistan, several of the papers in Naumkin’s collection of essays by Soviet specialists contain clues to, if not complete explanations of, this phenomenon. In the clotted jargon that reveals its Marxist-Leninist provenance, Yuri Alexandrov explains that ‘contradictions artificially introduced into the indigenous economic and social structure by a foreign agent of change’ can engender ‘multiple ways of adapting traditional society to the economic relations imposed on it’. Whereas in European Russia the state succeeded in restructuring local communities in accordance with its requirements, in Central Asia the communities adapted state institutions to their own rules. Sergei Polyakov suggests that the Eurocentricity of the Soviet planners, and their very ignorance of local conditions, made it easier for Central Asians to impose their own patterns of authority on communist institutions. The privatisation 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 takeover had the effect of boosting ‘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’. In terms of their legal status and the official protection they enjoyed, the new Soviet institutions did not differ greatly from the Islamic awqaf in place before the Revolution.

In his essay on Tajikistan, Valentin Bushkov makes a similar point. For the Tajiks, the collectivisation of land introduced in the 1930s coincided with previous notions of clan property, and the first collective farms were actually organised on a clan basis, with the heads of families becoming farm chairmen and the collectivised property consisting of aviod or clan lands. In Central Asia, sovietisation 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 rather 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 clear from Naumkin’s selection of papers. 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 may also account for the survival of Islamic praxis during seven decades of communist rule. Meshed into the social system, Central Asian Islam did not depend on official institutions for its survival. In his essay on ‘Religious and Political Change in the Soviet Muslim Regions’, Alexei Malashenko suggests that the local elites, attached to Islamic customs and recognising a degree of affinity between Islamic and socialist values, cheated on their anti-religious activities as assiduously as they faked their figures of cotton production. Gatherings of old men reading the Qur’an would be described to zealots of the Society for Scientific Atheism as meetings of Great Patriotic War veterans. The custom of taqiya, concealing one’s beliefs to avoid persecution, was practised not only by the Shi‘a, but also by Sufi orders, such as 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 had always been there.

All of this should have provided fertile ground for the Islamic radical groups which mushroomed, especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, during the period of glasnost; while the defeat of Soviet power in Afghanistan at the hands of the Mujahidin confirmed the failure of Marxism-Leninism, and added an immeasurable boost to the idea that Islam could fill the ideological void. Hiro attributes the unexpected survival of the nomenklatura mainly to Iranian self-interest and self-restraint.

Tehran, despite being demonised in the West, particularly the United States, was ‘more interested in integrating the economies of [the] six Muslim majority states into its own than in aiding Islamic movements or groups in these countries’. This appears true in retrospect, when the Iranians are putting a good face on their reversal in Tajikistan, but as the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid claimed in his recent book, The Resurgence of Central Asia, the Iranians were heavily involved in Tajikistan, and were far from restricting aid and support to their fellow Shi‘ites. A more plausible explanation, hinted at by Malashenko, lies in the ambivalent nature of Central Asian Islam, which is suffused with the tolerant and apolitical spirit of Sufism: the fundamentalism with which the authorities felt themselves threatened, not only in Tajikistan, but rather with what Malashenko calls a ‘phantom of ideologised consciousness’. Having scared themselves, and the Russians, with this spectre haunting Central Asia, they were able to win enough support for the ruthless methods necessary to sustain themselves in power. The danger, revealed by the continuing conflict in Tajikistan, is that such an over-reaction can be self-fulfilling, hardening the opposition and creating a militancy that was not previously present.

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 26 August 1994.

The books reviewed were:_

Dilip Hiro (1994) Between Marx and Muhammad.

Vitaly Naumkin (ed.) (1994) State, Religion and Society in Central Asia.

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