Is­lam and the state in Cen­tral Asia, By Adeeb Khalid


Since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, the specter of reli­gious ex­trem­ism has haunted the pol­icy agenda as con­cerns Cen­tral Asia. Fears of the spread of Is­lamist mil­i­tancy to the re­gion and the ‘rad­i­cal­iza­tion’ of its pop­u­la­tion have framed se­cu­rity think­ing both among Western pro­fes­sion­als and in Cen­tral Asian gov­ern­ments. This is highly prob­lem­atic. While ex­trem­ist groups do ex­ist, the fo­cus on ex­trem­ism and mil­i­tancy is nev­er­the­less mis­placed Among Western ex­perts, “discourses of dan­ger” are of­ten based on lit­tle lo­cal knowl­edge and in­volve the pro­jec­tion of un­der­stand­ings of Is­lam in other parts of the world onto Cen­tral Asia, dis­re­gard­ing the re­gion’s own his­tory. For the Cen­tral Asian regimes, such discourses come in handy for bur­nish­ing their sec­u­lar­ist cre­den­tials and plac­ing them on the right side of the global war on ter­ror. They pro­vide them with a com­mon lan­guage to use with Western gov­ern­ments and think tanks, even if their thresh­old for defin­ing ex­trem­ism is ex­tremely low.


The preva­lence of th­ese “discourses of dan­ger” in the West is all the more ironic given that dur­ing the Cold War Is­lam was widely seen as an an­ti­dote to com­mu­nism. The Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan and the en­su­ing war there brought this ques­tion to the fore­front. Sev­eral books dis­cussed the threat Is­lam and Mus­lims could pose to the Soviet state, and the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA) thought that Mus­lims “could do a lot of dam­age to the Soviet Union.” This was, of course, the 1980s, and Mus­lims who posed threats to the Soviet Union were a good thing. Few now re­mem­ber that ji­had was a good word in Wash­ing­ton in the 1980s, and the Afghan Mu­jahideen were lauded as free­dom fight­ers. The US-spon­sored ji­had in Afghanistan led to the ji­hadism of to­day, even if the Soviet Union col­lapsed with­out its Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion play­ing any sig­nif­i­cant role in its demise. De­vel­op­ments since World War II, lit­tle un­der­stood by out­side ob­servers, meant that Cen­tral Asia and its in­hab­i­tants were well in­te­grated in the Soviet Union. In­deed, in 1991, in the last year of its ex­is­tence, sup­port for the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of the USSR was nowhere higher than in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity re­publics of Cen­tral Asia. Cen­tral Asians proved to be the most Soviet of all Soviet cit­i­zens.

Al­most a quar­ter of a cen­tury has passed since the Soviet Union ceased to be, but lit­tle about con­tem­po­rary Cen­tral Asia can be un­der­stood with­out un­der­stand­ing the mas­sive trans­for­ma­tions the re­gion ex­pe­ri­enced in the seven decades of Soviet rule. The Soviet legacy shapes the ways in which the vast ma­jor­ity of Cen­tral Asians re­late to Is­lam. Put bluntly,

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