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.
DISCOURSES OF DANGER
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,