Montgomery on Khalid, 'Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia'

Adeeb Khalid
David Montgomery

Adeeb Khalid. Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xii + 241 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-24204-3; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-24927-1.

Reviewed by David Montgomery
Published on H-Soyuz (October, 2008)
Commissioned by Johanna K. Bockman

Central Asian Islam and Contemporary Implications of the Soviet Experience

Stereotypes disguise the complexities of human interactions, reducing people to manageable labels and creating landscapes of (mis)understanding that fail to appreciate the contradictions and intricacies of the everyday socially navigated world. Ethnographic engagement wrestles to correct the abuses of misunderstanding that create bad policy and neglect. Central Asia is, after all, a region of the world too often overlooked and viewed as either peripheral to Western interests or central within the broader discourse of danger endemic to the “war on terror.” Media coverage focuses on Islamic terrorism, poverty, corruption, social and environmental degradation, and kleptocratic politics, thus creating an image of urgency, desperation, and dismal destiny that neglects the adaptive way people seek to improve their lives and make merriment. Such myopic coverage neglects the impact of political environments on personal histories and how certain structures and events frame the conditions of the everyday. Thus, at the heart of Adeeb Khalid’s agenda for Islam after Communism is the desire to more deeply explain the relevance of history and how understanding the Soviet legacy better contextualizes the nuances of Islam and politics in the region. Accessible to a general audience though solidly researched to appeal to specialists, it is an immensely satisfying book that one hopes will be read by as broad an audience as possible.

Throughout the book, historical threads are woven to expand the understanding of the contemporary setting, and its structure--introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion--develops as a story of religion’s social and political evolution in the region. Khalid is a historian, so it is no surprise that his argument evolves from the claim that history matters and helps to make sense of the trajectory of the present. For, as he rightly argues, the past is never completely jettisoned, and, in the case of Central Asia, a postsocialist form of understanding the world emerges. Recognizing the limited knowledge people have about Central Asia, the unevenness in appreciating the consequences of the Soviet experience, and the general problem of talking about Islam in the world, Khalid aims to make sense of the world from the perspective of the Central Asian experience rather than, as is most often done, the view of those who see Central Asia as a peripheral space; although writing for a Western audience, he is sympathetic to Central Asia’s centeredness. In the introduction, he sets out to make the task clear by distinguishing the civilizational characteristics of Islam from its religious aspects, contextualizing the political within Islamists’ aims to Islamize modernity, and differentiating Islamists from jihadists as it relates to contemporary rhetoric. All of this is done with a sense of urgency, for Khalid hopes that better understanding of the historical context will yield greater insight into decisions being made about the region today, which will, in turn, contribute to a more stable and livable Central Asia.

The first four chapters provide background for understanding Islam as a dynamic part of people’s lives that was transformed by historical circumstances (this, of course, is the argument of a social scientist and an argument I support, though it is equally important to note that for some believers, Islam is the essence of historical objectivity, internally unchanged by contingent events). Chapter 1, “Islam in Central Asia,” shows how the pre-Russian history of Central Asia was one rooted in Islam, though what this meant was not so much an issue of textual mastery as it was the tacit unquestioned acceptance of the population being Muslim. Cautioning of ahistorical ways of seeing this, Khalid makes clear that being Muslim did not imply the notion of an Islamic state as it would be understood in contemporary terms, but rather a setting wherein identities were imagined both collectively and Islamically, yet carried a confidence toward authority that allowed traditions to be interpreted and differentiated from those of the Middle East. In some parts of Central Asia, conversion to Islam continued into the eighteenth century, and tribal customs continued to be influential in framing moral authority, all of which took place within a milieu of the Islamicate’s influence.

The impact of empire and the challenge of modernity--a period of change wherein Russian and, to some extent European, ways of thinking about and organizing society crept into the scene--is developed in chapter 2, “Empire and the Challenge of Modernity.” Russia brought Central Asia into the modern world via colonialism and expansion, introducing new ways of understanding the world that were connected to new ways of exacting political control. Shariat and customary law (âdat) continued to regulate most civil and personal matters and, although the Russians imposed an outside agenda onto the population, the policy toward Islam was that of “pragmatic flexibility” (p. 36). The particularities of the circumstances, however, facilitated the emergence of the Jadidist movement that supported Islam’s embracing of modern knowledge. This resulted in disputes with the more conservative members of the Islamic community, but these debates over the modernization of Islam were local. Protests against the Russians were not focused on religion but concerned with conscription, the expropriation of land, and oppression endured under colonial rule.

The next chapter, “The Soviet Assault on Islam,” addresses the sweeping agenda of societal transformation, which the Soviet Union initiated and which precipitated a fundamental change of governance that had an impact on the face of Central Asian Islam. As the Soviet Union sought to more deeply control the region, both economies and social affiliations were increasingly regulated. During the 1920s, a project of radical transformation created ethnic boundaries, forced collectivization, restricted religious activity, attacked the role of the ulama, and forcibly transformed traditional ways of life (byt). There was an environment of institutionalization wherein structures were created (or imposed) so that cultural activities and religious understandings could be regulated and coerced. And it was the case that the legacy of the Soviet period was a legacy of structural change where, for example, the role of learning Islam was relegated to the domain of family and public discourse was de-Islamized. Being Muslim, then, took on a new character, wherein it was no longer an unquestioned public aspect of life but rather a personal function of differentiation.

Moving from the destruction of the ulama and trauma of the early period of Soviet-imposed change, chapter 4, “Islam as National Heritage,” explores how the subsequent thirty years of stability created Central Asia’s contemporary setting. As Islam became relegated to a more private aspect of life, more public expressions of Islamic ritual came to mark difference as well as culture. Islam came to be an aspect of national heritage as traditions and customs, such as the gap (socializing in peer groups) and to’y (life-cycle feast), came to be seen as Muslim activities, because, in part, they were activities outsiders (non-Central Asians) did not do. The Soviet hostility toward religious education affected the depth of religious knowledge and emasculated practice to the point where, by the late Soviet period, being Muslim was more closely associated with local custom than it was with ritual observance or personal belief. And it is in this context, that it is worth recalling that, just as service in World War II led Central Asians to view themselves as Soviet citizens, the ethnonational identities coexisted with Muslimness and both were significant to people. In other words, the Soviet period was not one of constant rebellion and resistance, but rather one wherein people cobbled together lives from a history filtered through their contemporary circumstances.

Having effectively contextualized the historical experience of Islam as it changed from before the Russian colonial encounter to the roughly seventy years of Soviet hegemony, in chapter 5, “The Revival of Islam,” Khalid turns to the revival of Islam as a transitional period for contemporary Central Asia. In the late 1980s, the revival of Islam began with glasnost decentering the Soviet ideological monopoly and a search to reclaim spiritual and moral values believed to have been corrupted by the communist experience. This revival was not simply a return to Islam before the Soviet or Russian encounter, nor could it have been, but rather the evolution of a religious identity that was as much an expression of adopted ethnonational identities on the landscapes as it was steeped in the Soviet experience. Thus, visions of Islam from abroad as a catalyst for change, found in movements like Tablighi Jama’at and M. Fethulla Güllen, were nonetheless influenced by the baggage of history of the social context from where that movement originated. And, as the Central Asian states evolved post-independence, Islam was advocated as part of the national heritage, although the encouragement was intended to support a vision conforming to a political establishment weaned on Soviet dogma.

Chapter 6, “Islam in Opposition,” explores the path of opposition that (political) Islam has taken since independence. The collapse of the Soviet Union created an environment of uncertainty filled with stereotyped misunderstandings that suggested a relationship of Islam and governance as being either that of “secular” Turkey or “fundamentalist” Iran. These options neglect the history of the Central Asian experience and as such go far in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Central Asians look outside for Islamic guidance rather than drawing on local history. Because of the way the Soviet experience stunted the propagation of Islamic learning, Central Asian Muslims have looked to other countries for Islamic guidance. And because of the post-independence governments that have developed, some Central Asians have found ways of co-opting Islam as a legitimizing factor to oppose the state, either through small group worship, support of secret societies, or active engagement in groups aiming to violently oppose state hegemony. Khalid addresses in detail three Islamic groups that have both challenged the state and fed the stereotype of Central Asia as a region fertile for Islamic terrorism. He explains that the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan, which fought government forces in the devastating civil war, was not centrally motivated in the conflict by Islamization; that the militant jihadist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan sought to create an Islamic state though its focus has primarily been concerned with overthrowing the government of Uzbek president Islam Karimov; and that the transnational organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami, which seeks to unite Muslims through nonviolently creating the caliphate, owes its appeal to its ability to translate a global message into the concerns of local experience.

The activities of these organizations inspire fear in the West that seems to coincide with a failure to critically evaluate the claims of the terrorist threat made in the region. Both the final chapter, “The Politics of Antiterrorism,” and conclusion look at how the rhetoric of terrorism is abused, and how political opposition is labeled Islamic terrorism when religion is not necessarily the functional aspect of the dispute. Ironically, though clearly influenced by the Soviet legacy and despite supporting Islam as an aspect of national heritage, Central Asian governments see religion as a problem to be solved. Such widespread concerns distract from the more immediate threats to regional stability: corruption, the volatility of political succession, poverty, and energy and water needs to be paired with an inequality of resources and ecological disaster.

Islam after Communism, then, is not only about Islam in Central Asia, but also more broadly about the lasting effects of Soviet efforts to transform society, the role of history in people’s navigation of their lived experiences, and the importance of seeking more nuanced understandings of contemporary fears. One cannot ask for more than the book Khalid has written; it is an excellent introduction to the region and a valuable contribution to understanding the socialist experience as well as Islam outside of the Middle East. It is a book to be read, and shared.

Printable Version:

Citation: David Montgomery. Review of Khalid, Adeeb, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. H-Soyuz, H-Net Reviews. October, 2008.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.