They Might Be Muslims!? (Part 1)

by Noah Tucker on 3/13/2009 · 4 comments

A little while ago a critique that Josh posted once again sparked the debate about the “nature” of Central Asian religion and the state of the scholarship that makes claims about it. In the heat of the argument, I mentioned that I had written a piece on this topic last spring and promised to post it. It’s taken me awhile, but here’s the first installment:

**

Students or survivors of the pax sovetica know all too well the kind of madness for dialectical logic that was built into the Marxist-Leninist guiding principles of everything Soviet, dominating academic as much as political discourse. Less commonly reckognized, though, is the healthy survival of this legacy in contemporary scholarly literature and journalistic “pop-lit” on Central Asian Islam. Authors from a variety of Central Asian, Russian, and American/European perspectives have tended to produce an almost infinite variety of assessments of the Islamic religious life and traditions of the peoples of Central Asia that insist on placing it at one extreme or another of a dialectical spectrum. At one end is “real Islam,” which means a wide variety of things (though most often something dangerous and foreboding). At the other end is a special “Central Asian” Islam, which in various contexts serves as a sort of euphemism for shamanism dressed up as Islam, institutionalized folklore, secular religion, or a collection of national cultural practices that have some vague historical relation to a religion brought to the region by Arab conquerors and Sufi missionaries centuries ago.

As Devin Deweese reminds us in his Islamization and native religion in the Golden Horde, the idea that somehow Central Asian Islam is not “real” remains one of the common stereotypes that characterizes the literature on Central Asia. Academics and social commentators advance this conclusion to different ends. Many Central Asian scholars themselves follow in the footsteps of the Russified Kazakh academic Valikhanov even after the end of Russian or Soviet rule and defend their modernity and progressive development in Sovietesque high-modernist terms. They submit to the old assumption that religion is a disease that afflicts backwards societies and seek to distance themselves from it, asserting that they were either “never really Muslims in the first place” or that Communism or modernity itself had severed them once and for all from that part of their history. In an influential outsider version of this argument, we find American scholars who claim that the Soviet experience of anti-religious fervor and persecution combined with rapid modernization in forced isolation from the rest of the ummah permanently altered the character of Islam in the region, subsuming religious practice into national and local identities.


On the other end are those commentators, scholars, and members of Central Asia’s own Muslim community who argue that Islam in Central Asia was and ought to be “real” and “normative” and that therefore Central Asians are subject to all of the generalizations that accompany these categories for the commentator who applies them. For those within Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, this can translate into a demand that Islamic interests be represented in national government, as in the case of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan. Or, alternatively, it often serves as the backbone for the argument that syncretic, autochthonous or generally extra-textual practices like Mazar visits, the veneration of saints , or what Deniz Kandiyoti and Nadira Azimova call “propitiatory” rituals ought to be purged from institutionally and communally accepted religious praxis.

This polar paradigm for evaluating the quality and nature of religion in Central Asia has enjoyed a great deal of unfortunate use, no matter how clearly cumbersome it is to apply. Locating Central Asian Islam on this spectrum was a preoccupation of scholars already long before the end of the Soviet period. While the Communist establishment tried to convince people that they “weren’t actually Muslims” and therefore should be able to easily adopt Leninist ideology, in the West we know well the almost eschatological fervor of the Bennigson school that prophesied a hail of Muslim fire and brimstone on the Soviet atheists that dared to subjugate a people who were Muslim at their very core and thus naturally possessed of an unconquerable hatred of infidel rule.

At present Bennigson’s rabidly anti-Soviet prophecies have been turned on their head—while he held up fire-eyed Muslim mujahedeen as heroes who would (and in Afghanistan did) fight fiercely on the side of all that is ‘good, moral and anti-Communist,’ now a great faction of commentators who share a belief in the nature and place of this “real” Islam in Central Asia view it as the great evil of our day. Following the lead of Fred Starr and Ahmed Rashid, they believe the emerging “real Islam” of Central Asia poses a significant geopolitical and even existential threat to places as far off as Washington and London and spread their message of blood and danger in academic and popular print, in regular testimony before government committees on the region and in endless seminars and think-tank conferences.

Alarmist claims like these are especially harmful to the people of Central Asia themselves because they tend to consistently drum up support for repressive authoritarian (but safely secular) regimes and serve to legitimate further curtailment of already painfully limited civil and human rights in countries like Uzbekistan. Tellingly, rebuttals aimed at this “alarmist” camp often do not question the basic premise of the logic being used, as if they are passively agreeing that if Central Asian Islam is real then it is inherently violent, dangerous, and categorically opposed to modern secular government.

Instead of posing a challenge to this basic premise, responses tend to fly to the opposite pole of the paradigm, defending Central Asians as safe and benign people who are, after all, “not really Muslims” or are actually Sufis (the good kind of Muslim), shamanists, or scientific atheists who merely enjoy their national traditions and folklore.

Is Sufism is somehow un-Islamic? Are the practitioners of prehistoric religions supposedly more amenable to modernism than Muslims? Or atheists supposedly more tolerant of social diversity? These bizarre arguments are no more explained by these assertions than why praying five times a day, going to Mosque on Fridays, fasting during Ramadan or circumcising boys is apparently a sign of a passionate secret desire to overthrow secular government, kill Christians and Jews and stone women to death for showing their faces to strangers.

Even some in the American school who eloquently assert the diversity and variation of Islamic practice among the religion’s one billion adherents scattered across the globe still ultimately seem to rely on sublimation of religion into secular national traditions and identities to defend the peoples of Central Asia against the claims of Islamophobes and advocates of Karimovivan repression. The fact that accomplished historians and talented scholars would ultimately (though perhaps a bit unconsciously) accept this paradigm is likely a testament to just how firmly the formula “Muslim=violent fanatic” has dominated Western and Russian discourse about the region even before Vambury’s ridiculously embellished and flagrantly self-congratulatory account of his visit to Bukhara first rolled off European presses.

It is perhaps this tradition of discourse most of all that informs the nearly universal application of this faulty paradigm to Central Asia in particular. We seldom if ever hear Turkey described as “post-Islamic” and therefore safe, nor do we hear advocates of Turkey’s accession to the EU defending the Turks ability to participate in a modern, secular union on the ground that they are “not real Muslims.” It would seem that nowhere else in the world do we entertain the assumption that for no particular reason an entire society would simply throw out its old traditions and jurisprudence and suddenly and without warning convert to a militantly anti-modern form of “Wahhabism” or jihadi Salafism simply because they are actual, practicing Muslims.

(To be continued…)


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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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{ 4 comments }

Laura March 14, 2009 at 10:22 am

You have hit the nail on the head in terms of how these views on Islam show more about what kinds of ideas *we* think go together when we don’t bother thinking through our assumptions. I thought this line was especially nifty: “Are the practitioners of prehistoric religions supposedly more amenable to modernism than Muslims?”

Nach March 14, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Could you make plans to post your sources? It’s all very interesting and I’d like to do more research myself…

shohmurod March 14, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The secular traditions of Central Asia you speak of, in my opinion, were forced upon mullahs by Moscow (and rightfully so!).

If you ever lived as a young woman in a mahalla in any city of Central Asia and lose all your civil liberties, you would agree Islam is the same all over the world – a slippery slide towards a paternalistic society full of hatred for kafirs! That’s anyone who doesn’t believe in their version of Islam.

Screw that!

unaha-closp March 16, 2009 at 12:19 am

It is perhaps this tradition of discourse most of all that informs the nearly universal application of this faulty paradigm to Central Asia in particular. We seldom if ever hear Turkey described as “post-Islamic” and therefore safe, nor do we hear advocates of Turkey’s accession to the EU defending the Turks ability to participate in a modern, secular union on the ground that they are “not real Muslims.” It would seem that nowhere else in the world do we entertain the assumption that for no particular reason an entire society would simply throw out its old traditions and jurisprudence and suddenly and without warning convert to a militantly anti-modern form of “Wahhabism” or jihadi Salafism simply because they are actual, practicing Muslims.

We fear the same thing in Somalia and have acted in a similar fashion there. The “particlular reason” being that both places are dirt poor and vulnerable to enticements offered by petro-Islamists* through local religious leaders (lots of money & flattery) to take up the cause. Turks are not that poor, therefore not likely to be so easily enticed.

* Wahhabist or jihadi-salafist or whatever the correct term is these days, I do not keep current and find it much easier to classify by source of funding rather than originator of ideology. That source has been petro-wealth since the USA disinvested from the cause post-Soviet Afghanistan.

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