They Might be Muslims!? (Part 2)

by Noah Tucker on 3/17/2009 · 6 comments

Part 1 of this post hasn’t generated much comment so far, but hopefully the second installment will spark some interesting discussion. This section advocates another way of understanding Central Asian Islam as an alternative to forcing it to one end or another of the “real=dangerous, unreal=safe” spectrum. The paper closes with what I think are serious potential dangers of cramming the whole religious life of a region one one end or another of a faulty black/white paradigm.

Part 2:

The ready acceptance of the “real=dangerous//unreal=safe” dialectic in evaluating Central Asian religion likely tells us a great deal about what “Islam” in areas associated with the former USSR has come to mean in public discourse of the West (and Russia!!) since the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the wars in Chechnya and Dagestan. The knee-jerk association of “real” or authentic Islam with bearded guerrillas carrying rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs is perhaps understandable given that some of these small splinter sects of the world’s second largest religion conduct their PR through acts of unthinkable terror and constantly fetishize violence in their propaganda. Murdering sleeping Muscovites by the hundreds and New York office workers by the thousands allows these tiny groups to command the horror and fascination of the whole world, easily overshadowing their millions of co-religionists whom they hold in contempt for their moderation and tolerance of local and personal variation of practice and theology.

While associating the Taliban or al-Qaida with Islam as a whole is one knee-jerk reaction, another is mistaking the private Islam of Central Asia, adapted and re-adapted to endlessly changing political contexts, with either some “other” religion or no religion at all. In a sort of interest in full disclosure, I have to admit that after living in Tashkent for three years and coming back to the US to be asked over and over again what the chances of radical Islam gaining a foothold in Central Asia were, I often flew to the other pole of the spectrum myself. “It can’t happen,” I would say, “because they’re just not really all that serious about Islam.” My answer was informed by what I experienced, what I saw, what I heard—or, more accurately, what I didn’t see or hear. Living in Tashkent or traveling around the country for only brief stays in the provinces, I didn’t hear calls to prayer that made cities pause, I didn’t see men with long black beards eyeing me suspiciously, and didn’t see women carefully veiled on the street even in small villages of the Ferghana Valley.

But even knowing Soviet history well and taking consideration of the violent repression of public religion that I also knew had in many ways not really stopped in the early 2000s when I first moved to the region, I failed to take into account the possibility that just because Islamic practice and open belief had disappeared in many ways this did not necessarily mean that it had stopped.

There was in fact no reason to assume that because people did not generally spread their mats and pray in public that they did not face Mecca in their own homes. I might have (and should have) guessed that when the driver who transported the children from the school I worked for let go of the steering wheel to silently perform the “amin” every time we drove by a mosque or graveyard, he was indicating something deeper than what he was willing to admit to the white Christian who paid his salary every month. Calling something like this, as he and many others did, a “national tradition” covers up all manner of dangers in a way that is of supreme political utility–particularly in the sense that staying out of jail and out of trouble with the police (and alive) is a kind of supreme utility. Trained and encouraged to identify local, community, and ethnic practices as “national tradition” under both the Soviet and current regimes, I would argue that in fact many among the populations of these new states have not so much sublimated their religious beliefs to national identity as they have hidden them inside national identity (this is not my own original idea, see Tohidi, Kamp, Schoeberlein and others from the references below for research that reflects the different ways that people do this).

Anyone who has read one of the few attempts to create a single-volume history of Central Asia realizes quickly (and often after putting the book down halfway through in defeat) that the history of the region is nothing if not that of shifting political alliances and a merry-go-round of usually short-lived regimes and rulers, each with their own philosophies, religious beliefs, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. Reading rather more deeply, I would argue that we come to understand that there is in fact a tradition as long as history itself of conquered or subjugated peoples adapting the religious and political idioms of their ruler-of-the-day while preserving their own practices, traditions, and beliefs, often safely couching them within the vocabulary and context of the politics of the time, be they Sunni, Shi’a, Euro- Imperial, communist, or nationalizing. In the longer view we must take into consideration the long string of accounts of secret Shi’as, Islamized prehistoric shrines, posthumous conversions of saints and historical figures. In the more recent past we find Communist party members who profess atheism but retire to lives of pious prayer and insist on a secret Muslim funeral, ensuring both their legacy in this world and their future in the next.

Finally, while the danger of applying the radical end of this faulty paradigm to the contemporary realities of Central Asia may be easily apparent, in fact sterilizing and downplaying Islam as a social institution may carry its own dangers as well. In his conclusion to Islam after Communism, Adeeb Khalid says:

Central Asia has many potential sources of instability, and Islamic militancy ranks low on the list. The most immediate potential source of instability in the near future is the successions that loom at the top, as the first generation of leadership succumbs to mortality. Of greater long term concern should be the dismal state of the region’s economy, the ecological nightmare unfolding there, and the endemic corruption. (p. 198)

While I certainly agree with Khalid that Central Asia has no particular natural predilection for radical Islamism (albeit for different reasons perhaps, as above) I worry that it’s precisely the methodical destruction of civil society and repression of legitimate forms of social response to the state–combined with all the dangerous social and even existential threats that he mentions–that may leave people in Uzbekistan in particular with little recourse for resistance and protest other than participation with organized Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir. Civil society and formally institutionalized religion cannot offer even open criticism of the Uzbekistani regime and its policies—the thousands of political prisoners in jails across the country are a constant reminder of this reality.

Underground and faceless groups, though, can and do speak freely in the strongest terms, albeit at their own risk, and furthermore offer what can easily become an appealing alternative to the realities of pageant (fake) “democracy” to the masses of un- or underemployed young men whose families sit at home often without gas or electricity through increasingly bitter winters. This, along with the prices of food and basic staples that creep up without relief in sight, is creating what has already became a humanitarian disaster in Tajikistan and parts of Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghana Valley in 2007/2008. Effectively, it may be that only Hizb ut-Tahrir, the IMU, or radical Imams are offering an alternative to this reality in an idiom that is both easily understandable and appeals to the religion, traditions and national identity that the government itself claims to build itself upon, and in the eyes of many, has unforgivably betrayed.

The religion that the state approves and promotes (persecuting or driving underground all alternatives) appears to many to be a kind of institutionalized folklore that can seem either supremely impotent or even offensive to actual believers. If Islamists offer the only alternative to the state and its dependant institutions (including even heavily compromised mahalla committees) why would they not become an attractive short-term alternative even for those who don’t really share their ideology or murky vision of a future Islamist state? Perhaps it is, in fact, the very murkiness of that vision that could enhance its appeal, with each new member allowed to bring his own interpretation.

It seems to me that the danger organizations like these could pose if they ultimately choose to resort to violent resistance in response to being completely barred from national politics is not a political triumph along the lines of the Taliban myth (which imagines this disorderly cabal of warlords and rural radicals as the creators of some kind of powerful, unified state). The real danger is that they would resemble the Taliban reality, tipping an already tottering and unpopular central government over the edge of state failure and plunging Uzbekistan’s regional power bases (or heavily armed rival security forces) into a desperate and catastrophic civil war.

This scenario, in basic form, has already happened just to the South—not in Afghanistan, but in Tajikistan. It is, I think, the almost constant application of this faulty paradigm for understanding Islam and its role in the societies of other states in the region that keeps us from seeing the potential for this kind of conflict, where Islam is not the cause of conflict but become a rallying point when the only alternative is a corrupt and desperately faulty adaptation of “democracy.” The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) did not run headlong into a civil war because they “were too Muslim to be ruled by infidels” or because they had some natural predilection for violence. History has shown us over and over, though, that human beings generally feel that desperate situations call for desperate measures, and in desperate times will ally themselves with those who speak a language that appeals to them, one that humanizes and dignifies them and the beliefs, practices and identities that have given meaning to their lives.

The way to defuse this potential tragedy, it seems to me, begins with a realistic understanding of the continuing basic economic difficulties and frustration of these peoples with their lack of basic rights and opportunities. We must give up on the idea that religion as a socially meaningful identity and faith as a living human institution can or should simply be regulated away or relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history, consumed by modernist nationalism or rejected en masse as a relic from a previous stage of development.

Secondly, by giving legal legitimacy to moderate opposition and civic groups, religious or otherwise, and enfranchising them, all states in the region could remove what is probably the primary appeal of radical groups—essentially, this is the strategy that ended the Tajik civil war. Why couldn’t it prevent another one elsewhere in the region?

While this sort of argument may fall on many deaf ears, and while the discourses that we construct here from the comfort of our institutions and schools in West may have little effect on the daily lives of the peoples of Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, the least that we can do for them is to stop using sweeping, faulty paradigms for understanding and describing their realities. The first step, after all, in being able to help is seeing things as they actually are, under the outer layers, under the props, under the skin. Critically, this depends on being able to adapt our theories to new information, and a dialectic that consists of only two poles and no spectrum in between is certainly the least effective tool for this kind of understanding.

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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at 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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noah tucker March 17, 2009 at 9:53 am

A commentor requested that I include some sources. I won’t clog up space in this section with an extended bibliography, but I do have one you could request if you really wanted it [ntucker(at)]. For more on specifically on rethinking the way we characterize Islam in CA, watch out for current work being done by anthropologists like John Schoeberlein (who was my adviser and Harvard and to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for shaping the way I think about all of this) and Marianne Kamp, and scholars from other disciplines like Deniz Kandiyoti and Nayereh Tohidi. As I mentioned in the comments in the earlier debate, several graduate students are currently writing dissertations that should become new points of reference in the debate: Sarah Kendzior (Anthropology, Wash. U. St. Louis), Julie McBrien (Antrhopology, The Max Planck Institute) and Eren Murat Tasar in particular (History, Harvard). My own research was a comparative study of revivalist movements and their focus on redefining the role of women in society (as part of redefining national identity in general).

Z March 17, 2009 at 10:23 am

I am merely an interested reader, but I was very interested by this two part article. It was excellent…

Nach March 17, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Noah, can you elaborate on what you meant by, “We must give up on the idea that religion as a socially meaningful identity and faith as a living human institution can or should simply be regulated away or relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history, consumed by modernist nationalism or rejected en masse as a relic from a previous stage of development.”?

Am I right in hearing you suggesting religion is part of the solution for the region?

noah tucker March 17, 2009 at 10:22 pm

I’m not saying it’s part of a solution or part of a problem, I’m just saying that it “is.” One of the most persistent faulty assumptions of early modernity is that religion will just “go away” as people advance socially/technologically. As it turns out, religion, like art or literature or civic society, for that matter, is one of the things humans do–and we do it in ways that make us better sometimes and in ways that make us worse sometimes too. Like the other human activities, we use social control mechanisms to reign in the practices that are harmful to the group–I’m not saying that everyone should just be left alone to their own conscience ad infinitum, because some people’s conscience’s are clearly deficient. In my day job I just finished a very long report on violent radicalism in Pakistan, so I’m not arguing by any means that everyone ought to be left to their own devices.

Religion is “part of the solution” in Central Asia in the same way it’s part of the “solution” anywhere else–it’s important to a great number of individuals and adds meaning to their lives that they don’t find elsewhere.

unaha-closp March 18, 2009 at 7:54 pm

History has shown us over and over, though, that human beings generally feel that desperate situations call for desperate measures, and in desperate times will ally themselves with those who speak a language that appeals to them, one that humanizes and dignifies them and the beliefs, practices and identities that have given meaning to their lives.

Don’t agree with your reasoning here and suggest that in times of desperation people will accept the authority of the strongest looking organisation. A radical organisation might speak in terms agreeing with local beliefs (SPLA, FIS, IRA) or in terms opposed to local beliefs (Sandinista, Nepalese Maoists) with its success or failure independent of its adherence. The nature of the beliefs are of little importance, rebellion will occur if the government looks weak and is inept.

In Central Asia it is likely that Islam will form the basis for rebellion, because the religious establishment has a lot of Imams and these religious leaders are able to secure substantial financing from aboard. In the event of local economic collapse and/or the current regime scrapping over succession, the relative strength of the religious establishment will increase and gain position to successfully rebel.

I arrive by different reasoning with the same conclusions. Opposition civil groups should be incorporated as a legitimate opposition and able to contest civil power openly. Economic advancement needs to occur. Doing both of these things will strengthen the state and make it less inept.

Zahra Sabri March 18, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Most insightful piece. It is really quite hard to pin down the quality of religiosity in a particular city or country let alone an entire region. I’m glad you don’t make too specific statements or predictions which would not stand up to the test.

Really why should we wait for Central Asia to slip into either rampant atheism or “religious” fundamentalism? the only thing i can see is that such thinking may result into a self-fulfilling prophecy: constantly waiting for fundamentalists to gain tremendous power in Central Asia and trying to design awkward bungling policies against that eventuality may just lead to that end.

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