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Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia.

This is a brave attempt to analyse and assess the developments in the six former central Asian republics of the late Soviet Union linking them with recent events in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey regarding the rise of Islam in all these countries. The author seeks to establish, with some limited success, that Islam, as a religion, has been revived but as a radical political ideology has, so far, been rewarded with limited success, despite fierce and persistent efforts. The author has to deal with an enormous area from the Bosporus to the Chinese border. He has also had to report and assess developments in Russia going back to Stalin.

The author brings out some very useful facts and aspects about the six 'near abroads', the 'soft statehoods' along Russia's southern borders. He shows that Soviet rule achieved impressive results, like the spread of literacy and education, the freeing of women from Islamic bondage, and the setting up of what were, for these parts, advanced communications. Soviet rule, like Tsarist rule before it, also effectively promoted communications and collaboration between the tribes and ethnic groups of the area. The six republics cover a huge area but the biggest in size, Kazakstan, has just 16.5 million people, over half of them being Russian and other Europeans. The most difficult, Uzbekistan, roughly 20 million, is crucially mixed, with Russians and central Asians over 25 per cent of the population.

The Muslims are deeply divided into the two traditional sects of Sunnis and Shias and the author summarizes very usefully what the difference is. That applies to the languages too. The Turkic language group is most widespread with only small and rebellious Shia Tajikistan's language related to Persia.

The ethnic groups in these countries are really modern nations only in the making, despite their long and fascinating history. Some, like the seven million Kazhaks, were nomads and cattle breeders three generations ago. Yet today they can dispose of vast resources of oil and gas and are therefore dependent on the Russian technicians who live there and Kazakhstan is the country Moscow will never relinquish control of. Again, Azerbaijan, that country wrecked by war with Christian Armenia, also has vast resources of oil, gas and some minerals. A vast area is still relatively unexplored.

This is where lran comes in -- offering all the countries access to the Persian Gulf with its ports and coastline. Turkey is trying to do the same but Azerbaijan has a troublesome western border with Armenia and its outlets are Russian ports. The Russians, of course, insist -- or try to -- on dominating the industrial economies of these countries and their instinctive, aggressive interest is shown by Zhirinovsky's remark about Russian soldiers washing their feet in the warm sea waters, meaning the Persian Gulf.

The author deals in sometimes uninteresting detail with the wheeling and dealing, the too often vicious struggle for power in every one of the six republics since Breshnev. He also reports step by step the revival of Islam with hundreds of mosques re-opened now. He brings out, without dwelling on it sufficiently, the fact that the new educated elite needs the Russian language and Western languages to deal with modern life and that there appears to be a hardly concealed inferiority feeling among the Islamic revivalists. The abandoning of the Soviet communist ideology has left a dangerous 'Black Hole' that Islamics try to fill with 'Sharia', the Moslem basic rules. But they are very difficult to apply to the industrial and commerce realities of the Kazhak and Azeri oilfields.

A long period of unsettling uncertainties therefore lies ahead for the vast area of these countries whose peoples have to find the right way of dealing with their identities. They are really between Moscow and Muhammad.

LEO MURAY
COPYRIGHT 1994 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Muray, Leo
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:630
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