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Islam in Central Asia.

THIS PERCEPTIVE and often provocative new book differs radically from the ideologically conformist Russian historians of the pre-glasnost era, and serves as a breath of fresh air. Written by two Russian specialists of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, it is a cogent treatment of a fascinating subject, with many fresh insights.

The subject is also highly topical, given the interest and curiosity, especially from within the Muslim world, about the strength of Islamic movements in ex-Soviet Central Asia. One sign of this interest was a recent initiative by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to convene a conference in Moscow ("Islam in Central Asia: Challenges and Prospects").

Islam arrived early with the Arabs in Bukhara and other oasis cities, but it was Sufi sheikhs and dervishes who spread Islam among the Turkic nomadic tribes over later centuries, serving as missionaries throughout Turkestan.

The competition between the rival ideologies of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism before the Bolshevik revolution is well described. The origins and evolution of the Basmochi (literally "robbers") movement in the Bukhara khanate and across many areas of Central Asia against the Bolsheviks from 1917 into the mid-1920s is analysed here without the ideological blinkers or the straitjacket which used to afflict Soviet social scientists. The authors argue that opponents to Communist forces succeeded in gathering grass-roots support almost everywhere, backed quite solidly by the mullahs.

The book shows in detail how ruthlessly the new Communist regime crushed the independence of the first popular Muslim republics in Central Asia, those of Bukhara and Khiva, rapidly starting an offensive against the traditional Muslim system. In August 1919, the government of Turkestan decreed the abolition of Sharia courts. "The first measures adopted by the Council of Ministers of the Turkestan Territory were in flagrant contradiction with Bolshevik promises to protect the rights of Moslems," judge the authors. Then, because of the regime's weakness, concessions were made for a further decade.

Surprisingly, traditional Islamic structures and customs have proved rather resilient in face of harsh persecution and official campaigns of atheism. Russian educational policies in Central Asia were closely linked to ideology, but did prove remarkably effective in spreading literacy, among women as well as men.

Three final chapters give an estimate of the progress of Islam in recent decades. The authors remind us that "Islamic renaissance began not only in Central Asia, but also in large cities of Russia. We have in mind the greater activity of Moscow and Kazan Tatar Moslems, who, using political liberalisation, began to form groups to study" Islamic source materials.

It was only from the late 1960s that underground Islam became more active in the Central Asian republics. The emergence of Islam as an independent political force is analysed here, along with the contemporary appeal of what is often called "Muslim Fundamentalism".

Ideas of perestroika, glasnost and greater democratisation which spread so fast from 1985 in Russian cities, the Baltic republics and Azerbaijan came as a total surprise in Central Asia. There in the late 1980s, remind the authors, "very few people dared to raise their voices against the local authorities . . . The Central Asian party bosses were paying lip-service to the new policy, but in actual fact they cursed it."

That Russia, with its military muscle, is currently the ultimate guarantor of stability -- or rather the status quo -- in the region is proved by the sequence of events in Tajikistan since April 1992. The civil war there also arguably reveals the weakness of Muslim fundamentalists even in Tajikistan, where the public clearly was more receptive to its message than in other republics. "It has also became obvious that the fundamentalists' slogans are often adopted by political adventurers, mafia networks and, plainly bandits," comment the authors.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:619
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