Islam and Colonialism: Western Perspectives on Soviet Asia

Islam and Colonialism: Western Perspectives on Soviet Asia

Islam and Colonialism: Western Perspectives on Soviet Asia

Islam and Colonialism: Western Perspectives on Soviet Asia


Tracing the development of western thought about Central Asia, this book argues that for historical and political reasons, Central Asia was seen as being in a colonial relationship with Russia. Consequently, an anti-colonial revolution in Asia was seen as the greatest threat to the USSR. The book questions the suitability of the colonial model for understanding the region's recent political history and challenges many of the assumptions which underlay the adoption of such a model, and examines how this one interpretation came to dominate western discourse to the virtual exclusion of all others.


During the Cold War the internal dynamics of the USSR, political and social, were a matter of intense interest to Western policy-makers and academics. The majority of studies in this field concentrated on Russia itself. For most in Western Europe, North America and Australasia, the terms ‘Russia’ and ‘Soviet Union’ were synonyms, with ‘Russia’ the term most commonly used. The most important republic of the Union, Russia overshadowed the debate on both internal and international Soviet policies to the virtual exclusion of all other parts of the USSR.

Non-Russian, or non-Slavic, areas were not totally ignored. The largest of these comprised the USSR’s Asian territories outside Siberia. This region, consisting of Kazakhstan and the four southern republics known in Soviet usage as Middle Asia (Srednaya Aziya) and referred to collectively in the West as Central Asia, stood out from other non-Slavic districts from a number of standpoints. In his preface to the second edition of Central Asia: a Century of Russian Rule, the US scholar Edward Allworth wrote

Central Asia has special significance for informed people everywhere, owing to its extraordinary human and cultural qualities … it also held and holds great importance for the foreign relations of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, countries of the Middle East, and Southern Asia. In the short term Central Asia plays that role partly for geopolitical reasons by virtue of its very location between lands west and east, north and south.

In addition to its geographic location, Central Asia was significant for a number of other reasons. It was the only part of the Soviet Union with an indigenous non-European majority, which was largely racially homogeneous, being mostly of Turkic origin. The Indo-European Tadjiks, who in 1989 numbered four and a half million Soviet citizens, were the region’s only significant non-Turkic native group. Alongside ethno-linguistic homogeneity, several other factors made Central Asia a distinct field for study. The region had been militarily conquered in a relatively short period of time and relatively recently, and was the only non-

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