Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia

Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia

Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia

Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia


How do Muslims relate to Islam in societies that experienced seventy years of Soviet rule? How did the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world by extirpating religion from it affect Central Asia? Adeeb Khalid combines insights from the study of both Islam and Soviet history to answer these questions. Arguing that the sustained Soviet assault on Islam destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly de-Islamized public life, Khalid demonstrates that Islam became synonymous with tradition and was subordinated to powerful ethnonational identities that crystallized during the Soviet period. He shows how this legacy endures today and how, for the vast majority of the population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under Communism.

Islam after Communism reasons that the fear of a rampant radical Islam that dominates both Western thought and many of Central Asia's governments should be tempered with an understanding of the politics of antiterrorism, which allows governments to justify their own authoritarian policies by casting all opposition as extremist. Placing the Central Asian experience in the broad comparative perspective of the history of modern Islam, Khalid argues against essentialist views of Islam and Muslims and provides a nuanced and well-informed discussion of the forces at work in this crucial region.


Waiting in line at a cafeteria in Tashkent one day in 1991, in the last months of the Soviet era, I fell into conversation with two men behind me. They were pleased to meet someone from the outside world, to which access had been so difficult until then, but they were especially delighted by the fact that their interlocutor was Muslim. My turn in line eventually came, and I sat down in a corner to eat. A few minutes later, my new acquaintances joined me unbidden at my table, armed with a bottle of vodka, and proceeded to propose a toast to meeting a fellow Muslim from abroad. Their delight at meeting me was sincere, and they were completely unself-conscious about the oddity of lubricating the celebration of our acquaintance with copious quantities of alcohol.

This episode, unthinkable in the Muslim countries just a few hundred kilometers to the south, provides a powerful insight into the place of Islam in Central Asian societies at the end of the Soviet period. Clearly, being Muslim meant something very specific to my friends. Seven decades of Soviet rule had given Central Asians a unique understanding of Islam and of being Muslim. Islam after Communism had its peculiarities.

A few months after my encounter, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the republics of Central Asia became independent states. As old barriers—political, ideological, personal—came down, the region experienced a considerable Islamic revival. Mosques were reopened, new ones built, links with Muslims outside the Soviet Union revived. Islam has indeed experienced a rebirth in the region.

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