LETTERS to the Editor
Optimism Vanishing in Central Asia
From the outset, I must disclaim any competence as a former Kremlinologist, or indeed as a political analyst of Central Asian affairs. Unlike the American authors of the symposium in the Winter 1999/2000 Harvard International Review, my only claim to an ability to review the pieces is knowledge of the Russian, Tajiki and Uzbek languages, as well as many visits to the area since 1955 and residence in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 1990-1992. So my views are not those of the elites in the region (including visiting foreigners), but of common folk with whom I lived and conversed. Furthermore, being an historian and philologist, I am hardly one to pronounce on US foreign policy or the economic problems of Turkmenistan. Nonetheless, perhaps the views of one who knows and loves the people of Central Asia, from a predominantly Iranian viewpoint, may shed a different light on the area than those represented in the articles.
The first impression one gains from a comparison of the articles in the HIR of 1993 with those in 2000 is the optimism of the former and the dark pessimism of the latter. Furthermore, three of the authors of 1993 were Central Asian and only one in 2000. Nancy Lubin and Shirin Akiner are two returning contributors with interesting developments. In 1993 Lubin then emphasized the need for Americans, who were just entering the area, to focus on the practical issues affecting our own national security, rather than offering benevolent or humanitarian assistance to an exotic, faraway place with little relevance to the United States. By 2000, she is concerned with oil and economic resources in the area. In 1993, Akiner described the beginnings of Islamic parties,and of outside influences such as the Wahhabis and missionaries from Turkey and Pakistan, but in 2000 she becomes more theoretical, analyzing Islam in Central Asia as tripartitetraditional, government-sponsored, and purist.
It is true that before 1990, knowledge of Islam was minimal in Central Asia, even among the ulama (religious leaders). The Chinese Muslims (Hui or Dungans) were much better informed, many reading difficult Arabic texts or even speaking Arabic although they had never left Gansu or Xinjiang.
Today there are many savants, mystics, and preachers (all Akiner's purists), overshadowing the old traditional Muslims and in a purist fashion decrying the entry of religious leaders into politics, much as the savants of Qum regard the mullahs of Tehran who wield political power but hardly religious authority. Since Central Asian Sunni Islam does not have the hierarchy of Shi'ite Islam, the separation of church and state will not be threatened in Central Asia. But we are living in a new world, and even though there is little danger of a purely religious establishment taking over the state as in Iran, there is always a great danger of fanatics using religion to promote their own political aims.
An attempt to overthrow a secular government and to establish a theocracy based on medieval Islamic laws is hardly possible in Central Asia when even in Iran it is a failure. The threat of Islam in Central Asia, in my opinion, is greatly overblown by the autocratic governments. Religion has always been used by politicians to further their own aims. Politically or terroristically speaking, what will Islamic extremists everywhere do if the Israeli-Palestinian problems are resolved and peace and stability is established there?
Let us leave religion and turn to economics and international relations, the main thrust of the articles. Boris Rumer gives a grim picture of economic stagnation and the decline of living standards in Central Asia. He may attach too much importance to the future of two blocs of countries in the former Soviet Union, one comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and the other Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Are these two blocs really going to define the contours of the future political configuration in the post-Soviet space? …