It is a common assumption that the Bolsheviks, after consolidating their hold on power, sought to destroy Islam in Central Asia and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. But Islam during the Soviet era was not so much eradicated as it was institutionalized and rendered subordinate to the state.
The first decades of Soviet rule were indeed harsh ones for the faithful in Central Asia. Soviet authorities carried out a far-reaching campaign in the late 1920s, dubbed the hujum, which sought to overhaul the traditional way of life, focusing on the de-veiling of women and the closure of mosques.
Soviet attitudes toward Islam started shifting in the 1940s. At the height of World War II, in 1943, the Soviet government authorized the establishment of SADUM, the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The hajj was legalized in 1945. And one of Central Asia’s most important seats of Islamic learning, the Mir-i-Arab madrassa in Bukhara, reopened in 1946.
Under SADUM, religion was tightly controlled; SADUM appointed clerics, published books and organized international conferences to showcase the region as a model for the compatibility of socialism and Islam.
Only a certain form of Islam was deemed compatible with socialism. This “good” Islam was represented by the state-appointed clergy and did not require Muslims to practice religion, or even believe in God. As Adeeb Khalid has persuasively argued, Soviet officials promoted Islam as part of Central Asia’s national heritage, a way of distinguishing locals from outsiders, yet framed religion in a manner that did not counterpose it against the interests of the Soviet system.
Conversely, “bad” Islam was characterized as being implacably opposed to the secular Soviet order – dogmatic by nature and used by individuals to trick uneducated citizens into abandoning their ideals. It was likewise seen as operating in spaces beyond the gaze of officials, especially in “underground” mosques often housed in local teahouses or on collective farms. For the Soviets, Islam tended to be seen as a dangerous social force, and a threat to their power. Thus, it was something that needed to be closely managed.
This bifurcated view of Islam persists today among many members of government across the region, even 26 year after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Contemporary state policies towards Islam more closely resemble late Soviet practices, than post-Stalin era policies resembled pre-war Soviet ones.
Two incidents in Tajikistan, separated in time by almost 30 years, highlight this reality.
The first involved 73-year-old Kurbon Mannonov, a representative of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in the town of Nurek, who was arrested in the summer of 2015 along with a dozen other local men. A 13-minute video produced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs accused Mannonov of “illegally spreading religious ideas” and “attempting to establish an Islamic State” through his clandestine activities in Tajikistan.
The second occurred back in 1986, when Soviet authorities detained Abdullo Saidov, a driver at the Kurgan-Tyube Equipment Inventory-Taking Bureau. Saidov was among 40 individuals arrested for allegedly spreading “religious propaganda.” According to authorities, Saidov’s crime was essentially telling people to stop watching television and to ignore secular holidays; “step by step he slipped into antisocial positions and became socially dangerous.” Saidov would later rename himself Said Abdullo Nuri and go on to become a founder of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in 1990.
Like authorities during the late Soviet era, officials in Central Asia today tend to view Islam through the lens of security. While state-sanctioned Islam is a source of legitimacy for Central Asia’s autocrats, unmanaged Islam poses a potential threat to stability.
Of course, Central Asian leaders today like to have it both ways when it comes to religion. When independent states emerged in Central Asia in 1991, the leaders sought to enhance their stature among their respective populations by being quick to highlight their Islamic identity.
Uzbekistan’s long-time leader Islam Karimov swore his presidential oath on the Koran in 1992. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov made the hajj to Mecca the same year. All of the republics guaranteed freedom of religion in their constitution. Mosques reopened. Links with the rest of the Islamic world were re-established. Students began studying in madrassas in other parts of the Muslim world, and missionaries arrived to spread awareness of Islam.
But despite this change in form, the substance of post-independence state narratives on Islam continues to echo the practices and attitudes of the late-Soviet era. Secularized officials and members of well-educated elites tend to see it as backwards and antithetical to social progress. According to one Tajik state-employed journalist, while “knowledgeable and well-educated people are making progress in the fields of nanotechnology and astrophysics, mullahs are talking about the length of beards, and the space between people’s feet while they pray.”
Where state-sanctioned Islam forms a part of national identity, practices that fall beyond its reach are often deemed “foreign.” State officials in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have warned against “foreign influences,” including women wearing hijabs and men wearing beards, arguing that it leads people to terrorism. Interestingly, the national clothing that they promote in its stead was codified during the Soviet Union.
And as was the case during the Soviet era, “underground” movements, operating beyond state control, are of particular concern for authorities. Although scholars who have conducted research on radicalization in Central Asia have pointed to the ambiguous role religion seems to have played in the lives of terrorists from the region, governments continue to argue that unmonitored Islamization leads to radicalization. Authorities are quick to blame most security incidents in the region on “Islamic extremism,” often presenting flimsy evidence to substantiate these claims.
State management of religion now, as in the Soviet Union, is assertively secular; the state tightly controls religion and largely tries to remove it from the public sphere. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, each Central Asian state created institutions to replace the function of SADUM, controlling the appointment of imams. Each Central Asian state has passed legislation to restrict the activities of religious groups. Governments have banned groups as diverse as the Salafis, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Central Asia’s Muslims continue to worship in a controlled space, viewed as a potential threat by the government.
Not only did 70-plus years of Soviet rule shape the way governments think about the links between religion and security, it also heavily influenced the way citizens practice religion in Central Asia. Ironically, as the anthropological research of Johan Rasanayagam in Uzbekistan, David Montgomery and Julie McBrien in Kyrgyzstan and Helene Thibault in Tajikistan, has shown, the Soviet experience in Central Asia rendered Muslims remarkably resistant to mobilization by extremist groups.
Most practicing Muslims remain supportive of or ambivalent toward the secular state, rather than being set on its destruction. For many believers, Islam is about security, but not usually in the way that challenges the prevailing order. Instead, Islam provides a framework that allows many in Central Asia to find meaning and certainty in an insecure world characterized by social change, economic hardship and political dysfunction.
Edward Lemon is Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University. In his research, he examines migration, security, authoritarianism and Islam in Central Asia.