Soviet and muslim. The institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia, 1943-1991.

  • Book Title:
 Soviet And Muslim
  • Book Author:
Eren Tasar
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Introduction – SOVIET AND MUSLIM

Historical scholarship is always a product of time and place, however objective the historian. Discussion about the relationship between Islam and the state has been a ubiquitous theme in government, media, and academic circles during the entire period that research and writing for this book took place (i.e., since 2000), when I first traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to conduct research for my undergraduate thesis project, “Muslim Life in Central Asia.”

Since then, it has become commonplace to hear Islam referred to as an “issue” or even a “problem,” a sentiment expressed most succinctly by the controversial title of a book by one prominent historian.1

In writing and conducting research for this book, I have been struck time and time again that the Soviets lacked such a “problem” with their own large, diverse Muslim population. After abandoning mass repression as a strategy for wiping out the “opium of the people” (Karl Marx’s term for religion), the Soviet Party-state successfully created an institutional foundation for managing Islam, one that nominally fulfilled its ideological need to combat religion, while offering Muslims a space to practice and identify with their faith.2

 The problem of how Islam is supposed to “fit” into a modern society, which has generated so much hyperbole and debate during the time I have been working on this project, was resolved by the Soviets in Central Asia during the second half of the last century, a legacy that has largely been forgotten today.

This book argues that an institutional foundation emerged for manag- ing Islam, ensuring stability in religious life.

 A region ruled by atheists and inhabited largely by Muslims saw the emergence of a highly successful mech-anism for delineating the place of religion in society. During World War II,  Stalin introduced a series of reforms to normalize church‒state relations.

From 1943 to 1945, he sanctioned the creation of four Islamic organizations, or muftiates, across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), permitted the first legal group of Soviet hajjis since the late 1920s to make the pilgrim-age to Mecca, and allowed the opening of a madrasa in Bukhara.

Although the Communist Party maintained its formal commitment to liquidating religion and spreading atheism, the reforms created a new organization, the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC), dedicated to the principle that the anti- religious struggle must consist solely in ideas, with no violation of the believers’ constitutional right to freedom of conscience.3

Party members sub-scribing to this moderate line toward religion maintained that the final eradi-cation of religion could only occur through strict observance of Soviet legality.4 These moderates faced continuous opposition from many other communists, who advocated a harder line.

The arguments about legality and enlightenment rested on the notion that the state must permit legally sanctioned organizations to facilitate people’s religious requirements.

Churches and other ecclesiastical entities were meant to occupy the only legitimate space allotted to religious practice in an atheist society. CARC therefore worked toward the viability and autonomy of the four Soviet muftiates. Known by the Russian acronym SADUM, the Central Asian muftiate emerged in 1943 as the result of one of Stalin’s reforms permitting the reopening of some organizations (e.g., the Moscow Patriarchate) and the creation of others.5 SADUM’s leadership was entrusted to the Boboxonovs, an old family of Naqshbandi Islamic scholars or ‘ulama.6

The muftiate rapidly set about marketing its dogmatic pronouncements as a blueprint for a progressive and heavily bureaucratized “Soviet Islam.”

 Over time, CARC bureaucrats and the Islamic scholars leading this organization (the legally registered ‘ulama) came to depend on one another in ways Stalin surely had never envisioned.

This book departs from much past scholarship on Islam, and religion, in the USSR by describing the relationship between the Soviet state and its Central Asian Muslim subjects largely in terms of flexibility and accom-modation. It is important to remember that on paper, at least, the Party- state never relented in its long- standing struggle against the adherence to religion of its citizenry, Muslims included. This made it all too easy for those scholars seeking to chart a brutal, never- ending Soviet crackdown on religion to find what they were looking for.

Partly, and understandably, this stemmed from the fact that much of the Western scholarly interest in reli-gion in the USSR focused on groups, such as the Catholic, Baptist, and Uniate churches, which the Soviet state regarded with exceptional suspi-cion and persecuted with greater consistency.7

But studies of the country’s largest and wealthiest ecclesiastical body, the Russian Orthodox Church, also painted a picture of an entity under constant assault.8 The result was a corpus of literature that presented the key episodes of anti- religious violence— the Civil War (1918– 20), the Cultural Revolution (1928– 32), and the Great Terror (1937– 38)— as representative of religious policy throughout communist rule from 1917 to 1991.

Nikita Khrushchev’s (1894– 1971) anti- religious campaign of 1959– 64, for example, was often treated as a direct successor to the brutal measures of these years, even though it resulted in relatively little destruction of religious and cultural property, let  alone death.

 In effect, this was akin to defining the events of one decade as the equivalent of three- quarters of a century of Soviet rule. Even the important revisionist account of John Anderson, which pointed to a more pragmatic strategy for containing religion, largely took the Party- state’s stated goal of liquidating religion at face value.9

Much the same can be said of the small body of scholarship devoted to Islam in Soviet Central Asia. The influential writings of Alexandre Bennigsen relied on Soviet anti- religious literature to portray Central Asian Muslims as relentlessly hostile to every policy of the Communist Party.10 Shoshana Keller’s archivally rich analysis of anti- Islamic campaigns in 1920s and 1930s Uzbekistan covers a period in which moderates in the Party had virtually no influence on decisions about religion.11

Yaacov Ro’i is the only historian who has written extensively about official policies toward Islam after World War II.12 His exhaustively researched Islam in the Soviet Union marked a significant milestone in the study of religion in the USSR.

 It introduced historians to a wealth of previously untapped archival materials concerning Soviet policies toward Islam, identified World War II as a pivotal moment for Muslims in the USSR, and highlighted the official treatment of Muslims after the war as an important research topic.

Due, perhaps, to Ro’i’s reliance on archives in Moscow and dependence on Russian language sources, Islam in the Soviet Union did not account for the moderate line’s success in shaping religious policy in the postwar decades.

It also uncritically reproduced Soviet analytical categories for understanding Muslim religious practices.13 For these reasons Ro’i’s work continued the academic tradition of portraying Soviet Muslims as beleaguered and alienated.

However, religion was important to the Party- state not only as a target but also as a category for understanding the population. Above all, this was true of its encounter with Soviet Muslims. Historians have treated Soviet policies toward Islam, and religion generally, as something of a carte blanche, a clean beginning in 1917 that carried little over from the past. Yet Islam’s role in the interaction between the Party- state and its Muslim citizens cannot be under-stood without some attention to the context of centuries of Russian interaction with this world religion. In the last decade, the work of two historians, Robert Crews and Paul Werth, has revolutionized our understanding of Islam in the Russian empire.

Much as the Soviet state’s atheism has been taken at face value by scholars, for a long time the historiography of the empire similarly did not question the Tsarist government’s formal privileging of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion. The empire used a system of

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