During the Soviet era, the predominant sentiment in Western writing about Central Asia was one of outrage at the persecution of religious practice by Communist authorities. Any sign of continued religious observance in Central Asia was seen as evidence of the failure of the Soviet experiment, and of the resilience of an authentic Central Asian Muslim culture.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent countries of Central Asia transformed prevailing sentiment practically overnight. Outrage for the religious rights of Muslims oppressed by the Soviet regime was replaced by an overriding concern about the political implications of that faith. The debate shifted to whether these Muslim populations would (or could) remain immune to political Islam or "Islamic fundamentalism," and what, if any, measures could be taken to influence outcomes?
The reversal in Western thinking on Islam in Central Asia is less surprising than it seems. Both versions of thinking are based on questionable premises. They both assume that Islam is a stable, homogenous, and an ahistoric entity that exists beyond the realm of socioeconomic change. Thus, it becomes possible to see in Islam, depending on one's current political interests, either an antidote to Communism or a threat to democracy.
Yet there exists a substantial literature, largely in anthropology, that emphasizes that Islam, no less than any other identity, is always contextual and malleable. This literature is very applicable to Central Asia, but is rarely invoked in our current analyses of the subject.
It is possible to argue with reference to Uzbekistan that the meaning of Islam, and of being a Muslim, has undergone several transformations in the 20th century, which have left popular perception of Islam intertwined with, and subordinate to, powerful discourses of Nation and Progress. As a result, Islam is widely understood in Central Asia in ways that are profoundly secular. These understandings emerged during the Soviet period and were often unintended results of Soviet policies.
The brutality of Soviet anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s cannot be denied. But the Bolsheviks did not eradicate Islam, which came to reside in certain niches of society left alone by the regime. These niches operated along localized kinship networks. Thus, every collective farm, it seems, had a mosque, which was officially registered as a storage room, or community hall. In a similar fashion, the imam could also be a tractor driver or a mechanic.
Rituals were performed by men who claimed locally esteemed lineage. The supervisory apparatus of the state, itself not immune to these kinship networks, left much of this practice alone as long as it remained discreet. Indeed, all evidence today points to religious practice being far more widespread than even the most optimistic estimates of Western scholars made during the Soviet period.
But if local networks supported Islam during the Soviet period, they also transformed its meaning. Being a believer in Islam became a marker of national identity, for which no personal piety or observance was necessary. Islam came to be seen as an indispensable part of local customs and practices that served to set Central Asians apart from outsiders. These customs and practices included circumcision for boys, the maintenance of patriarchal family structures, and the celebration of life cycle rituals. Indeed, the feasts connected with these rituals acquired a central place as national customs during the Brezhnev era (1964-82).
Central Asians were Muslims by tradition and civilization, but they were also part of the modern world. Islam in the late Soviet period served as a marker to divide Central Asians (natives) from Europeans (outsiders), with the emphasis on custom and way of life. Islam was understood as a form of localism. It was not pan-Islamic, for other Muslims remained outsiders. Nor was it counterposed to being Soviet. Islam was thus subordinated to strong national identities.
This has not changed drastically since independence. There has been a return to open practice of Islamic rituals, and an open celebration of the Islamic heritage of the region. There is also a concern with regaining moral values (based in Islam) that are commonly deemed to have been destroyed by Soviet atheism. For most people, a "return" to Islam evokes images of a pristine, pre-Russian society. However, this expression for the past is channeled through a national identity. In Uzbekistan, one is a Muslim because one is an Uzbek.
The vast majority of the carriers of religious authority remain apolitical. The state has asserted its own claims to the re-Islamization of Uzbek life. President Karimov performed the hajj himself, and his government takes pride in making the same possible for thousands of citizens every year. The state has also celebrated great Muslim scholars of the past. But at the same time it has kept a watchful eye on Islamic activism. The Muslim Religious Board of Transoxiana, the direct descendent of the Soviet-era institution has been turned into a government department and given a monopoly over all officially sanctioned religious activity.
The revival of Islam, in Uzbekistan's case, does not necessarily subvert the authority of the nation state. Indeed, it can even be made to further buttress it.
Adeeb Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.