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CREES Lecture - "What is Post-Soviet about Islam in Central Asia?"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
12:00 AM
1636 II/SSWB, 1080 S. University

John Schoeberlein, lecturer on Central Asia, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University. Sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies and Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies.


The interpretation of Islam in the former Soviet spaces is commonly based on assumptions that either the impact of the Soviet experience was so thoroughgoing that Soviet Islam grew to have little in common with Islam elsewhere, or alternatively, that Soviet influence and control was merely a thin cover which, when it was lifted by the demise of the Soviet system, would reveal an Islam that had thoroughly resisted Soviet influences. This presentation will call into question both of these assumptions, and consider the ways that the post-Soviet experience of Islam is a product of the specific conditions which prevail in the post-Soviet situation. This experience shows substantial continuity across those parts of the former-Soviet space where Islam is a predominant religion--which stems from common forces which conditioned Soviet Islam, from common reactions of the Soviet-formed elite to current changes, to common dynamics of government policy making on issues of ideology, etc. In this, the presentation will attempt to clarify what characteristics of the post-Soviet condition that play a key role in setting the direction of change in the realm of Islam.

Discussion Summary

John Schoeberlein presented a portion of his ongoing work on the character of Islam in Central Asia, with particular reference to its place as a component of local and regional identities. He sought to question several common assumptions: 1) that "Islam" is necessarily different from, and in opposition to, the state; 2) that "underground" Islam during the Soviet period also, therefore, worked against state purposes; 3) that Central Asia is more "secularist" than other parts of the Muslim world; and 4) that the character of Islamic life has been transformed since independence in 1991. In conclusion he also discussed the role of social dislocation (e.g., alcoholism) and briefly addressed the impact of globalizing developments in the region.

In the Q&A period, Dr. Schoeberlein spoke about the issue of linguistics variety and cross-ethnic communication in Central Asia today (alphabet reforms, Russophone education, etc.). He talked about education in general, and how fully secular it was, and also offered a sociological analysis of the relative numbers of Muslims and non-Muslims in different parts of Central Asia. He also was asked to expand up a section near the end of his lecture, and to clarify the current position and importance of self-consciously oppositional Islamic groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Is there any chance, an audience member wanted to know, that there will be more anti-state ferment of this kind? Dr. Schoeberlein expressed doubt that the IMU in particular will regain strength, although he did spend some time considering the relative trajectory of other groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which are apparently on the upswing. In the end he expressed doubt, though, they they would -- in the current political environment -- become publicly prominent.

Summary prepared by Douglas Northrop, CREES Director