G. Yemelianova (Hrsg.): Radical Islam in the Former Soviet Union

Radical Islam in the Former Soviet Union.

Yemelianova, Galina
Routledge Contemporary Russia and Eastern Europe Series
London 2009: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
xviii, 275 S.
£ 80,75
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stefan B. Kirmse, SFB 640, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

This edited volume is a remarkable book. On the positive side, it not only introduces new material to the discussion of Islamic “revival” and its radicalisation in the post-Soviet space but also does so by listening to the voices of scholars from the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union. Yet while this approach offers useful “insider’s” perspectives, it also contains certain risks, and unfortunately the book mainly highlights the latter. The authors present an impressive amount of original data on radical Islamic thinkers and movements. And yet, these accounts suffer not only from their forced insertion into an essentialist framework but also from repeated attempts to talk about local society at large (which is unconvincing because the analysis is largely based on interviews with authorities and senior Islamic actors).

Writing from a “Muslim” perspective, most of the authors try to differentiate an allegedly “traditional” Islam in their respective regions from corrupting Russian and Soviet influences, on the one hand, and imposed radical Islam, on the other. Only the final article (on the Ferghana Valley) shows an awareness that such “traditional” Islam is more discursive than real (p. 230). In its effort to “rescue” Islam from Soviet and radical aberrations, the book identifies numerous “regional Islams”. These, however, rely on essentialist characterizations rooted in Soviet writing: in almost every chapter, the reader is told that local beliefs and practices are “pre-Soviet”, “tolerant”, “flexible” and full of “pre-Islamic norms and practices”. Like many writers during the Soviet period, Yemelianova and her contributors compare local Muslims with an abstract ideal of Islam that exists nowhere in the Muslim world. The constant talk about Muslims who have little knowledge of Islam and practice religion in a purely ritualistic, “popular” form is condescending and confuses lived Islam with theology (which few Muslims engage with regardless of where they live). To capture local idiosyncrasies in the post-Soviet space, Yemelianova proposes the category of “ex-Soviet Muslims” (p. 5). Their key commonality, she argues, is the experience of Russian and Soviet rule, which, however, is never analysed beyond superficial discussions of its “devastating” impact. The idea of “ex-Soviet Muslims” plays down differences within the post-Soviet space and, more worryingly, plays up differences with Muslims elsewhere.

Ironically, while the authors distance themselves from the Soviet period, their contributions to this volume are informed by Soviet analytical frameworks, particularly Soviet understandings of religion and culture. First, the articles are deeply culturalist. Ethnicity and religion are presented as objective realities. Most authors show a firm belief in entrenched cultural divisions which communism was “naturally” unable to overcome. Ignoring the fact that “nations” were, at best, 19th or 20th century elite constructions and, at worst, products of Soviet ethnic engineering, the histories of different groups are followed through the centuries. Moreover, many authors assert that different nations – predominantly presented not only as “real” but also as homogeneous, collective actors – developed different levels of religiosity over time (as if it were possible to “measure” religious devotion!). Second, and following on from the first point, culture is approached mainly in quantitative terms. Throughout the volume, authors elaborate in a rather positivist manner on the number of mosques, madrasas and Sufis, the percentage of “believers” and the “depth” of religiosity. Yet these figures neither offer any insights into religious experiences nor any explanations for Islamic activism.

This approach is not exclusively Soviet. Indebted to Enlightenment thinking and Orientalism, it pervaded not only Soviet discussions of Islam but also Western Sovietology (the infamous “Bennigsen School”). Yet while a growing number of Western scholars acknowledge the flaws of culturalism and positivism in analyses of Islam, Yemelianova’s book adheres to Soviet frameworks without considering the criticisms.[1] The book is therefore not only an anachronism but also a sobering reminder that local scholarship on Islam in the former Soviet Union remains cut off from Western debates. True, the fact that most of these have not been translated into Russian is part of the problem. Yet Yemelianova, who has been based in Britain for years, could have used the opportunity to build bridges by introducing this critical thinking to scholars from the region. Instead, the volume sticks to English-language sources from the “Bennigsen School” and its post-Soviet successors (especially Ro’i).

Given these shortcomings, it is not surprising that the discussion of radical Islam, the central theme of the book, is somewhat simplistic. While Yemelianova claims to draw on social movement theory and theories of nationalism in the volume (pp. 3-4), the alleged influence of these theories on the book remains well-hidden. Most articles offer purely structuralist accounts of radicalization. Different degrees of radicalism are explained in terms of structural differences: geography, the history of Islamization, exposure to Russian/Soviet influences, transnational ties, economic hardship, ethnic composition, or political repression – without posing the question of why many people who live in the same conditions do NOT become radical.

Theology plays a key role throughout the volume which is often more about Islam than about Islamism. The discussions of competing Islamic scholars, whose claims to religious knowledge are a crucial factor in power politics, admittedly benefit from such background information. The authors repeatedly suggest, however, that local maddhabs (Islamic schools of law) differ in terms of their radical leanings (just like ethnic groups supposedly differ in terms of their religiosity). This is yet another example of structural determinism. Why does Islamic jurisprudence or doctrine, or the “low standard” of knowledge among imams (both repeatedly claimed as sources of radicalisation) turn young Muslims into armed warriors? Several authors seem to think that theological “incompetence” among local imams breeds radicalism (pp. 65, 123, 235). Yet the link is tenuous; and more importantly, the question itself is irrelevant. Terrorism in the name of Islam is best compared with secular terrorism. As Roy aptly put it, searching for a causal link between violent acts and Islamic theology (“what does the Qur’an say about...?”) is a sterile approach that only supports prejudice.[2]

Further criticisms include awkward language and the book’s regional focus: while four out of six regional chapters concentrate on the Caucasus, only one deals with Central Asia. Even more worryingly, time and again the authors offer statements without references or sources. In Akaev’s and Khanbabaev’s chapters, this problem is particularly acute, for they give detailed information on Islamic activists without indicating how they obtained it.

Most articles, however, provide useful “raw” material. Several authors offer illuminating and innovative discussions of power struggles, differences between Islamic activists, the policies and trajectories of different movements and individuals, and the links between Islamic activism and nationalism. DeWeese once wrote in a widely noticed review of Ro’i’s “Islam in the Soviet Union” that scholars were faced with the task of looking beyond a “frustratingly inadequate conceptual framework” in order to utilise and reinterpret the enormous body of data in the book.[3] Ten years after the publication of Ro’i’s book, the reader is once again faced with a very similar task.

[1] For critiques of Sovietological approaches to Islam, see Mark Saroyan, Rethinking Islam in the Soviet Union, in: Edward W. Walker (ed.), Minorities, Mullahs and Modernity. Reshaping Community in the Former Soviet Union, Berkeley 1997, pp. 8-42; Devin DeWeese, Islam and the Legacy of Sovietology. A Review Essay on Yaacov Ro’i’s Islam in the Soviet Union, in: Journal of Islamic Studies 13:3 (2002), pp. 298-330; Will Myer, Islam and Colonialism. Western Perspectives on Soviet Asia, Richmond 2002; Johan Rasanayagam, Introduction, in: Central Asian Survey 25:3 (2006), pp. 219-233.
[2] Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam, London 2004, pp. 5-9, 41-43.
[3] DeWeese, Islam and the Legacy of Sovietology, pp. 316, 329.