Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia

By James Nealy–

Each semester, as a part of The Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’ colloquia series, Miami University hosts a series of lectures delivered by prominent Eurasian scholars from across disciplines. The first such presentation for this semester’s colloquia, titled Rethinking the Communist Experiment and taught by Dr. Stephen Norris from the History department, was recently delivered by Dr. Adeeb Khalid, Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor of Asian Studies and History at Carleton College, who has the distinction of being one of the few Western scholars to have experienced Soviet Central Asia during the 1980s. Dr. Khalid’s lecture was primarily based on a chapter from his 2007 book Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, which explores the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution on religious and cultural practices in the non-Russian Eastern territories of the former Russian Empire. For Khalid, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the subsequent consolidation of Soviet power throughout the Eurasian space, had a multi-faceted, and sometimes contradictory, influence on Central Asian Islam, a profound development that scholars have tended to overlook or simply ignore.

Khalid’s presentation began by considering the nature of revolution in the peripheral territories of the former Russian Empire. Specifically, his position is that “revolution,” in the context of early twentieth century Central Asia, was analogous with vague notions of “freedom” and “equality” with Russians; in other words, it had more in common with bourgeois national revolutions than the ostensibly class-based international-minded Bolshevik Revolution. By March 1919, the Bolsheviks had established control over Central Asia and, Khalid explains, thereafter they pursued a program that focused on considerations of class (bourgeois, proletariat, et al.) rather than nationality or religion. The Sovietization of Central Asia, in other words, was unique in that the revolution made the Party, rather than vice versa as in the rest of the Soviet Republic.

The application of a Soviet program in a post-Ottoman Central Asia meant, among other things, a radically altered course for the reformation of Islam in the region. Rather than evolving from within, which Khalid insists was occurring well before the fall of the Ottoman and Russian Empires between 1917 and the end of World War I, Central Asian society was influenced by the eschatological atheism of the Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Whereas Ottoman-era Islamic criticism tended to take the form of tempered protest, such as the visitation of tombs, a form of idolatry for Orthodox Muslims, post-1917 protest was largely defined by an “anti-clericalism” that had little to nothing in common with Soviet socialism. This form of dissent was prevalent between 1917 and the 1930s, a time of massive social overhaul in the USSR; thereafter, Khalid explains, “natural” Islamic reform ceased and was replaced by Soviet notions of progress, typically anti-religious sentiment and a focus on industrial priorities. Wholesale shift or not, he explains that change did not come without some tangible benefits for Central Asians. For example, although the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) sought to frustrate age-old religious and cultural practices, the sine qua non of sorts of its “modernization” program, it also improved literacy rates, schools, and the prevalence of news media in the titular languages of Central Asia.

Followed to its logical ends, Khalid’s observations simultaneously clarify and obfuscate scholarly understanding of the Soviet period. On the one hand, his position buttresses Cold War era assertions that the USSR was a “top-down” entity in which the center, Moscow, asserted its will absolutely; on the other, by positing that the fall of the Ottoman Empire also influenced the direction of early twentieth century Islam, Khalid accepts the limits of Soviet totalitarianism. These conflicting resolutions, while puzzling on the surface, are no surprise for Khalid, who remarked that during the research stage of his project, spent primarily in now-closed Uzbek archives, he came to the conclusion that, perhaps to the scholar’s chagrin, a plethora of documents often provides more questions than answers.

James Nealy is a second-year M.A. student in the History Department.

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