Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Polonskaya, Ludmila, Alexei Malashenko. 1994. Islam in Central Asia. Ithaca: Reading. [2008]

Book Review: Polonskaya, Ludmila, Alexei Malashenko. 1994. Islam in Central Asia. Ithaca: Reading. [2008]

This text, which was originally published in 1994, is intended to serve as a basic introduction to the topic of Islam in Central Asia. As a rudimentary chronological description of historical events in the region, the book more or less succeeds (although its brevity means it never delves too deeply); as a textured introduction to its putative subject, however, it is barely adequate.

The book begins with a brief description of the socio-religious landscape of Central Asia prior to the Arab conquests, leading up to Islam being introduced in the region. Each chapter thereafter provides a more-or-less rote historical account of a particular era in the region's history, loosely arranged around the theme of Islam -- "Islam and Central Asia before the Russian Conquest," "Islam in Central Asia from the Period of Colonization to the 1917 Revolution," "Islam and Moslems of Central Asia under the Communist Regime," and so forth. Even at this early juncture, however, some historiographical problems become evident: "Nomadic tribes," for instance, are described as being "all but isolated from the cultural life of Ma Wara al-Nahr despite their proximity to major trade routes" (31), which is an almost total misrepresentation of the long history of interactions between nomadic and settled peoples -- sometimes symbiotic, sometimes antagonistic.  Moreover, the gradual adoption of Islam in Central Asia is attributed in part to Islam being "the most down-to-earth and pragmatic of all the religions known in Central Asia" (9). No evidence is produced to support this claim, and what exactly this statement is supposed to mean is left for the reader to gauge. Problems such as this persist throughout.

Indeed, the book’s largest flaw lies in the way it handles Islam itself. Throughout the course of the book, the notion of “Islam in Central Asia” is never adequately explained. In fact, Islam itself is never really discussed as a religion. Instead, it is referred to in vague, totalistic terms. Thus, the reader frequently encounters such assertions as “Islam was the most important factor in [Amir Timur’s] policies” (20) or “Sheikh Mansur approved of Shaibani’s plan to conquer Ma Wara al-Nahr and united Uzbek territories into a single state. A major role in that plan was reserved for Islam” (25). Again, precisely what is meant by statements like these is never explained: Islam is alternately treated as an abstract "thing" or a comprehensive ideology, neither of which the authors seem to feel the need to elucidate on.

At other times, Islam becomes a world-historical actor in its own right. The authors, for example, contend  at one point that “it is hardly likely that Islam will renounce its political presence in the near future” (120). Why individual Muslims have sought to merge religion and modern politics, or how they believe their views are religiously authorized, are never discussed. In fact, throughout Islam in Central Asia, Muslims as people largely disappear beneath the shadow of an abstract "Islam" that decides and acts entirely of its own accord.

Elsewhere in the book, however, Islam itself largely disappears, at least in any meaningful way: in a section entitled “Czarist Russia’s Islamic Policy” (41-44) the authors discuss issues such as mosque construction, pensions for religious figures, the state's printing of copies of the Qur’an, the abolishment of waqf lands, and the gradual imposition of imperial control over Central Asian states. All of these issues are interesting and important, of course, but, contrary to the authors’ claims, they do not amount to an “Islamic policy” so much as a set of institutional initiatives that have little to do with Islam as a religion. To call this an "Islamic policy" is to confuse Islam with certain of its positive manifestations.

There are numerous other criticisms that could be made, but the aforementioned should suffice to indicate some of the more grievous problems. The question then becomes one of why two eminent and reputable scholars (Malashenko, for instance is the co-chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's "Religion, Society, and Security" program) would publish a book with so little meaningful content about the subject it purports to treat. The most probable explanation is that the book’s failings are rooted, to a large degree, in methodological problems inherited from a distinctly Soviet view of Islam, one that relied heavily on inappropriate and inapplicable epistemological categories. To take but one glaring example, contrary to the authors’ repeated assertions, Islam does not have any such institution as a “clergy." Elsewhere, the authors refer to Islam as "a uniform socio-cultural and political complex existing in space and time" (105), a statement that is more reflective of Soviet attitudes towards religion than of the reality of Islam. Throughout the book, there is evidence of the Soviet tendency to project ethno-nationalist and/or ideological concepts into the past, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Thus, we read that “Islam was a fully established ideology that could be used by political leaders [in the 19th century] to unite Central Asian peoples into ethnic entities” (66) and that “Islam is the most politicized religion in the world” (120). As in other cases, what exactly is meant by assertions like this – and what they have to do with religion – is never adequately explained by the authors.

For the aforementioned reasons, then, this book does not really succeed as an account of Islam in Central Asia. Religion, in all its richness and nuance, is completely obscured by the strange and faceless thing the authors refer to as “Islam.” This “Islam,” in their narrative, is a changeless, leaden entity that lumbers through the ages, becoming little more than a tool in the hands of successive historical actors, albeit a tool that occasionally animates itself to wield some political power of its own. Such a depiction, however, robs Islam of any genuinely religious character. Readers in search of an adequate regional history loosely focused around the theme of Islam may find something of value here; however, scholars looking for insights into Islam in Central Asia would do best to avoid Islam in Central Asia.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Kyrgyzstan's Borders in the 21st Century

Contemporary borders in Central Asia only date back to the early 20th century. During the Soviet period, national republics were created for many of the region’s numerous ethnic groups. The administrative borders between Union Republics that were drawn during this period survived the Soviet Union to become international borders between independent states. Almost overnight, republics that had previously been tied together by a centrally planned economy and political system, and which shared infrastructure and resources, become independent states with oftentimes wildly divergent leadership and policies, levels of development, and access to natural resources.

Like its neighbors, the Kyrgyz Republic has, since independence, struggled to secure its borders, which, in many areas, remain porous and contested. Border conflicts with Uzbekistan have become sadly commonplace. Numerous Uzbek exclaves – territory that is legally part of Uzbekistan, but completely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory – exist within the Kyrgyz Republic. Residents of these exclaves must pass through international borders several times in order to travel to other parts of Uzbekistan, leaving them vulnerable to isolation. Numerous Tajik exclaves exist as well, and like the Uzbek exclaves, they are frequently the scenes of interethnic violence.

In 1999, the Ferghana Valley region witnessed several large-scale attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (also known as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan). Between 1999 and 2001, the IMU carried out a number of attacks, including bombings and kidnappings, in Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, and lent support to Taliban forces in Afghanistan. In response, the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments have implemented numerous anti-terrorism initiatives in cooperation with the United States and other international actors. Given the IMU’s cross-border activities and the continuing instability in Afghanistan, border security, including preventing document forgery, is one of the major emphases of these projects.

The Kyrgyz Republic has also become a hub for the trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan. Kyrgyz authorities routinely apprehend smugglers, but weak border security, particularly with Tajikistan, means that the problem continues largely unabated. This has led to the rise of organized crime and growing amounts in drug abuse and drug-related problems, such as HIV/AIDS, within Kyrgyzstan itself. The government has tried to increase border patrols, but the mountainous terrain and the lack of resources make enforcement difficult.

Apart from the threat of drug smuggling and violence from the IMU or other terrorist organizations, the Kyrgyz Republic’s borders also have a profound impact on the governance of the state itself. The country’s second largest city, Osh, is home to a large ethnic Uzbek population, which maintains strong ties to other cities in the Ferghana Valley, the majority of which is in Uzbekistan. Border controls, however, are strict, and the Uzbek government periodically closes the border entirely. Osh, and the southern part of the country more generally, are separated from the rest of Kyrgyzstan by high mountain ranges. Roads through these mountains are frequently blocked during bad weather, meaning that expensive and infrequent flights from Bishkek or land routes that cross the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan are the only ways to travel from the north to the south. Given the already limited influence the central government in Bishkek has over affairs in the south , and considering the long history of inter-ethnic violence in Osh, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border also represents a centrifugal force that heightens the distance – politically and temporally – between Kyrgyzstan’s capital and its “second city.”

Economically speaking, Kyrgyzstan’s borders are double-edged swords. The Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked state. If the borders are closed, so too are the main transit routes into the country, meaning the republic’s economy is dependent, to some extent, on the goodwill of its neighbors. On the other hand, the Kyrgyz Republic, along with Tajikistan, controls the majority of the upstream water resources that countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and especially Uzbekistan, depend on – a fact that has not gone unremarked upon in Tashkent. Legally, the Kyrgyz government has a great deal of discretion over water resources inside its borders. Large-scale hydropower projects would serve to redistribute the balance of geopolitical power in the region in Kyrgyzstan’s favor by giving the Kyrgyz Republic greater control over how much water ultimately crosses the border into Uzbekistan. Stability along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border may depend to a large degree upon the measure of the Uzbek government's response to any future development by the Kyrgyz government of its hydroelectric resources.

Borders are sometimes taken for granted. Oftentimes, they are conceived of as little more than the outline of a state, lines that goods and travelers must cross -- oftentimes with no small amount of hassle -- to get from one place to another. Borders, however, are always inherently political, and what happens at the border often carries with it regional consequences. As one Kyrgyz counter-terrorism expert has noted:
The situation in our region is inextricably linked to the processes in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, where the Islamic Jihad Union and Islamic Movement of Turkestan bases are located, generously supported by al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to various predictions, following the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, it is possible that the situation will worsen and that we will see an escalation in terrorist activity, with militants penetrating the borders and an increase in drug trafficking. This would lead to total destabilisation in Central Asia, and for this reason we are taking steps to neutralise and minimise these threats.
If international terrorism and drug trafficking are issues that attract a great deal of attention in places like Washington, D.C., hydroelectric power and internecine struggles between the northern and southern regions of the Kyrgyz Republic are less scrutinized. And yet it is clear that these matters, all of which deal in one way or another with borders, are just as crucial, if not moreso, to the long-term stability of Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps to the Central Asian region more generally. Refocusing our attention on borders gives us the perspective to recognize that security is not merely about what happens within particular states, but is equally a question of what happens between them. In this sense, the politics of the borders of the Kyrgyz Republic do not appear exceptional, but instructive.