Ahmed Rashid Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of Militant Islam: Conversation with Ahmed Rashid, author and journalist: 3/26/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Islam in Central Asia: Soviet Legacy

Let's talk a little about Islam. Your new book is called Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. One of the important points that emerges is that where Islam finds itself today is just one of several possible trajectories that in an earlier period could have led to a different path. Tell us a little about Islam and those possibilities for more pluralism or a different perspective in Islam on the world and relations with the West.

One of the tragedies of the recent era has been in the post-Soviet breakup. There was an Islamic revival around the world, and there were many triggers to it. book coverThere was the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, there was a general revival in Islamic culture, and people wanting to know about religion. And the Gulf War, for example, in '91, was a big trigger also. But Muslims regimes failed to understand what was going on below the surface.

Unfortunately, most Muslim regimes in the Arab world and in Asia have been very autocratic. They didn't grasp the significance of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new world that was very swiftly emerging. There had to be a more pluralistic approach, there had to be democratization, a freer press, and a free academia to absorb all these new currents that were coming from outside, and also to absorb the Islamic revival, which was taking on many shapes and forms, including the extremist form that we saw in the early nineties, for example: the civil war in Algeria, the first Palestinian Intifada, the war in Chechnya. There was a very genuine intellectual revival in Islam, which was extremely positive and should have been taken on board by these regimes as a part of the opening up of these political systems. But none of this happened.

If you look at the region that I cover -- Pakistan, Afghanistan -- the regimes in Pakistan failed to understand the significance of the collapse of the Soviet Union and all these new currents. The Central Asian regimes which came into being in '91 completely misunderstood, and, in fact, tried to suppress all the new currents that were coming up, because they still had the mentality of the Sovietized bureaucracy.

One thing that emerges throughout your book is this interplay, this dynamic between external and internal forces. So let's go back a little in history. The Soviet Union in its control of Central Asia set in place a number of the regimes that would contribute to this set of problems. Tell us a little about the conduct of Soviet power in Central Asia that isolated Islam in that part of the world from the rest of Islam, on the one hand, and put in place regimes that were not susceptible to the democratic tendencies that they should have been responsive to after the fall of the Soviet Union.

There were two or three crucial mistakes from the Soviet period, which we're still living with in Central Asia. The first one is that Stalin designated five ethnic groups as the five major nationalities of Central Asia. Central Asia has something like a hundred ethnic groups. And he made nations out of these ethnic groups -- so, the Uzbeks were given Uzbekistan, the Kazaks were given Kazakhstan. But you know, Central Asia was an amalgam of tribes, clans, ethnic groups, principalities. Stalin created these ethnic divisions, and then gave them a very falsified history, which, of course, was a Sovietized history. Their "history" had nothing to do with their own real history.

Parallel to this, of course, he completely suppressed Islam. Religion was not allowed. Islam was very much part of their history and tradition and culture; by suppressing Islam, he cut them off from their past completely. And also, of course, suppressed indigenous culture and tradition that was still inherent there. Fortunately, it's very clear now that there was a significant underground Islam that carried on throughout the seventy years of Soviet rule. But, certainly, when Central Asia emerged in '91 of five independent states, the majority of the population knew very little about Islam and their history.

The third important aspect was that the Soviets delayed, for as long as possible, the creation of an indigenous local elite in Central Asia. So Central Asia, right up to the fifties, was, in fact, ruled by White Russia rather than the local elite. And so finally, in the fifties and sixties, you get this local elite, Uzbek Communist elite, Turkman, the Tajeks, who were extremely isolated, cut off, highly bureaucratized, and very much in debt to Moscow for just having been allowed to come up. So this elite was even, in my opinion, far more backward. And, of course, this elite is still ruling today, because there have been no leadership changes in Central Asia. This elite was far more backward than the kind of movements that were taking place in the Soviet Communist Party in Russia.

You write in your new book, "The genius of early Muslim Arab civilization was its multicultural, multi-religious, and multiethnic diversity. The stunning and numerous state failures that abound in the Muslim world today are because that original path, that intention and inspiration, has been abandoned either in favor of a brute or a narrow interpretation of the theology." So in a way, although this is a statement about a broader set of regimes, it reflects a perversion of what might have been.

Well, certainly. One of the cultural tragedies is that the fundamentalist parties today do not study history. It's not a subject in the madrasas, in the religious schools. They don't know about their own history. They don't know about the Islamic culture in Spain -- the Muslims ruled Spain for nine hundred years, alongside Jews and Christians, and built the most magnificent monuments which are standing today. Or the history of multicultural, multiethnic Muslim empires that ruled in North Africa, and in the Middle East, and even in South Asia, of course. If you look at the Moguls, who ruled India for four hundred years, they came out of Central Asia. They brought with them a Central Asian culture, the culture of Afghanistan and Persia; lived with Hindus and mixed with Hindus and Farsis, Buddhists, and other religions sects in India, ruled over them. This is the legacy specifically of South Asia. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist groups in the recent twenty or thirty years have failed to grasp the diversity, because they don't study this [history].

Now, as we go back again to the effect, the consequences of what the external actors do, the invasion by the Soviet Union of Afghanistan was a pivotal turning point in effecting the radicalization of some sectors of Islamic society in the light of this history. Tell us a little about the consequences of the Soviet invasion and the American response as a factor in creating this witch's brew that we now live with.

The response to the Soviet invasion was, of course, then countered by the American aid to the Afghan Mujahadeen, with the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and dozens of other countries. But essentially, what the U.S. launched in Afghanistan was a jihad. The Pakistani, the American, and the Saudi intelligence services were all joined together in bringing into Afghanistan thousands of militants from all over the Islamic world. At that time the American aid was simply to show that the whole Islamic world was resisting the Soviet invasion. But, essentially, they brought together these jihadi groups. And naturally, the militants who arrived to fight in Afghanistan from the Arab world, from all over, came from the most militant groups in this part of the world.

Now, many of these Muslim regimes also saw this a good way to resolve their internal tensions and problems by sending these militants out; you know: "Go and fight in Afghanistan, don't bother us here at home." That, of course, created the roots for al Qaeda and bin Laden, and even the Taliban, and for the subsequent upheavals that have occurred in Central Asia, even for the militants in Central Asia. Because Central Asians came in the 1980s also, to fight in Afghanistan, and linked up with all sorts of Arab groups and Pakistani groups. So that legacy is what the world today is faced with.

Next page: Islam in Central Asia: Foreign Intervention and Fundamentalism

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