Vitaly Naumkin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and State Power in the Middle East and Central Asia: Conversation with Vitaly Naumkin, President of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Moscow; February 19, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Jane Scherr photo

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With this background, and with the fall of the Soviet Union and the importance of Central Asia in the world's consciousness since 9/11, how do you evaluate the Soviet experiment in Central Asia as an effort to bring modernity to a very traditional way of life?

I think, as is the case in every colonial experience, it is a balance. On the one hand, we can praise this experiment because of the modernization that was done, because these countries were like what we can see in Afghanistan. They were tribal areas with very, very backward economies and social structures. When Russia came to Central Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century, during the Russian Empire, the idea or the concept of modernization was more or less successful -- and even after the Revolution, [under] Soviet rule. Of course, there were a lot of negative sides of that, but it can be compared with what the Soviet rule did to all parts of the Soviet Union, [including] Russia itself. But as far as the regions of the Soviet Union, as far as the former republics are concerned, I think modernization was maybe one of the best achievements of the old regime, despite all these negatives sides, which we all know.

Do you believe that the tenets of Islam are incompatible with modernization and modernity? One wonders sometimes whether this apparent incompatibility is a product of what was done to the Islamic world, either by imperialism or by capitalism or communism under the Soviet Union. Or whether there are parts of the tenets of Islam that are incompatible with, for example, the requirement of modernization to separate the state and government from religion.

It's a hard question. I believe that Islam can be closely linked with modernization and can be modernized, and is compatible. We cannot say that any religion is incompatible with modernity, because all these religions -- they are different, but all these Abrahamic religions -- are very similar. Islam is a very special sort of religion, at the same time, because it very closely relates power with the state. The concept of state and power was always a part of all Islamic teachings, and the first Islamic state -- the state of Prophet Mohammed -- was a theocracy. This is one of the reasons why Islam is pretending to control the greater part of the individual's life and controlling the state as well.

So to what extent can modernity be brought into Islamic territories? We know that there are a lot of modernizers within Islam. There are a lot of thinkers starting from the nineteenth century who dreamed about organizing Islam everywhere, starting from Muhammed Abdo in Egypt, as well as in Russia, in Central Asia. We had the so-called "jadids" who were modernizers, and a lot of other groups that dreamed about modernizing the Islamic world. We had, also, traditionalists who were thinking in more traditional terms. And we had the so-called revivalists who were fundamentalists aiming at reviving the idea of the Islamic state and returning to the old days of the first theocratic rule within the Islamic world.

I think that it is counterproductive to impose changes in the Islamic world by force or from the outside world. The more you pressure the Islamic world, the more ground you will create for these fundamentalists and traditionalists to exploit this situation in order to protect their own values. Any society within the Islamic world is a traditional one, and especially if it's fragmented, it's a part of their identity. You cannot just organize a sort of cultural invasion. The cultural pressure from the developed growth is in itself so great that the people have a counter-reaction against it. They're trying to protect their own values. And it creates the ground for political mobilization on the part of those evil forces who want to use the situation in order to seize power. They're thinking about power, nothing more.

Let's take a look at the Cold War and the dynamic that led the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and led the United States to respond to that invasion. What followed was a decade of clandestine and open struggle. In retrospect, how important was that dynamic and the wreckage that resulted in creating the present situation in which the fundamentalists appear to have taken something of an upper hand, at least as Islam presents itself globally?

The invasion in Afghanistan was one of the most serious and tragic mistakes of the Soviet government in those days. It was more than a mistake; it was even a crime. It didn't serve any interests of the people of the Soviet Union in those days, and even the regime itself, because it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in general. It created a lot of problems for many years between the Russians and the Islamic world as well.

Historic memories are very powerful in all traditional societies. The history is there in the hearts and the souls of the people in all countries, and people won't forget the woes of this war. But the [immediate] negative result was that, due to the rationale, to the logic of the Cold War, the United States supported Islamic forces that actually were not only struggling against the Soviet Union as an invader -- these Islamic forces were right in trying to do that -- but at the same time, they were against modernization. They were traditional forces, revivalists, fundamentalists who were working against modernization of the country, which was imposed by the Soviets in those days. So forget about communism; I wouldn't say that it is impossible to imagine that Afghanistan could have been turned into a communist country.

So you are talking about big power politics.

Yes. But a result of that on one side was the main factor of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a big crisis in Russia, which is still there. And on the other hand, we had very powerful Islamic fundamentalist movements, supported by the West from the days when [Western leaders] liked Osama bin Laden fighting within the ranks of these guys who were supported by the West and who found funding from Saudi Arabia and military support from Pakistan, and also were supported by the United States.

What do you see as the role of the Saudis in adding to this witches brew that has emerged from that part of the world?

Saudi Arabia is a very important country. It is important because it's a cradle of Wahhabism, a very puritan, very special kind of Islam, though they prefer not to call themselves Wahhabis but Salafis or adherents of classical Islam, of the Islam of the first days of the Islamic state. The Saudis have always supported all sorts of these revivalist and fundamentalist movements in the world.

By the way, the Saudis now are saying that the West owes Saudi Arabia at least two things. I spoke to one of the rulers in Saudi Arabia, one of the ruling families. He told me, "Yes, the West owes us two things. First, we helped the United States in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, because we supported Europe with cheap oil. Second, we helped them to liberate Europe and also Russia from the communists, because we supported the struggle of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan. It exploded the whole situation, and Eastern Europe was liberated from communism."

It is partly true. But what is the agenda of those Saudis? They have different agendas. The ruling family, which has modernized part of the society, has friendly relations with the West. They have their agenda in modernizing society, but keeping the power in their hands as well. But there are a lot of forces within the society who have quite a different agenda in building Islamic states all over the world, and supporting those who are now working as terrorists against, practically speaking, human civilization.

Other than the trail left by the Saudis and the bipolar conflict between the Soviets and the U.S., what else do you think is driving the dynamic, leading to the empowering of this global fundamentalist movement?

There are a lot of socioeconomic factors, [including] a very big gap between different states, different regions, and different social forces. Many of these states are ruled by dictators, and there is a clear lack of democracy in these countries, or sometimes an absence of any elements of democracy. Also, no participation on the part of people, no participation at all in any sort of decision-making. They cannot be represented in any way.

The problem of self-expression is so strong that the people find in the Islamic alternative something that can bring a change in their conditions, in their lives. They're not satisfied with these conditions. So when the Leftist (or socialist or communist) alternative disappeared because there's no credibility -- maybe for many years already, who knows? -- the only alternative is Islam, and maybe radical Islam, because they are proposing easy solutions. So, "Welcome back to the State of Caliphate, or Islamic group, where everybody will be equal."

These are the same ideas as the communists used: social justice, equality, wealth distributed among everybody. "You'll participate in all these things through the Islamic mechanisms, and it will be fair. The state will be fair to everybody." It's not mere coincidence that a lot of former followers of socialist ideas (or Arab nationalist ideas, because Arab nationalism was also discredited) became fundamentalists. They just turned to support the Islamicists, they became adherents of the radical Islamic movements.

This shift can also be explained in terms of the scope of the social, economic, psychological, and cultural problems. Also, anti-Westernization is a very substantial part of this process. The people feel frustrated because they feel that the West is very strong; it invades their society, including Western mass media, information, education, wealth, technology, everything. They have their own identity, they would like to protect themselves from this strong pressure.

I think the West in general, [including] Europe, needs to have some self-restraint. We have to be cautious about intervening in the affairs of Islam. We have to help to enhance modernization, but very cautiously, without breaking this, because it reminds them of the past. If we are going to change everything, to impose these changes by force, well, we'll just behave like Bolsheviks. They had the same idea of changing everything, you know, the export of revolution. I think the export of democracy is not less harmful than the idea of the export of revolution.

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