Islam and Politics in Russia and Central Asia (Early 17th - Late 20th Centuries)

October 13-14, 1999

Maison franco-japonaise, Tokyo


Scholars from many countries, including the C.I.S., gathered for the international symposium Islam and Politics in Russia and Central Asia. Thirteen speakers presented their papers over two days: The first day highlighted historical issues from the 17th century until the Russian Revolution of 1917; the second day focused on Islam and politics from the Soviet era until recent times. The papers covered a wide range of geographical regions, from Islamic areas in Russia (such as Tatarstan) to Eastern and Western Turkestan.

 ** also :COMMENTS by HIROSE Yoko

A brief description of the papers follow:


First Day

Panel I: Community Building in the Russian Dar al-Harb

Three speakers covered pre-Revolutionary Tatarstan and the Muslim communities in Siberia. Their themes were, respectively, formation of a Muslim identity, Muslim self-government in the Russian Empire, and Muslim economic activity and tax levies.


Panel II: Towards a Restoration of the Dar al-Islam State Building in 20th Century Muslim Central Asia

This session focused on Eastern and Western Turkestan at the turn of the century, on the movements toward building modern nations in Bukhara, Kazakhstan, and Eastern Turkestan. The factors influencing these movements were analyzed; in particular, the role of Islam was examined.


Second Day

Panel III: The Role of the Religious ('Ulama) and the Literati (Udaba)

The first paper of this session covered Islam in Uzbek literature; the second paper described the Sufi network in Eastern Turkestan in the first half of the 20th century and the immigration of Sufis from the Ferghana region. The author of the third paper, Parviz MULLOJONOV, spoke on Islam in present-day Tajikistan and the problems in Tajikistan existent from before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many scholars expressed interest in this paper, for even now, internal struggles in Tajikistan have not yet completely ceased. The paper took up the complex issues of tribe, society, and politics: the regionalism particular to the bureaucrats of this region from the Soviet era; the history of occupation; the two groups of 'ulama ("traditional" and "modern"); and Sufism, influential even during the Soviet era.


Panel IV: Contemporary Issues: Islam and Political Mobilization, From Tajikistan to the Suburbs of Moscow

First, a Russian scholar spoke on the steady spread of Islam in northern and central Qyrghyzstan and the threat the spread presents. Next, an American researcher spoke on the current state of Islam in the Ferghana Valley. He also touched upon the recent abduction of Japanese engineers from the area and the threat of fundamentalism. The third speaker discussed Islam in Tatarstan and Russia in the 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In this session, many Central Asian participants criticized the two papers written by non-Central-Asians. One student commented that one cannot take up a particular facet of Islam and apply it to all of Central Asia, nor can one make generalizations about Islam in any country. He suggested that the scholars have not grasped the real situation accurately.


Such criticism can be expected not only in conferences on Central Asia, but in conferences where native researchers and "outside" researchers meet. If scholars are to engage in an extensive discussion on any matter, they must share a common understanding of the status quo, as well as a knowledge of up-to-date research. However, this common understanding can be difficult to achieve when the issue at hand is contemporary religion.


In particular, Sufism prompted much debate at this symposium. Historically, in Central Asia, the Sufi groups have always been deeply involved in political affairs. The Naqshbandi sect, influential even now, teaches its followers to work with political leaders and to get involved in politics. It was clear from the papers at this symposium that the Sufis have not lost their influence even now, although it appeared to some that Sufism dissolved during the Soviet era. Scholars specializing in Arab and other Islamic areas expressed surprise at the political nature of Sufism in Central Asia, quite in contrast to Sufism, a "personal" matter, in Arab regions.


In Central Asian Studies and in contemporary regional studies, we must reconsider the relationship of Sufism and politics, and Sufism and society. Although great advances have recently been made in the study of Sufism, scholars specializing in Central Asia tend to overlook the unique elements of the region as obvious truths. Furthermore, though current research spotlights particular historical incidents, Sufi sects, and saint lineages, this focused approach alone cannot lead to a complete understanding of Sufism.


Likewise, it is impossible to understand the whole of Islam by examining discrete incidents. In these two days of the symposium, Islam was discussed from many historical viewpoints, in various regions and eras. In the first session, Christian NOACK suggested a more continuous approach, asserting that Muslim identity should be examined over time, and not only at the stage of nation-building. He gave examples of how Muslim identity changed over time, and the various ethnic movements it caused at the stage of political development.


An additional thought: this symposium was conducted in English and Russian. Most scholars from the C.I.S. presented their papers and commented in Russian, the common scientific language in the former Soviet Union. In the question-and-answer sessions, those who could speak both languages translated as necessary, and reminded one that this kind of flexibility, which was lacking at the international symposium in Kyoto, is essential to the success of such international symposia.


Report by KAWAHARA Yayoi


An International Symposium:Islam and Politics in Central Asia

Comments by Yoko HIROSE

(Graduate School, The University of Tokyo. Department of Law and Political Science)


This international colloquium, which hosted distinguished researchers from Japan, Russia, and other nations, covered a vast variety of themes and historical eras. The Russian researchers, with access to texts not easily available to Japanese scholars, brought up issues of particular interest concerning Islamic studies in Russia.

For me personally, as a researcher studying contemporary politics, the latter half of the conference proved to be of special interest. I was reminded of the importance of examining how the elements of Islam fit into the local cultural, economic, social, and political structures when studying this area of the world in particular. The resurgence of Islam after the Perestroika and its political influences, relationships between Islam and the local clan construction , and how the Sufis survived strong opposition during the Soviet regime, are some such local issues.

The colloquium was held in English and Russian, with an English-Russian interpreter attending. Although most international academic colloquia hosted in Japan are held primarily in English, one must not forget that as English is a second language to us Japanese, so is Russian a second language to the researchers from Central Asia. Under the Soviet regime, these scholars had no choice but to learn Russian instead of their own mother tongues if they wished to pursue advanced studies. 8 years since the Perestroika, the newly independant nations now use their own languages instead of Russian.