The Problem of Soviet Muslims
by Daniel Pipes
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[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
The Soviet Union is the last great European empire; and the 55 million Muslims living in Central Asia and the Caucasus constitute the last major body of Third World people still under Christian European rule. While this imbalance has existed for seventy years, it hardly mattered to the outside world until a few months ago. Recent developments in the Soviet bloc suggest that Soviet Muslims will have major implications for the Kremlin and for us.
Before going any further, one point needs to be clarified. In the analysis that follows, communal ties are at issue, not personal faith. Whether the rulers in Moscow are believers or atheists hardly matters; nor is it important what the Muslims think, just that they be of Muslim heritage. Muslims in the Soviet Union are geographically divided into two large groups, with the bulk of them in Central Asia and smaller numbers in the Caucasus and other areas. Some 50 million of the Muslims speak a Turkish language, while most of the rest speak a dialect of Persian.
Muslims living in the Soviet Union display key characteristics of an colonized people. They do not control their own destiny. Rather, Slavs sitting in Moscow or in the capitals of the Muslim republics make the major decisions. Raw materials are sent from Muslim regions to Russia for processing into finished manufactured goods. The Russian language enjoys an unchallenged cultural supremacy, even though the Muslims speak Turkic and Persian languages. The Muslims' culture (especially their religion) is scorned as backward. No matter what index one uses-health, education, wealth-Muslims occupy the country's bottom rung. In brief, Russian control of Central Asia and the Caucasus resembles British rule in India or French rule in Algeria.
That these facts are so little known results from two facts in particular. First, no body of blue water divides Russia from the Muslim lands. The distances may be immense (Moscow is about as far from Tashkent as London from Cairo) but to outsiders the Asian land mass appears to be just one vast region. Second, the Bolsheviks cleverly disguised their imperialism by modernizing it. Tsarist colonies turned into Soviet republics; Muslims nominally became the equal of Slavs; and six Muslim republics (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) came into existence, each with the mock apparatus of sovereignty, to the point even of including foreign ministries.
But not much more than the names changed. In effect, Muslim peoples living in the Soviet Union became Europe's last great colony. Events during the first months of 1990 make it clear that the Muslims know this, and resent it mightily.
Moscow's rule over Muslims began in 1552, when Ivan the Terrible's troops conquered the Muslim kingdom of Kazan. The tsarist empire then expanded east and south, continuing to conquer Muslims until 1887, when they finally subjugated the Caucasus Mountains region.
Muslims tried to exploit the Russian Revolution of 1917 to shake off Moscow's rule. Despite the Bolsheviks' anti-imperialist program the Red Army subjugated them anew. Rebellious elements (dubbed basmachis, or bandits, by the Soviets) kept up the fight in Central Asia until 1928, with small pockets of resistance continuing to hold out as late as the mid-1930s.
Then the Muslim regions went quiet for nearly fifty years, disappearing from international politics. Communist and anti-Communist Russians alike agreed on the successful creation of a homo sovieticus, and the gradual disappearance of ethnic and national differences in the U.S.S.R. But they were wrong; those differences remained.
Instead, the real development was the rapid growth in the Muslim population. In 1939, Muslims constituted only 8.7 percent of the Soviet population; fifty years later, in 1989, they made up an astonishing 19.2 percent of the population. In the decade between 1979 and 1989, Muslims sustained a birth rate five times higher than that of non-Muslims. Put differently: while Muslims in 1979 constituted only one-sixth of the Soviet population, they had nearly as many children in the 1980s as the other five-sixths of the population.
To make matters worse from the Russian point of view, 50 million of these peoples are Turkic-speaking, and therefore share ethnic bonds as well as those deriving from religion.
This huge demographic disparity has many implications. For instance, it means that Muslims will soon constitute one-third of the recruits in the armed forces. Not being terribly well educated or adept at the Russian language, and only dubiously loyal to the Soviet state, their influx means that the Soviet military now has something approaching two castes, in which the Muslims perform secondary and menial tasks.
But the greatest impact of the population surge has to do with morale. (In this, they somewhat resemble the Poles, who also have a population boom undeway.) As Alexandre Bennigsen and Marie Broxup wrote in 1983, Muslims know that the future belongs to them: "The spiritual world of the Muslim Turkic elite in the Soviet Union, by contrast to that of the Russian intellectual elite, is marked by a sense of optimism-probably the only community of the U.S.S.R. to feel this way."
Two events in 1979 prompted the current wave of Muslim activism. When Ayatollah Khomeini challenged the United States in the name of Islam and succeeded, Soviet Muslims inevitably began to wonder what would happen if they tried the same approach to their Christian nemesis, the Russians. In his first months of power, Khomeini and his aides urged the Muslims to do just this. While no dramatic incidents followed, there is plenty of evidence that the challenge was much pondered. A few months later, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan stirred powerful emotions. Contrary to those in the West who understood the invasion as a show of force intended to show Soviet Muslims the extent of Moscow's power, it was in fact done despite the effect it would have on Muslims. That is to say, The Muslims' allegiance to the Soviet Union came into question as co-nationals (Russians) killed co-religionists (Afghans). One Soviet Muslim who joined the Afghan mujahidin put it succinctly: "What matters to me are the religious regulations, not my Soviet nationality." To make matters worse, Moscow's inability to defeat the tribesmen suggested its fallibility.
These events set the stage for the developments of 1990. Beginning exactly on January 1, the Muslim Turks of Azerbaijan began tearing down border posts separating their republic from Iran; when the authorities hardly responded, the Azeris were encouraged to shout out their long-hidden sentiments ("Down with the Russian Empire[MEF2]"), displace the local Communist Party from power, and strike a blow against their historic adversary, the (Christian) Armenians. Mikhail Gorbachev responded by sending in 11,000 troops and reasserting the Kremlin's writ by brute force. The result? Dozens of deaths and seething hatred of Moscow. More violence in Azerbaijan is almost inevitable.
One month later, an echo of the Azerbaijan riots was heard a thousand miles to the east, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, close by the Soviet border with Afghanistan. Mobs attacked the Central Committee building, hurled firebombs and acid at troops, and yelled provocative slogans ("Beat the Russians"). In addition, they called for an open border with Afghanistan and demanded the removal of the Communist Party from power. At least twenty-two people lost their lives. In June, trouble broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzia, leading to the deaths of nearly one thousand persons.
But these are mere preliminaries for the real trouble to come. The Muslim future is likely to be decided in Uzbekistan, the population and culture center of Muslim life in the Soviet Union. Riots did take place there in early March, leaving an unknown number of deaths among protestors and police alike. In June the Uzbekistan parliament declared political sovereignty and made plans for economic autonomy; most of the other Muslim republics followed suit shortly after. Of all the steps taken so far (which include replacing Russian with Uzbek as the republic's primary language), probably the most consequential is the demand that Uzbekistan retain one-third of its cotton crop this year and all of it in 1991. The nationalist organization New Democratic Party is the likely key to future developments.
Increasingly ill at ease, Russian settlers have begun to abandon their homes in the Muslim regions and return to Russia. However inhospitable the welcome for them there, at least they do not feel like unwelcome strangers. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Slavs has the effect, of course, of reinforcing the Muslim sense of power.
What the Muslims do has paramount importance for the U.S.S.R. for, along with Russians and Ukrainians, they are one of only three peoples who will determine the future of that country. Should they go their own way, a major pillar of Soviet power will have been removed.
If past experience is anything to go by, the decolonization of Central Asian and Caucasian will create a host of new problems. As in Eastern Europe, adjustments to a market economy will be very hard. The politics of envy will play a large role. Tapping fears and vested interests, ex-communists could do well in elections. Fundamentalist Muslims could benefit from the backlash against decades of intense Westernization, leading to alliance with the Iranian government. Independence will begin a long, rough process.
Still, the goals of American policy are obvious. Washington has lone supported national movements-on condition that they be committed to a peaceful struggle. The U.S. government should press Moscow to let the Muslim regions go their own way. What could be more in its interest than its greatest adversary decomposing? If Central Asia and the Caucasus become independent, both the population and the land area of the U.S.S.R. would be reduced by about one-fifth. The freed peoples could be expected to provide as solid an anti-communist mass as those in Lithuania or Hungary.
But it is not just a matter of interests; American principles also lie with Muslim independence. Much to Winston Churchill's distress, U.S. policy since World War I has consistently been to push for decolonization. And if the U.S. government pushed to end the relatively benign British and French empires, it is much more urgent that the horrid Russian imperium be brought to an end. Muslim independence, then, is in keeping with some very cherished principles.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is unlikely to take steps to encourage Muslim independence. It has already shown itself unwilling to stand up to rulers in Moscow (or Peking). Quite the contrary, since December 1989, Washington encouraged the Kremlin to invade Romania; condoned the Soviet assault on Azerbaijan; and denied Lithuania help in its hour of need. This embarrassing record of timidity (counterbalanced by tough stances toward allies like Japan and Israel!) makes it certain that Soviet Muslims will find no real support in Washington.
Failing this, one might expect that the U.S. government would have noted the critical role of short-wave radio broadcasts to China and Eastern Europe, and so decided to beef up programming on Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. But, quite the reverse, Voice of America's service in Uzbek Turkish-which operates longer and has a larger audience than Radio Liberty-was slated to be shut down on June 1, 1990. Just as the Caucasus and Central Asia have finally come to life, the meager programming to those areas is jeopardized; a more penny-wise, pound-foolish decision is hard to imagine.
Fortunately, intense lobbying by Congress won Uzbek (and five other language programs) a temporary lease on life. But the problem remains; if the Bush Administration will not stand by those wanting to break with Moscow, at least it should not impede the existing flow of information.
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