The Islamist Challenge in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Anna Matveeva

Anna MATVEEVA is Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Looking back upon the conflicts in the 20th century in Eurasia, one might conclude that they were predominantly of an ethnic nature. Although Islam as a faith and a cultural force has had a continual influence on Muslim parts of the USSR, its political role was virtually non-existent until the 1990s. Its revival, however, since the foundation of the Islamic Renaissance Party in 1990, was rapid, and its desire to influence political developments was apparent from the start.

Although Islams physical presence is increasingly felt, so far it has not played a substantive role in conflicts in Eurasia. Shall we, therefore, agree with Yaacov Roi that it does not seem likely that there will be any widespread Islamic fundamentalism, let alone any massive politicization of Islam,1 or shall we envisage that the current situation might change and Islamic radicalism will emerge as a significant political force?

The crucial question is whether Islamic revival2 necessarily produces radicalism in politics. The nature of Islamic revival has varied greatly from place to place in post-Soviet Eurasia, in some countries having been co-opted by the state authorities as an identity marker, in others becoming a banner for bids to political power or for a national liberation struggle. When and why does Islam become a radical political force in one set of circumstances, while remaining a social and cultural phenomenon in others?

Traditional and Reformist Islam

The diversity of Islamic revival in the Muslim parts of the Russian Federation (primarily the North Caucasus and the Volga-Urals region), Azerbaijan, and Central Asia makes any generalizations inevitably simplistic. However, a distinction can be made, on the one hand, between traditional Islam which was historically present in the area either in the form of official Muslim clergy, on the whole successfully incorporated into the Soviet system, and Sufi orders which proved more elusive to overarching state control. On the other hand, a new kind of Islamic movement started to develop, primarily in Dagestan (Russian Federation) and in Tajikistan in the 1980s. Such movements were explicitly anti-system and reformist, that is, determined to change the status-quo.

As these movements were anti-Communist, at the time of perestroika it was easy to see them as democratic and as a voice of civil society. Many of them later became known under the terms of Wahhabites, fundamentalists or Islamic extremists used primarily by the state authorities; the self-applied terms normally include borrowed Arab terms, such as Salafiyyun (followers of pious ancestors), or mumin (pl. muminu believers). In this paper they will be termed Islamists, as Islamisms most defining characteristic is its primary interest in gaining political power3 the goal which they all share in contrast to the traditional groups.

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