Events Transcripts Research The Islamic Mediascape in Central Asia

Casting a Wide Net: Islamic Media in Central Asia under Atheism

By Eren Tasar (University of North Carolina)

Presentation at workshop The Islamic Mediascape in Central Asia, October 2, 2017


I want to thank the conference organizers, in particular Dell and Marlene, for inviting me, for all the hard work that went into this. We historians I think have analyzed ourselves into irrelevance, and nobody really bothers to consult us anymore, so I was really delighted that a conference on media would actually consider an historical perspective. There is a danger, I think, at the same time in treating history as a box one checks when one is talking about the present day. The argument I want to make today, to the extent I’m arguing anything, is that in fact there were Islamic media in the Soviet Union under atheism, that the Islamic sphere in Central Asia is actually defined and even dominated by distinctly Soviet Islamic media, and that the definition of Islamic media under communism needs to be expanded beyond simply texts and ideas being produced by people who identified themselves as Muslim.

I’m going to talk about three categories of Islamic media. One of them is anti-religious propaganda. I want to make a case that that is actually perhaps the most important and the most influential Islamic medium that emerged out of communism. I’m going to talk about the official Islamic organizations that were created during the Soviet period and that produced their own media as well, and then finally a category that I’m tongue in cheek going to call Islamic samizdat, which of course is a misnomer.

Before I talk about any of those things, I want to by way of introduction, and by way of a point of departure, maybe offer a few comments on how the phenomena of Islamic media and have been discussed and why. When you talked about Islamic media in the Soviet Union, and in particular if you looked at the work of a host of Cold War-era commentators, and of course the work of Alexandre Bennigsen, the assumption was that the space in Soviet society in which you could produce Islamic materials, whatever they might be, was extremely circumcised and extremely circumscribed, excuse me. A Freudian slip there. Extremely circumscribed and extremely limited because of communism.

Essentially, when we talked about Islamic media, we were talking about two things. One is clandestinely produced materials, people writing stuff at home, and Bennigsen in particular assumed this material was overtly anti-Soviet, and the official publications of the government and Islamic organizations, the four Muftiates, which were assumed by Bennigsen to be rubber stamp bodies that didn’t have any kind of legitimacy. People who wrote about Islam in Central Asia during the Cold Wal talked about anti-religious propaganda not as a religious medium but as a source that could be mined for empirical information, primarily about the biases and worries of the Soviet state. In other words, Islam was rigidly compartmentalized and limited in such a way that it made it impossible to talk about Islam as a functioning, evolving, and organically existing religion under communism.

I want to suggest that any behavior or any policy that has some kind of ethical grounding or ethical foundation or ethical motivation is fundamentally religious. In that sense, everything that we do, whether we’re living under communism or under Trump, everything that we do is religious in a sense, and that this compartmentalization of religious activity and religious media in particular in the academic analysis of Islam stems from two flawed biases. One is the fact that in our own modern life we have effectively compartmentalized religion within our own personal identities, so we talk about religion as a concrete thing, as a compartment of our life that has recognizable boundaries around it.

The other, of course, is the colonial analysis of religion, and my anthropologist colleagues know much more about this than I do. The idea attributable to late 19th century British anthropology, in the British slash anthropology slash administration in India, the idea that when you looked at the colonized people, brown and black people that is, and in particular when you looked at Hindus and Muslims, the main thing you needed to understand to understand the colonized person was his religion. Islam becomes the main thing that you need to understand if you want to understand Muslims. If that’s your approach, then you assume automatically that there is such a thing as Islam, that can be defined according to a set of bullet points, a belief that persists today in government and in the academia and the media in analysis of Islam.

If we expand our definition of Islamic behavior beyond mosques and madrasas and the various tracts written in the Arabic script, if we expand it to talk about ethics more generally and about a vision of an ethical society, then we can begin to understand why, in the Soviet Union, we have people who are avowed atheists who considered themselves to be Muslim. Of course, this kind of phenomenon was not something that the Bennigsonian approach could account for. The knee-jerk reaction to that would be either he’s lying or he’s crazy. In fact, when we talk about Muslim-ness, this concept you encounter, it’s more than simply the shahada. It’s more than simply having an Islamic education. It’s something else.

That is how I want to talk into talking about my first category of media, anti-religious propaganda. I view anti-religious propaganda as the most long-lasting Islamic medium, and one that directly informs a lot of Islamic writing in Central Asia today. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about to explain why this is relevant to the present day, why this isn’t merely some kind of self-gratifying historian’s reflection. I have an anonymous Facebook account, but I subscribe to Facebook anonymously for one thing, to follow the posts, if that’s the correct word, of the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Uzbekistan since Karimov died has everyday been putting on newscasts which are basically propaganda podcasts, or whatever you want to call it, about what is going on in the Uzbek government. Very frequently since Karimov died, there have been references to Islam. There was the OIC meeting in Astana recently. President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan visited Tashkent, not for the first time, but for the first time he was allowed to visit a shrine in Tashkent where a Kazakh saint is buried. He actually gave an interview in Kazakh, not in Russian, afterward, presumably targeting the Kazakh-speaking viewership back home.

On both of these occasions, when Islam was very much the topic de jour, you had something very interesting going on. Journalists around the world, whenever they do reporting, they consult academics, or they consult specialists on the topic that is being discussed. Naturally, if the topic is Islam, it would make sense to consult the Mufti, or the members of the Islamic establishment. The Mufti of Uzbekistan on both these occasions made a cameo appearance, that’s true. He was interviewed, but before the Mufti was interviewed, you had secular academics being interviewed, men with gray hair, white hair at this point, all of whom in the Soviet period were communists and atheists, members of the Communist Party.

These atheist, anti-religious activists, which is what you had to be if you wanted to be an anthropologist in the Soviet Union, have shifted now into specialists on Islam, and have overnight seamlessly integrated themselves into the Islamic community in some sense, or at least into the Islamic establishment. I’m not saying that their status is accepted by the entire Muslim population. This is a remarkable shift that to my knowledge nobody talks about, the fact that these one-time militant atheists are now moonlighting as Islamic scholars in some sense. That is really a distinctly Soviet phenomenon, because in fact, the sphere which these people were operating in, the sphere of scientific atheism, was I would argue an Islamic sphere, and was recognized as such by the state and by the official Islamic establishment.

This I think was the case during the Soviet period, as well. We might ask ourselves, who were the people in Central Asia producing anti-religious propaganda? Who were the people who were doing ethnographic work on Islam in Soviet Central Asia? In my field, Soviet Central Asian studies, you could be forgiven that they were all people from Moscow and Leningrad, because people like Basilov, Snesarev, these were the only people we heard about. When you go to the card catalog of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences and you open the room that contains the thousands and thousands of works on Central Asian ethnography done during the Soviet period, they were all done by ethnic Uzbeks, actually. These were people who were Muslim. If you had asked them privately, “Are you Muslim?” They probably would have said, “Yes, I’m Muslim,” doing work on Islam in Soviet Central Asia. This was not a colonial relationship. This was not the Russians versus the Uzbeks.

If you look at the policy sphere as well, if you extend beyond the ivory tower, beyond the academy, you look at who in the Communist Party was actually implementing anti-religious policies? Who was in the KGB harassing imams? Who were the people closing mosques, allowing mosques to be opened, writing reports to Moscow about religious life? They were all people with Muslim last names. In fact, even the anti-Islamic sphere in the Soviet Union was a majority Islamic affair. It was a majority Muslim affair in many respects, in most respects actually.

With that argument as my point in departure, in the paper, the draft paper at any rate that I wrote in preparation for this conference, I looked at two categories of anti-religious propaganda. One was what I would call academic anti-religious propaganda. The other was more overtly insulting, offensive, feather-ruffling, feather-rustling, whatever the word is, anti-religious propaganda.

I think one of the key sources that no historian to my knowledge has used, an absolutely massive source just waiting to be tapped, is an organization with a very long Soviet name. It’s the, I’ll probably get it wrong now, Society for the Transmission of Political and Scientific Knowledge, the Society. It’s called Znanie, actually, the Russian word for knowledge. This is an organization that succeeded another early Soviet organization some of you may have heard of called the League of the Militant Godless. The League of the Militant Godless was a Trotskyite organization, going out and tearing veils off, kicking and spitting on imams, that kind of militant, overtly aggressive, anti-religious stuff you see in communist societies.

After World War Two, that’s over and done with. It’s replaced with this more sober and academic entity. This organization spanned the entire Soviet Union. That in and of itself I think testifies to how big it was. Its main job was not the collection of data about Islam. There were other Soviet entities that did that. Its main job was producing lectures to convince collective farmers to become atheists. It’s very interesting. You can go into the … I’ve worked in the archive of the government of Tajikistan. There is a huge file. When you enter a Soviet archive, you write your name, so you see who is the last person who accessed the file that you’re looking at. I was actually the first person to ever look at this. Not even a Soviet historian had looked. Usually you’ll see someone went in 1973 or something like that from the Lenin-Marxist Institute, but I wrote Eren Tasar. It was this historical moment.

I went there, and if you look at this material, it’s absolutely remarkable. The content of the lectures was tailored to account, for lack of a better term, for the type of Islam that was practiced in the place where the lecture was being delivered. It’s very interesting to compare the lectures that were being delivered in, say, agricultural parts of Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan and nomadic parts of Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, to the extent you have nomadic or semi-nomadic communities in a place like Badakhshan. When you look at the lectures that were being targeted toward nomadic communities, it’s quite surprising what passed, in the minds of these anti-religious propagandists, for anti-Islamic propaganda. Mostly it has to do with how a child is conceived. That was their understanding of anti-Islamic propaganda, explaining conception, really, semen, the zygote, the embryo. This is the kind of stuff, in a less explicit fashion, because we’re talking about the Soviet Union in the ’50s and ’60s, this is the kind of stuff they’re talking about.

That leads to the question, if talking about human conception is what passes for anti-Islamic propaganda, then what is the definition of Islam that is being employed, not only by these propagandists but also by the people who are actually receiving the lecture? Clearly, whatever that definition is, it’s not mosques and madrasas and the Koran and the hadith, the bullet points you get either from a Fox News or from a Wahhabi about what Islam actually is. We see that we need to expand our understanding of what passes for Islam.

When you consider that these lecturers by and large were focusing on economic [inaudible 00:15:27] cotton monoculture, they would give lectures about what is the best genetically modified strand of cotton, that kind of thing, and talk about that and human conception, and sometimes overtly anti-Islamic stuff in the space of one hour, you realize that this compartmentalization of Islam that we have is simply not tenable.

The materials of the Society for the Transmission of Political and Scientific Knowledge can also be mined for the empirical data that they contain. These lectures contained thousands of references to district-level Communist Party functionaries who had engaged in religious behavior. The thing you most often heard about was spousal abuse and circumcision. I knew that the word was coming up at some point in my talk. Circumcision, which of course was a very controversial issue, because members of Central Asian communist parties insisted on their right to circumcise their sons on the grounds that it wasn’t a religious custom, it was a national custom. It could be defended under Soviet affirmative action policies.

Even if we have this limited Wahhabi slash Fox News definition of Islam, even then, these anti-religious materials contain the bulk of the information a historian would want to have in terms of reconstructing what Islamic life actually looked like, if we wanted to ask, who are the people in Central Asian districts that are communists, were actually also engaging in Islamic practices, practices that are recognizably Islamic? The case for the use of this totally untapped mine of material is fairly easy to make.

In this section on anti-religious propaganda, I also try to make what I think is a more difficult case and a tougher sell, the use of overtly anti-religious propaganda for the study of Islam in Central Asia. The Society for the Transmission of Political and Scientific Knowledge, although it was atheist, went out of its way not to offend people. There’s a typology of scientific atheistic propaganda, and this falls into the sober academic kind of scientific atheist propaganda. If you look at communist societies, whether it’s Albania or China or Yugoslavia, most anti-religious propaganda was not sober and academic. Most if it was designed explicitly to offend.

This has a lot to do with Mao’s idea of continuous revolution, which wasn’t something Mao actually coined, the idea that the way to have a revolution and the way to destroy feudal or bourgeois societies, was to have a permanent state of anarchy, to be continuously bothering or rustling feathers, continuously getting people to challenge their assumptions, particularly religious people. You actually have a genre of anti-religious publication in the Soviet Union from early on that is designed to offend, that involves clerical caricatures and cartoons of religious figures [inaudible 00:18:57] pigs, this kind of thing.

The communists didn’t invent this. The Jadids had done it before [inaudible 00:19:02] various books. There was an anti-clerical trope depicting the clergy as perverts, as sex addicts, as greedy. All this kind of stuff that you could have found in anti-clerical publications in France in the early 19th century makes its way into the Soviet Union in the ’20s and ’30s, and again, that is shut down after World War Two, largely because of the war effort. Under Khrushchev in 1959, it makes a comeback during his anti-religious campaign, and we begin to get this really insulting material that is designed, actually, to portray not only the clergy but religious people as stupid, as backward, this kind of thing.

I try to make the case in the paper that this is also Islamic material. This is as much a part of the Islamic mediascape, a term I didn’t end up using in my paper, but it’s a good term, is as much a part of the Islamic mediascape as some of the samizdat stuff I’m going to talk about being produced privately in people’s homes, because these materials actually contain a vast amount of empirical data about Islam. I try to make the case that we can parse out the overt biases of these materials and dismiss them without dismissing the materials as a whole.

For example, I quote an article that was written in 1959 about Islam in Khorezm. It was written by a very famous Uzbek movie director, actually, who was for whatever reason able to advance his career writing or moonlighting as an anti-religious activist. Because of course he was a member of the Party, this was a good thing to do. He went to Khorezm and described the horrible stuff that he saw. This article that I quote has all the usual tropes about sex addict clergy, about ordinary common folk being duped, about women being imprisoned by the veil, and that sort of thing, but just to give you a very specific example of how we can tease out the biases and the actually valuable empirical material, he is talking about the burka. He doesn’t use that term. He uses the term paranja, but he’s talking about the burka, talking about what an absolute disgrace it is that in 1960 there are still women walking around in burka.

First of all, if you look at the English language historiography, we had all assumed that the burka was done in 1932. It’s quite interesting that there are people walking around in the burka in Urgench, a major city in Uzbekistan, the capital of Khorezm, in 1960. What is most interesting here is that the people he’s lambasting for wearing the burka are all waiting to board a flight in Urgench, the capital. This is very interesting if you think about it. It means that people wearing the burka feel comfortable boarding a flight where they’re going to be crammed together. We’ve all been on a Soviet plane. They’re going to be crammed together, sitting next to men they don’t know.

The airport is about as Soviet an institution as you’re going to get. It is the most modern institution perhaps that you can encounter in a heavily agricultural province like Khorezm in Uzbekistan. The fact that these women didn’t feel compelled to take off the burka when they told them to take it off, that they felt comfortable hanging out at the airport and actually talking to this film director who they’re not related to, giving him information about why they were wearing the burka, challenges our notion of a compartmentalization of Islam. I don’t have the kind of data about the conversations that took place that I would want to have, but nevertheless, there’s a contradiction here. He’s talking about the burka as this vestige of feudalism, and yet here it is alive and well in this distinctly Soviet setting.

I do a bit more of that kind of analysis. This is the kind of empirical, empirically valuable, and legitimate data you can extract from these materials. The value of this data is really unparalleled. There’s no other Soviet source, including the kind of samizdat being produced by members of the Islamic clergy, that will give you this social insight into Soviet Islam, what Soviet Islam actually was.

There’s another thing he talks about that I really liked at the end of his article about all these Uzbek women who were getting pig caretaker certificates. He mentioned this is something he was really proud of, how lovely this was, but again, our compartmentalized ideology would suggest, “No good Muslim would become a pig caretaker. Clearly, this is just such a shameful thing that all these Muslims at these collective farms had to spend their careers hanging out with swine.” Of course, if you look at at the social history of collective farming, a collective farm was not a place where upward mobility was the word of the day. It was not necessarily a good way to advance your career, being a collective farmer, if that was you were reincarnated into, the life you were born into. Getting a certificate either as a tractor operator or as a caretaker of livestock was one of the few ways you could actually have a career of any kind if you were a collective farmer.

I’m very interested in Soviet Central Asian art, and if you look at some of the catalogs of the Uzbek Art Museum, one of the heroes or heroines, rather, because usually these were females, these livestock caretakers, one of the heroines of Soviet art is the collective farmer with a rifle sitting either around cattle or around pigs, because that was a position of some social standing. I’m not saying that everybody on the collective farms wanted to become a caretaker of swine, but nevertheless, the fact that on the basis of this article it appears that there were at least some Muslim women attempting to do this as a way of having a career of some kind challenges our notion of a colonial relationship between atheistic Russians ruling over pious Central Asian Muslims. In fact, if you were willing to call yourself an atheist, if you were willing to do things like getting the kind of technical education you needed to get a certificate to be a caretaker of swine, you could participate in the system. That didn’t make you not Muslim.

All these potential insights, I’m not saying they’re actual insights, but all these potential insights are things that you can only get from anti-religious propaganda. In that sense, anti-religious propaganda is as Islamic a medium as anything else out there. Indeed, if you look at the kinds of materials being produced in the Islamic sphere today, I would argue that structurally at least, and even in terms of their vocabulary, they primarily owe a debt of gratitude to anti-religious propaganda, not to pre-Soviet Islamic materials.

How much time do I have?

Five minutes? Okay. I’m going to take seven minutes, because I have two more categories to talk about, which I think are less important, and I think I can do it in seven minutes. One of these, because I’ve basically written a book about this, I don’t want to talk about it too much. I’ll mention it as a footnote. The official Islamic organizations, there were four of them in the Soviet Union. This of course technically speaking was the only Islamic medium in the Soviet Union. These Muftiates, these Islamic bureaucracies, were the only legal Islamic organizations in the Soviet Union. Their output was dismissed for a long time, and is still dismissed I think by many people, as illegitimate somehow because these organizations were in bed with the Soviet Union, which they absolutely were. There’s no denying that.

Again, when we move beyond this compartmentalized vision of Islam being a compartment that was circumscribed and oppressed by the Soviet state, and we look at the evidence for the extent to which these Muftiates actually were in contact and mattered to ordinary Muslims, the extent to which these Muftiates were engaging in written correspondence with Islamic scholars who were illegal, unofficial, unregistered, we see that in fact both the fatwas, the religious opinions produced by these Muftiates, and the broader galaxy of correspondence that the Islamic scholars working for these Muftiates produced was much more Islamic than has been let on until now.

There’s a very good example of this that I cite in my paper, about the practice in Central Asia, which the Tajik government’s trying to ban right now, the practice of carrying a corpse publicly from the person’s home to the mosque or to the cemetery. The more prominent the person who’s died, the more loud and boisterous this is, and in parts of Central Asia, entire streets are shut down because of these processions of wailing, crying, and shouting people accompanying this coffin, basically, this corpse being carried usually in a shroud, not in a coffin.

SADUM, the Central Asian Muftiate, issues a fatwa condemning this practice, saying, “You should transport corpses by car, because in our day and age, it’s wrong, it’s not modern, it’s not Islamic to shut down an entire downtown just for the death of one person.” Bennigsen wrote about this in the ’80s and dismissed this as something that the Soviet government had actually instructed SADUM to do, so again, a rubber stamp kind of thing, but if you consider the fact that in the 1960s already, the religious affairs ministries in Turkey and Egypt and Iran were producing identical fatwas, you might consider this simple and not very academic observation, that if you have urbanization, if you have cities, if you have people with more cars, if you have such a thing as a downtown, it really is a drag to have an entire street shut down for an hour because of this procession.

If you consider that the number of paved roads in the city of Tashkent where SADUM was based expanded by a factor of 12 during the 1950s, if you consider just this basic social history context, then you can read a fatwa like this not simply as SADUM acting as a mouthpiece of the Soviet government, but SADUM actually acting on behalf of urban, urbanized, industrial, educated Muslim residents of Tashkent, some of whom surely were members of the Uzbek Communist Party. There, we can look at SADUM’s fatwa as being Islamic simply on the face of things, in the way we would look at Turkey’s President of Religious Affairs being an Islamic entity. I won’t say more about that. I can talk more about that in the Q and A.

The few four minutes or so I have left I want to devote to what I have called Islamic samizdat. Samizdat is a term many of you may be familiar with. It means self-production, self-published in Russian, classic Cold War term which has all kinds of connotations. It’s associated with dissent, primarily by Russian academics, often Russian-Jewish academics in Russia through the Brezhnev years and then afterwards in the 1980s until perestroika. The term samizdat connotes clandestineness. It connotes surreptitiousness, secrecy. It connotes rebellion, really. This was really the umbrella term that was applied to any material being produced by Islamic figures outside of the confines of the four Muftiates of the Soviet Union.

What were those materials? Anything. Autobiographies, biographies of saints, which is one of the main genres of Islamic literature in Central Asia. With time, by the ’80s, Wahhabi slash fundamentalist pamphlets. Letters, end of the world epistles, which were very common across the Soviet Union in Muslim and Christian communities. All these different genres of stuff that have nothing to do with each other have until now, in the scholarship on religion really in the Soviet Union, been grouped into this unhelpful category of samizdat.

What I wanted to show in the paper, which I didn’t end up having time to finish this section, was that in fact most of the people who worked for the official Muftiates produced this kind of material on the side. The Mufti of Kazakhstan for 20 years wrote an autobiography which is about 800 pages long, which is a form of samizdat because he didn’t publish it. He kept it. It was uncovered a couple of years ago by a team of Kazakh researchers.

There was nothing explicitly rebellious or anti-Soviet about most of this material. Indeed, most of this material, particularly if you look at end of the world epistles, these are chain letters calling on people to spread the word about the upcoming end of the world, often by accompanied solar eclipses or [inaudible 00:32:45] solar eclipses on the way, or if you look at saintly biographies produced in the Soviet Union, they look identical to similar materials that were produced in Czarist times or even in the 18th century.

They have a timeless quality, which again challenges this idea that Islam and the Islamic mediasphere or mediascape was this embattled arena under constant assault, being shaped and constantly reacting to Soviet modernization. There was a whole galaxy of media that in fact did not change in the Soviet period. That of course suggests that in terms of Islamic materials that mattered to most people who cared about them, that there is a much longer chronological arc, and that the conventional periodizations we use in studying the history of Central Asia, 1865 to 1917, 1917 to 1991, 1928 to 1932, these important intervals that really matter to most historians like me who are trained in the Soviet history didn’t matter that much or didn’t matter in the same way to a lot of people, because these periodizations don’t register in the autobiographies. They don’t register in saintly hagiographical literature. They don’t register in the musallahs, these craft-based tracts that are produced and recited by members of specific tracts.

That all suggests that when we talk about Islamic media, we need to avoid a lot of the totalizing pretensions of the Soviet state, the apparatus of scholarship that was produced by the Soviet state, much of which continues to survive and thrive even to the present day. I will stop there. The history box is checked. I look forward to your comments in the Q and A. Thanks.


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