Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus since the Fall of the Soviet Union

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Bayram Balci
Comparative Politics and International Studies
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190917272.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The translation of Bayram Balci’s monograph Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus since the Fall of the Soviet Union is an important contribution to the field of contemporary Islamic studies in this region. This book explores the interaction between the newly-established independent states of Central Asia and Azerbaijan and the most important regional powers representing Islamic influence. It examines the effects of the sophisticated fabric of globalization in relation to Islam from two main angles. The first is the inner strategies, which post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan deployed in their policy towards Islam. The second is how the main Islamic actors of the region—Turkey, Iran, the Subcontinent, and Saudi Arabia—approached the Central Asian states and the Caucasus after their independence. The task of uniting five Central Asian states and Azerbaijan in one book is challenging; despite the fact that many post-Soviet countries share a common legacy, the countries have language variations and religious particularities, and the text covers a thirty-year-period, all of which makes these countries uniquely distinctive. Bringing these countries together in one book could lead to reductionism and inattentiveness yet, Balci is conscious of this challenge and, by engaging with important scholarship in the field, has provided adequate analysis of each country. Apart from the Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into six main chapters. 

The first chapter puts the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan into the historical context of Islamic civilization before the Russian-Soviet advent. Balci further elucidates the peculiarity of the post-Soviet Islam phenomena as it developed under the Russian Imperial and later Soviet domination. Brief and concise, this chapter provides the readers with the main contours of the history of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which is necessary for further study of the nation-states epoch of the region. 

Chapter 2 focuses on Turkey and its role in Islam in this region. The author examines the Turkish state’s aspirations and policies towards the post-Soviet states in Central Asia and Azerbaijan after their independence, and the main Turkish state actors such as the Diyanet, the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Apart from that, Balci provides an account of the non-official Turkish Islamic movements and their activities, which developed distinctive traits working in the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan. Balci emphasizes the paradoxical nature of the fact that Turkey, despite it was perception as a secular-exemplary advocate for the newly-emerging nation-states in the early years of independence, it nevertheless became a major actor in the Islamic dimension of the post-Soviet sphere.

Chapter 3 examines Iranian influence in the region. Balci’s main argument in this chapter is that, despite the modern construct and identity of the states of Central Asian with reference to the common Turco-Persian cultural legacy, Iran has not had a significant impact on Islam in the region. As a Shi’a power, Iran’s main strategic focus was on Azerbaijan, a Shi’a-majority post-Soviet country. However, even in this context, Iran has had far less influence when compared to Turkey. Balci discusses the salient Azerbaijani religious figures whose stances were critical of the official, state-promoted religion of Islam. He demonstrates that for Iran, espionage is the most frequent state-instrument to counter oppositional thinking. According to Balci, Iran is an unattractive political and religious model for the region’s governments, and Iran’s cooperation with the Central Asian and Azerbaijani states is reduced to one of cultural dimension. 

Chapter 4 is dedicated to the Islamic influence of the Arabian Peninsula—primarily Saudi Arabia. In its first years of independence, the Islamic revival of post-Soviet Muslims became visible, especially with the opportunities for pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. Balci demonstrates how the state policy quickly changed from one of initial indifference to its pilgrims, to tight control of them. Balci is critical of the states’ policies, which exaggerate the role of Saudi-influenced Salafism as a main factor of radicalization. In this regard, in the case of the Central Asian states, there are inner roots of Salafism which emerged even before the independence. In this chapter Balci also explores the relationship between post-Soviet Uzbeks and the diaspora, which migrated to the Hijaz after the Soviet arrival. His analysis shows that Uzbekistan’s hostile policy towards any form of Islamic foreign influence has not lead to a vivid exchange of ideas and interactions between post-Soviet Uzbeks and those who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Chapter 5 sheds light on the contemporary connections between the Central Asian states and the Indian subcontinent, which is, most notably, observed in Kyrgyzstan. Balci provides a historical account for the connections between the regions of Central Asia and India, which until the decline of its connections at the close of the 19th century, represented a similar intellectual and spiritual milieu. Kyrgyzstan is the most interesting example of the new connections that emerged after independence. Balci analyses the Tablighi Jamaat and its close connection to the official religious affairs of Kyrgyzstan, even as it was charged with the republic’s Spiritual Board of Muslims. This is another interesting and unusual case, manifested in one of the Central Asian states, which Balci examines.

In the chapter 6, Balci examines the administration of religion in the post-Soviet Central Asia states and Azerbaijan. Here, the author is in line with the existing scholarship in the field, emphasizing the created dichotomy of good and bad Islam, when the state takes advantage of its policies to control religion. The states' obsession with security—which is strikingly harsh—is a theme raised by many researchers. However, Balci’s approach to the region from the angle of globalization, particular the states and actors, provides a fresh perspective and fills an important gap in the understanding of Islam in the Central Asian states and the Caucasus. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elvira Kulieva is a graduate student in Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bayram Balci is a Researcher at CERI Sciences Po, Paris. He holds degrees in political science and Islamic studies and was Director of the French Institute for Central Asian Studies, Uzbekistan (2006-10). A visiting scholar at Carnegie, Washington, DC (2011 and 2014), Balci's research focuses on Islam in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

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