Islam and the Imperial Legacy in Russia and Central Asia
In a recent lecture at the Kennan Institute, Robert Crews, currently a Kennan Institute Research Scholar, discussed the formative role of Islam from early to modern times in Russian state building. He noted that since Ivan the Terrible?s conquest of the Muslim population of Kazan in the 16th century, the Russian state has struggled to strike a balance with Islam. For the next two hundred years, Russians would consider themselves the defenders of Russian Orthodoxy against Islam, leading numerous military campaigns throughout the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Crews noted that tsarist armies engaged in continuous warfare against their Ottoman rivals in the south, motivated by the hope of restoring Constantinople back to the "fold of Orthodoxy under the Russian Tsar."
Crews explained that the Muslim tradition of resistance and solidarity against the state has contributed to the "production of nationalist historiographies in the semi-autonomous republics of Russian and Central Asian states in the post-Soviet period." According to Crews, these narratives of repression tell only part of the broader story, which included support of successive regimes for those forms of Islam that might prove "useful" to state building and thus worthy of "policing," to ensure that some practices were enforced among Muslims, and others proscribed. Crews argued that the most enduring legacy of Islam in the states of the former Soviet Union has been shaped by the distinctive Russian state practice of "policing Islam."
Although tsarist, Soviet, and post-1991 regimes have at times targeted Muslim practices, populations, and institutions for destruction, other state policies aimed at instrumentalizing Islamic authority have proved more important in creating inter-connections between the Russian regimes and the populations that they governed. Under Catherine the Great, Russian leaders relied on Muslim authorities to issue fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions, for example, to support war against other Muslims and to cultivate morality and respect for authority. The state became a patron of Islamic institutions, much to the dismay of the Orthodox Church. Because Islam lacks a church structure to discipline renegades or clerics who opposed state-backed interpretations of Islam, the state was forced to accept the role of both patron and police for the religion, compelling its Muslim subjects to submit to loyal clerics' vision of Islamic orthodoxy. Thus from the late 18th century, state institutions have framed debates among Islamic populations about the meaning of the true or correct meaning of Islam.
According to Crews, this Catherinian model of policing has endured with a few minor departures and mutations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries regardless of who was in the Kremlin. The outcome of these conflicts has had an enormous impact on Russian Muslims for the last two centuries; at the same time, these conflicts have been critical to post-Soviet state formation and the development of the young Central Asian regimes. He noted that continuities in state policies have less to do with unchanging Islamic principles than the persistence of state policing practices that regimes have adopted from their predecessors.
Crews concluded by discussing the current dilemma of policing Islam in Russia and Central Asia. He explained that following the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of the Islamic institutions broke down along national and sub-national lines, with each country or region claiming its own hierarchy. These regimes have been able to use state institutions to influence and enforce their distinctive brand of Islam in the battle for control of state resources.