Religion in Post-Soviet Tajikistan


A review of Religious Revival in Tajikistan: The Soviet Legacy Revisited, by Hélène Thibault.

Whereas a range of studies on the everyday realities of Islam in Central Asia exist, few academics have examined how secularity conditions understandings of religion and society. Given the fact that this region experienced over seventy years of state-led Soviet secularization, this dearth of analysis appears somewhat strange. Hélène Thibault’s dissertation provides a timely study of this latent field of inquiry. Her central research question is: “how do Soviet atheistic policies and discourses continue to influence policy-making and social behaviour?” (p. 2). Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in northern Tajikistan conducted in 2010 and 2011, Thibault re-examines the legacy of Soviet secularization and its impact on local understandings of the “religious revival” in post-Soviet Tajikistan. According to Thibault, “seventy years of Soviet rule have left a profound impression on socio-political orders, and the legacy of the Soviet Union has not entirely faded even twenty years after its dissolution.” (p. 2) Combining a neoinstitutional approach with ethnographic fieldwork, she examines how the patterns of state regulation of religion and local understandings of Islam remain dependent on Soviet practices. But we do not see an unaltered reproduction of Soviet practices. Instead, the reality is more complex. Thibault summarizes her argument as follows:

While I don’t refute the argument that post-Soviet governments more or less reproduce the Soviet religious subordination model, current developments of state-religion relations of Islam in Tajikistan imply political dynamics that go beyond the path dependency scheme and that are characterized by the expression of multiple and often conflicting discourses on the place of religion in the society (p. 30).

There are two major gaps in the literature on Islam in Central Asia, Thibault argues. Firstly, studies tend to ignore differences between various regions of Central Asia. Secondly, the literature fails to problematize dichotomies such as state/society, religious/secular, and Soviet/post-Soviet. Her study aims to fill these lacunae.

The first substantive chapter offers a critical overview of the current literature on Islam in Central Asia. Thibault identifies three “schools” of thought regarding this: the religious economy school, historical institutionalism and ethnographic-anthropological approaches. Emerging in the 1980s, the religious economy school examines the demand and supply for “religious goods.” Contrary to the expectations of the secularization thesis, religion has not disappeared under the pressures of modernization. Conversely, we have seen a “desecularization of the world” (P. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. New York: William B Eerdmans, 1999). This, according to historian Paul Froese is also true in the Soviet context. During the Soviet period, “in the absence of religious supply, religious demand did not disappear” (P. Froese, The Plot to Kill God. Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, p. 20). Thibault critiques “religious economists” for making sweeping generalizations based on little or no fieldwork and for not offering a clear definition of religious revival. “The religious economy school fails to explain religious revival” in Tajikistan, she concludes (p. 15). Historical institutionalism has been popular in the Central Asian context (see: M. Beissinger. and C. Young, eds., Beyond State Crisis? Post-Colonial Africa and Post-Soviet Eurasia in Comparative Perspective. Baltimore (MD): Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002; K. Collins, Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Central Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). This approach places emphasis on the continuities in patterns of institutional behavior, or path dependency, dating back to the Soviet Union. Within the religious field, this means the subordination of religion to the state. Despite producing some useful research, Thibault argues, by studying formal institutions, theorists have neglected “the social dimension of religious revival” (p. 23). Thibault makes a convincing case for the utility of ethnographic methods in the study of religion and society. Micro-level approaches, she argues, can make up for some of these shortfalls and complement all-encompassing studies of religion in Central Asia. Ethnographers can uncover emic understandings of religion and secularity. By being reflexive, they account for the subjectivity of the knowledge production process.

In the next chapter, “Theoretical Framework and Methodology: A Neoinstitutionalist Ethnography,” Thibault outlines her theoretical approach, justifies her methodology and introduces the research site. She identifies her approach as “interpretivist”: she is interested in the ways in which national narratives on religion and society are negotiated at the local level. Next Thibault introduces the Soghd viloyat (region), where she conducted her fieldwork. She gives an overview of its history, ethnic makeup and socio-economic situation. Known as Leninabad during Soviet times, the region was more economically developed than the rest of the country and provided a disproportionate number of deputies during the Soviet period. Thibault introduces her journey to Tajikistan and describes how she used her position as an intern at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to build up a network of contacts that she later used for her research. She utilized a “mixed methods” approach to collect data during two periods in Khujand in 2010 and 2011. This included focus groups, interviews with civil servants, document analysis and participant observation. She outlines the strengths and drawbacks of using these methods. Both periods of fieldwork took place during Ramadan, which allowed her to “examine how the observance of Ramadan (or its non-observance) can fuel tensions between those who do not observe it and those who do” (p. 48). In keeping with anthropological tradition, she offers an appraisal of her own subjectivity and how this impacted upon data collection. As a French-Canadian, female, Catholic, and foreigner, she experienced certain challenges in collecting data. She examines the ways in which her reflections are shaped by these positions.

Having outlined her approach, Thibault offers an account of the Soviet secularization experience. In the first section, she examines the Soviet discourses on scientific atheism. Soviet ideologues framed Islam and other faiths as “religious survivals” of a past age; in pre-revolutionary times, religion had been used to legitimate feudal, and later capitalist, domination. Rather than merely criticizing religion, the communists tried to create secular subjects. Atheism, rather than religion—the communists argued—provided the basis for morality. Having discussed Soviet secular ideology, she examines the specific practices that these narratives made possible: the process of Soviet secularization. She traces the evolution of the project from its chaotic beginnings, to the Stalinist hujum (Uzb.: assault) and late Soviet management of religion (p. 87). Opinions differ as to how successful this transformative project was, Thibault argues. She highlights “the contrast between the (very negative) Western and (very optimistic) Soviet views of the secularization project” (p. 68). Finally, she evaluates the role played by Soviet religious institutions in the management of religion. Faced with the resilience of religious beliefs, “Soviet authorities had no choice but to acknowledge them as an inevitable and undesirable defect which must be dealt with” (p. 88). Authorities established “an official Islam,” embodied in organizations like the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (Rus.: Dukhovnoe Upravlenie Musul’man Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana, SADUM), created in 1943 to discipline and control religious belief and practices. Thibault concludes with a discussion of “parallel Islam,” a label used by Soviet and Sovietological thinkers for unsanctioned religious practices. For Thibault, the term is an oversimplification. It is difficult “to justify the use of the word ‘parallel’, since the practise of Islam did not run alongside, but rather was intertwined with, local political and administrative realities” she argues (p. 103). Ultimately, it is impossible to distinguish between what is “Soviet” (or official) and what is “traditional” (or parallel).

In Chapter 5, Thibault analyzes “the authorities’ attempt to subordinate religious practices and define an Islam consistent with national ideals” (p. 105). She outlines the laws that regulate religion (2009 Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, 2011 Law on Parental Responsibility, and 1994 Constitution). Such laws limit the space for practicing religion freely. Religious organizations need to register with the government, under-eighteens are not allowed to pray in mosques, and one needs to obtain a permit to study religion abroad, as religious education is tightly controlled. In the next section, Thibault introduces the institutions that dictate religious policy. Rather than treating the state as an omnipotent monolith, she examines the multitude of different state bodies that regulate religion. Through these institutions, the regime keeps a close watch on believers. “We observe, in continuation with Soviet practices, a great subordination of religious institutions to the authorities and state apparatus,” she argues (p. 135). Whereas the Council of Ulemo and Islamic Center direct matters of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the Committee for Religious Affairs deals with legal questions. Thibault uses data collected from interviews with religious officials to add depth to her analysis.

Having outlined the laws and bodies regulating religion, Thibault switches her attention to discourses on religion. She observes the way in which the government promotes a national, official form of Islam, whilst repressing “foreign,” unofficial religious manifestations. The secular nature of the Tajik state is constantly evoked by officials. Religious policy, Thibault argues, is not merely a continuation of Soviet practices. Instead, it constitutes an extension of them. As Thibault writes, “whereas the Soviets tried to limit as much as possible the development of an Islamic identity, Tajik authorities are using the institutions to both circumscribe and steer the Muslim identity towards an Islam defined as national while using figures of the past” (p. 137). What we see in Tajikistan is an example of the “assertive secularism” outlined by Ahmed Kuru; religion is subordinated to the authorities (A. Kuru, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France and Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

In the sixth chapter, Thibault draws on her ethnographic fieldwork to examine interpretations at the local level regarding the place of religion in the society. She argues that contemporary orthodoxy and orthopraxy originates in Soviet codes. By contrasting the profiles of “strict believers” with those of “secular-minded,” she illustrates the tensions that arise from the lack of consensus over the place of religion in society. Although Tajiks’ religious identity is in part derived from Soviet codes, “people do not simply perpetuate pre-existing circumstances, they accommodate and manoeuvre between available socio-political and personal repertoires” (p. 138). She profiles “born-again” Muslims, people raised in Soviet secular society, who have now “rediscovered” their faith and live according to strict religious principles. These people do not represent the majority in Tajikistan, but constitute a growing minority. Mera and Iskandar, a couple in their early forties who are living in polygamous marriage, typify this group. When Thibault met them in Khujand’s Panjshambe bazaar, they were selling religious CDs. Raised in secular families, they “found” Islam during adulthood. Thibault offers a range of similar life stories. In answering the question of why people are turning to religion, Thibault argues that it is a response to the difficulties of life in the poverty-stricken post-Soviet republic: “Faith and the religious behaviour it entails are used as a strategy to survive the chaos” she argues (p. 149). Faced with the assertive secular policy of the regime, the community of “strict believers” only strengthen their beliefs. As Thibault summarizes, “strict believers see faith as a guarantee for a social and just order and a way to ensure harmonious relations within the community during a time when people feel that arbitrariness and greed determine socio-economic relations” (p. 155). She uses a case study of local reactions to the government-led anti-hijab campaign to illustrate how locals negotiate and contextualize secular policies. The debate “reveals deep divisions in the Tajik society as to not only what it means to be Muslim but also as to what it means to be a Tajik” (p. 162). In the final section, she examines the ways in which the “strict believers” react to the ambiguous position that the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) has taken regarding secularism. This typifies the porous nature of the boundary between the Soviet and post-Soviet orders, and between religious and secular realms.

In her concluding remarks, Thibault summarizes her arguments about the religious revival in Tajikistan. She also points to future avenues of research. These include the study of the impact of migration on religious practices in Tajikistan and conducting a comparative study of revival in other majority Muslim societies.

Thibault’s research makes contributions to numerous academic fields. First, she makes important arguments about the role of religion in Tajik society. It is common to assume that those raised in the Soviet Union remain secular, where the post-Soviet generation is more religious. Thibault’s research demonstrates that this dichotomy is not reflective of the complex local understandings of Islam and society. The boundary between secular and religious—as well as Soviet and post-Soviet—remains blurred. In providing an in-depth account of the particularities of Islamic practice in northern Tajikistan, she moves beyond the tendency of many analysts to make broad generalizations about relations between religion and society. Second, by studying the boundary between the secular and religious Thibault builds on other ethnographic accounts of Islam in Central Asia (M. de Louw, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia. London: Routledge, 2007; J. Rasanagayam, Islam in Uzbekistan: The Morality of Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Thibault’s thesis demonstrates how willing many Tajiks are to discuss their faith. Unfortunately, the space for similar research in Tajikistan is closing, with the government increasingly opposed to western researchers. This makes the rich data collected during her fieldwork all the more pertinent. Third, in eschewing approaches that treat as unitary and examining the heterogeneous nature of the Tajik state, her dissertation makes contributions to a burgeoning ethnographic approach to the state in Central Asia (see M. Reeves, J. Beyer and J. Rasanagayam, eds., Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia: Performing Politics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013). Fourth, by examining Islamization, rather than radicalization, she moves beyond analyses that treat these two processes as one and the same (J. Heathershaw and D. Montgomery, “The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics.” Chatham House, 2014). Her thesis “does not depict the rise of extremism but rather a fragile co-existence of conflicting moralities in tough times” (p. 162).

Edward J. Lemon
Department of Politics
University of Exeter

Primary Sources
Ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2011 in Soghd region, Tajikistan
Semi-structured interviews
Participation in OSCE-led survey of local attitudes towards religion
Focus groups

Dissertation Information
University of Ottawa. 2014. 222 pp. Primary Advisor: André Laliberté.

Image: Photograph by the author.

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