Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 104-105
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Yaacov Ro'i, Islam and the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xxvii 1 764 pp. $57.50.
With the surge of interest in Islamic affairs since September 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Yaacov Ro'i's sweeping history of Islam in the Soviet Union is a welcome addition to the study of contemporary Islam.
Drawing on recently opened archives, Ro'i has written an exhaustive account of Soviet Islam in the four decades from the Second World War through the years under Mikhail Gorbachev. Archival materials from the main Soviet organizations responsible for regulating Islam in the Soviet Union—the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC) and its successor, the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA)—enable Ro'i to trace the strained relationship between Soviet ideology and religion over these four decades. Despite the Soviet leadership's attempts to eradicate religion and replace it with socialist ideology, Ro'i argues that Soviet officials failed to undermine religious life. Islam persisted in the Soviet Union in both official and unofficial forms. Though officially discouraged, it survived and even flourished in the social realm, especially in regard to "the family and home" (p.605).
To capture the tension between official and unofficial Islam, Ro'i first provides an extensive overview of officially sanctioned Islam as mandated by the Soviet regime through Soviet religious policy, the spiritual directorates, official clergy, and registered mosques. He then shifts focus to unofficial "parallel" Islam and the importance of rites and rituals. Ro'i convincingly shows that despite the lack of attendance in the mosques, people retained their connection to religion outside organized structures by turning to "parallel Islam" and its unregistered religious associations, unofficial mullahs, and emphasis on life-cycle rites and rituals. This section on unofficial Islam shows how Islam survived despite Josif Stalin's repressive policies and Nikita Khrushchev's anti-religious campaigns. People were able to circumvent Soviet repressive measures through informal mechanisms.
One of the main insights of the book emerges from its depiction of the "flexibility" and "adaptability" of Soviet Islam and the Muslim clergy (p.439). Unlike other scholars who expected Islam to remain static and true to its pre-Soviet form, Ro'i demonstrates that Muslim religious activity in the Soviet Union could adapt to changing political circumstances. He presents a wealth of elaborate images illustrating how Islamic festivals and holidays conformed to the demands of the Soviet political and economic system. He notes, for example, that religious leaders would cut short [End Page 104] their prayer services during the two main festivals—Uraz Bayram and Qurban- Bayram—so that people could arrive at work on time. In the end, however, the Muslim clergy successfully linked Islam to national customs, enabling the religion to become synonymous with cultural and traditional holidays, thus ensuring its survival.
Although the book succeeds in demonstrating that postwar Soviet Islam retained its hold on society, it does not adequately explain why Soviet Islam became politically salient in the late 1980s if its strength was in the social sphere and, moreover, why it became salient only in certain regions (e.g., the Ferghana Valley and the Chechen- Ingush autonomous republic). Ro'i suggests that the "symbiotic relationship" between Islam and nationalism, compounded by the events in Afghanistan and Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, transformed Islam into a source of popular mobilization during the Gorbachev period (pp.711-712). This explanation, however, is unconvincing. The book neither explicitly shows how Islam served as a source of political mobilization nor examines alternative explanations based on economic, cultural, or environmental factors that contributed to popular unrest against the Soviet regime during the late 1980s. Furthermore, the book ignores policies undertaken by Gorbachev in the mid- to late 1980s that might have inflamed separatist movements.
Because Islam is at the center of the current war on terrorism, Ro'i will leave readers...