Is Frederick Starr Right?
f it’s “moderate Islam” you want, S. Frederick Starr argues, “look to Central Asia.” He means the post-Soviet stans. They are heirs to an undeniably grand historic legacy, he rightly explains; once centers of scholarship, trade, ideas, and innovation. And in our own age, they’ve embraced secular governance and free markets. So they are, he says, or could be, or will be, the modern Muslim’s great hope. Though, if you are that Muslim, you might be like what’s this moderate Islam thing, why should I want (some of) it, how much is it going to cost me, and wait–who am I in the meanwhile? Which is to say in a paragraph what I felt in a moment: I was cringing before I’d even got past the title.
Whenever someone says they’ve found moderate Islam, I only hear this: Islam is either essentially or substantively immoderate—not just found wanting, but culpable. Liable. At fault. In need of a repair. Islam is a car you should have sold, but since you missed that opportunity, you might as well switch out the engine and put in a new radio. (Is music haram?) I’ll readily concede the overabundance of foolish, fanatic, congenitally unsmiling and downright dangerous Muslims. Some of whom, because let’s not be stolidly apologetic, justify their actions or inactions in Islam’s name. But where it comes to cause and effect, Starr and I must make like the Red Sea and part. I’m unconvinced that Islam is so crudely to blame for extremism, and still less persuaded that whatever this moderate Islam thing is will emerge from Central Asia. Actually, reading the article convinced me that Starr’s thesis has things entirely backwards.
I fear that the next great wave of radicalism and extremism to sweep the Muslim world, and probably poison wells well beyond, like a bad fracking accident, will hail from Eurasia’s heartland, the stans plus Azerbaijan, and if we’re holistic, also occupied East Turkestan and already the Caucasus. Torn between a tyrannical Russia and an overbearing China, a plaything of other imperial powers, the expensive venue of a great game capable of casting the Olympics into shadow, and now the casualty of a multipolar world in which not one pole is meaningfully Muslim. Behind every Muslim fundamentalist, you see, there’s a secular autocrat. Someone who holds his people down for fear of fanaticism, which suppression then creates the very threat he uses to threaten his people’s meagre liberties. Yes, he. The only reason things don’t go in the other direction is that Islamists are, generally, very good at protesting and losing, and very bad at triumphing and sticking around.
In Central Asia, secular governance co-presents with secular dictatorship, meaning that religion will not just become a vehicle for protest, but that it will be a warped Hegelian synthesis of a revolt. Middle East redux. Because there’s two kinds of people in the world, speaking in broad and ridiculous generalizations. Which is how we should all speak sometimes. First: People who go with the flow. Second: People who try to swim upstream. For people who don’t go along, options are naturally limited and more difficult to embrace—and all the more so in suffocative societies. That’s why focusing on kinds of Islam, allegedly moderate or immoderate, is looking too far down the causal chain; you might have a point, but it’s largely epiphenomenal.
The solution to extremism isn’t “moderate Islam.” That doesn’t mean extremism doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to be combatted. I’m not here to excuse ugliness and violence. But I cannot stomach this inverted etiology. The profound moral vision that upended a hierarchical and tribal society and created a cosmopolitan and global vision, egalitarian in its greatest impulses and most profound accomplishments, isn’t just impossible. (In case you’re wondering, I mean Islam.) It’s threatening. It needs to be held down. Waterboarded, if need be. What is often cheered as moderate Islam could equally be called useless Islam. Because (Central Asian) despots are strangely fond of “moderate” Islam—anything that will not threaten their (secular) extremism. It’s their best friend, and dictators are the kind of friends you have who will one day kill you.
In fact, moderate Islam–or what is called moderate Islam–is usually the cause of extremism. It fails to satisfy the majority, who retreat into cynicism and quiet despair, whose greatest–and how tragic is this–aspiration is for “stability,” the chance to be left alone; meanwhile it radicalizes the minority who refuse to go along. Moderate Islam becomes the enemy, a brand of Islam which at best does nothing and at worst justifies, sustains, expands, and enriches the ideology by which, and the system through which, oppression continues. The solution to extremism is not moderate Islam, which is incidental, but democratization, which is essential, but the problem here is that democratization usually proceeds by force, which means what exactly for “moderate Islam”? And we, as Americans, shouldn’t be surprised. Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. We rose up to establish our democracy. That’s what Tunisians and Syrians and Egyptians and Ukrainians did, or are doing, or tried to.
Central Asians will have to try to, too.
Because you know where there happen to be more than a few dictators, who seek to undermine any and all opposition, and preemptively neuter religion? Starr lauds moderate Islam’s potential in Central Asia. He contrasts it to the Middle East, which appears to offer us no such promise, no evident solution, no counter-reformation to the disastrous transformations of extremism. Stepping aside, for a moment, from a causation I heartily disagree with, I’d further contend that Central Asia is the Middle East, or at least on the silk road to becoming the next one, and I mean in worse ways. The first time as tragedy. The second time as farcestan. Let’s do a summary rundown of the ways. With Bismillah.
Artificial boundaries, imposed by a colonial legacy? Check.
The British and French evisceration of an Ottoman but increasingly Turkish order is paralleled by a gradual Russian encroachment on the Turkic region. Ataturk induced domestic amnesia, switching to Latin; Stalin took that move as his own cue to transform far more unified regional languages of culture and power to fragmented, contrived, sometimes mutually unintelligible Cyrillic varieties. The Communist tyranny of orthographic differences. For example, the Kazakh were once the Kyrgyz, and the Kyrgyz the Kara-Kyrgyz, and now coherent identities have to be fashioned, and oh yeah, Stalin made sure some minorities were torn between countries, to keep them all wobbly, and maybe for this reason Astana has astonishingly tacky buildings.
Unelected and unpopular despots, empowered by ferocious domestic intelligence? Check, to a creepy degree.
See, Turkmenistan’s “founding” dictator, Turkmenbashi, was a clownish buffoon whose only rival in ridiculousness was Qaddafi. (One at least had the courtesy of dying predictably.) Uzbekistan’s heinous head, Islam Karimov—a name you couldn’t pay me to conjure—is another Assad, a monster of a ruler who has run a country with tremendously high literacy rates into the ground, and massacred hundreds at Andijon.
Craven clergy who, like some of Syria’s pathetic so-called religious leaders, will do anything to support power, devoid of any kind of ethical imagination or moral courage? Checkmate.
If you’ve made it to the top of a dictatorship’s religious hierarchy, you sold out a long time ago. When there is no room for serious scholarship, which needs dialogue and difference to survive, you only leave room for radical fringes. From moderate Islam, by which I mean state-sponsored Islam, by which I mean the state is a state of dictatorship, comes extremism. Which then become the casus belli, or at least the casus belli against the hoi polloi, and those against whom war is even implicit will make war in return. How will a region at war with its people, birthing one torpid dynasty after another, produce “moderate Islam”?
I shudder to imagine the kinds of Islams that will result.
And that is not even to get to the comparison’s irrelevance. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Central Asia is going to be a center for Islamic scholarship and dynamism. How does this mean anything for the Middle East? Will an outstanding argument in favor of Islam and democracy persuade Bashar’s secret police to stop torturing folks? American Islam is sometimes touted as the solution to the Muslim world’s problems. American Islam is largely useless in that respect. American Islam is not going to solve Pakistan’s energy shortage, or crush the Taliban, or inspire social change. Short version: People have agency. Shorter version: Starr is sanguine about Central Asia. I’m not.
I’m pretty sure much of it will go the way of Ukraine, the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, or Libya—and sadly will have to in the short-term, in order to get beyond its legacy of secular repression. While Starr’s preaching the virtues of Central Asia’s double-barreled firepower (said secular government and free markets), he might want to look just one country over, where radically secular government and unleashed free markets travel hand in hand. You won’t find much freedom, though. Because you’ll be in China.