Thursday, September 28, 2006

Signposts to the Future

Among the transcripts of the lectures and seminars at Jamestown's recent North Caucasus Conference (see the previous post), there is the transcribed text of a remarkable keynote speech (pdf) by former US State Department and CIA analyst Paul Goble, who has spent many years studying the Soviet Union and the implications of its disintegration. In his address, Goble touches on some of the most crucial and sensitive areas of controversy and discussion that surround the events of September 11 and the resurgence of radical Islam in the modern world, tracing them to what happened in the Soviet Union during the period that followed the end of World War II until the early 1990s. In one passage of the speech, he pinpoints the signals for the future that are contained in Russia's present changing political face, and in the changing face of political Islam:

If the Russian Federation is at a turning point, and I believe that it is and I believe that the borders will change in a variety of ways, and I think they will change largely due to the actions of the Russians and Russian desires, as we’ll see. And this leads me to my one good piece of advice for today: don’t buy any maps. Buy stock in companies that print maps and you’ll make money.

But it’s equally important that Islam, too, is at a turning point. Indeed, if you understand the Muslim view of what happened in the Soviet Union in 1991, you can see a direct line from there to September 11th and you can understand why Muslims who were ethnic Muslims who didn’t know very much about their identity and what their faith was about turned to Islam in the ways that they did.

The collapse of the Muslim project after the French Revolution and the colonization of the Muslim world, which was more or less complete except for Egypt and Afghanistan by 1922, left the Muslim world with the question: if we’re right, how come we’re losing? And there were three answers. God’s time isn’t our time so we wait it out. The second answer was, we are wrong; we’ve got to be radical secularists. And the third is, back to basics: Allah, Sharia – the people who become the fundamentalists.

As long as there was a Soviet Union supporting the radical secularists, and please remember it was the Soviets who were doing that, the third category were in jail. Once the Soviet Union could not do that, those people emerged. And with the Muslim reading, or some Muslim reading anyway, of 1991 you saw a very different set of messages for people who were Muslims. These were in many ways – and this is another argument, different, but just to point it out for you – I believe that Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus will be over time the prime recruiting area for a radical fundamentalist Islam. Why? Because people there know they are Muslims, but don’t know exactly what it means and therefore they are prepared to listen to people who tell them exactly what it means.

I remember a conversation I had with Dzhokhar Dudaev, the first president of Chechen Ichkeria. And Mr. Dudaev said to me, Mr. Goble, I’m a good Muslim I pray three times a day. Well I was very polite and deferential the senior official and didn’t point out that a good Muslim prays five times a day, but he didn’t know. He had been in the Communist Party since the age of 18 and was a major general in the Soviet Air force.

Read it all.

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