Slavs and Turks first met on the plains of Eastern Europe at the very dawn of the Middle Ages. Annals indicate the presence of the Slovak Antes in what is now southern Russia in the middle of the 4th century, and at approximately the same time the Hunnic hordes (Turks) appeared on the banks of the Volga River and began their conquest of the Pontic steppes. The conflict between the Slavs and Turks began in these dark centuries of European history.1
The Islamization of the Turkic peoples began in the 7th century when the whole Near East was transformed by the Islamic conquests. After subduing Persia in 639 Muslims spread to Transoxania in 659, and annexed the whole western Turkish world including Dzhungaria. Tashkent, Ferghana, Bukhara, etc.2 Since their Islamization, the Muslim peoples of Asia and Eastern Europe have more often identified themselves with the religion and culture of Islam than with any national or racial group.3
In the mid-thirteenth century Slovak resistance was overcome by the armies of the heirs of Genghis Khan, and for the next two hundred years the eastern Slavs were subjects of the Golden Horde which was a Muslim Turkic state. As Islamic Law does not allow forcible conversion to Islam, the Golden Horde did not force Slavs to convert to Islam.
In the 15th century, the wheel of Destiny began to turn in the opposite direction. Muslim Turks were often fighting each other because, after the death of a khan. his sons would divide the country into small estates. For this reason the Turks failed to establish stable states (except for the Ottoman imperial state) and Muslim rule over the Slavs ended and a new, very dark stage for Muslims began. During this period, the Russians gradually extendeded control over the whole of Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. By the 20th century the Muslim Turks (in the Central Asia and Caucasus) had become dependent on the Russians. In their occupation of Muslim territory, the Russians were very harsh in their dealings with the Muslim population - their methods and those of the Mongols were basically the same. Certainly, the Russians were more cruel and more brutal than other European colonial powers, and carried out massacres and wholesale expulsion of populations.4
Massive slaughter of the resisting population took place, such as the murders during the storming of Kazan in 1552, the quelling of the Nogay tribes in the late 18th century, during the Caucasian wars of the 19th century (especially in the Chechen region and in Daghestan), in the Turkmen territory at the end of the 19th century (the extermination of the entire population of Gok-tepe by General Skobelev in 1881), and the slaughter of the nomad Kazakh tribes in 1916 by the Russian army and the Russian colonists.5
After the Communist revolution, massacres reached an unprecedented level: the slaughter by the troops of the Tashkent Soviet of the Kokand population took place in February 1918. Over a million Kazakh nomads were massacred during the brutal attempts at settling them in the 1930s; another major such event was the deportation of over a million Chechens, Ingushes, Karachays, Balkars and Crimean Tatars during the unsuccessful attempt at genocide in 1943.
Massive transfers or deportations of population were the common practice of both the Tsarist authorities and the Soviets. Kazan Tatars were expelled from the main cities of the Middle Volga and from the best agricultural lands along the rivers in the sixteen century. During the nineteenth century, the Kazakh nomads were expelled from the richest areas of the northern and eastern parts of the Kazakh steppes by Russian and Ukrainian colonists. The Caucasian Chechens, Kabardians, Daghestanis, etc., were driven from the rich Caucasian lowlands. Also, between 1783 and 1914 more than a million Crimean Tatars, most of them Nogays and over a million Cherkes from the North Western Caucasus emigrated to the Ottoman empire. During the Soviet period, some two million Crimean Tatars, North Caucasians and Meshketian Turks were expelled. When the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist many of its former victims were prevented from returning to their homelands.6
In addition to the horrors of mass murder and deportation suffered by the Muslims of Central Asia, the Russians added a sinister refinement: assimilation through co-optation of the elites, extensive colonization of Muslim lands and conversion (often forced) to Christianity. This was the deadliest danger that the Muslim ummah had had to face since the first encounter with the non-Muslim world.7
During the former U.S.S.R. state terrorism reached the highest level. The Communist rulers divided the Muslims into numerous nationalities in order to scatter them, their Islamic faith being attacked at the same time. In the eyes of the Soviet rulers, science and religion, and Marxism-Leninism and religious ideologies were in-compatible and irreconcilable. In their campaign against Islam, the Soviet rulers resorted to two types of argument.
The first applies to all religion which, according to Marxism, is the ‘opiate of the people’, that is, a reactionary and anti-scientific ideology giving a false account of society. But Islam was especially targeted by the Soviet authorities because it has universal validity, is based on original and reliable sources, and because it proposes a comprehensive moral programme for the reform of all areas of individual and collective life-political, economical, legal, social, etc. Also, the mere fact that almost all the peoples of the Central Asian (Turkestan) Republics and Azerbaijan were Muslim (even now, they remain Muslim) was a threat to the Communists. In order to undermine Islam, they made a number of accusations against Islam. For example, Islam is represented as a primitive religion, a chaotic mixture of Christian, Jewish and pagan doctrines, founded by a member of the feudal trading classes of Makka.8 Muslims were taught that for centuries Islam had served imperialisms, first of the Arabs, Persians, Afghans and Turks and now of the British and Americans.9
Under Communist rule, the people were not free to find out whether these accusations were true or not. As Time magazine, in its special issue on ‘The New U.S.S.R’ (10 April 1989) points out: ‘most of the country’s 26,000 mosques and 24,000 religious schools were shut down. The vast majority of Islamic teachers were either killed or imprisoned’.10
However, this does not mean that the Muslims believed the Communists and became atheist. In fact, Islam was the strongest religion in the former Soviet Union: ‘Several sociological surveys conducted in the 1980s in the Muslim territories of the former USSR have revealed the proportion of atheists among Soviet Muslims to be around 20 per cent of the population (among the Russians the figure is 80 per cent), with the remaining 80 percent divided between various categories of believers. But even those officially listed as atheists. such as members of the Communist Party, or the Komsomol, or high-level intelligentsia who are obliged professionally to fight “obnoxious religious survival”, maintain certain ties with the religion. In particular, the majority observe the three basic religious rites which mark the private life of every Muslim and which make his behaviour so different from that of his Russian or other non-Muslim comrades: ‘circumcision, religious marriage and religious burial in a special Muslim cemetery. According to the surveys, these family rites are performed by 95 to 99 per cent of the Muslim population.’11
The surveys support the theory that absolute atheists do not exist in Muslim lands. Communist accusations failed to turn the Muslims into atheists. From the Muslim point of view Marxist atheism appears not as a rival ideology or another competing spiritual creed, but as the latest, manifestation of ignorance and backwardness. The term unbelief designates a kind of collective blemish representing cruelty, dishonesty and lack of conscience. To the Muslim a real atheist is not deemed to be a romantic rebel or a superior philosophical free-thinker, but a subhuman of limited intellect unable to grasp the concept of Allah (God) and therefore degraded to the level of bestiality, if not below.12
It is very difficult to destroy the Islamic faith permanently, as the failure of the Communist rulers to do so demonstrates. And now, the last stage is taking place. The Turkic peoples are regaining their independence, and Islam is regaining its voice in Turkestan, Azerbaijan and in the autonomous regions such as Tataristan, the Chechen Republic, Yakuts, etc. How far the recovery of Islamic identity will mean a full recovery of Islamic values, and how far it makes possible common goals and policies for the peoples of the region, remains to be seen.
1. Zenkovsky, S.A. Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1960. p.12.
2. Hostler, C.W. Turkism and Soviets. Allen & Unwin, London, 1957. p.8,
3. Zenkovsky, S.A. op.cit., p.8.
4. Bennigsen. A. and Broxup. M. The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State, St Martin’s Press, New York, p. 61.
8. Choudhury. G.W. Islam and The Contemporary World, London: lndus Thames Publishers Ltd, 1990, p.150-151.
9. Benningsen, A. Islam in the Soviet Union, London: Pall Mall Press, 1967, ch 12.
10. Time, 10 April, 1989.
11. Bennigsen and Broxup, op. cit., p.1.
12. Bennigsen, and Broxup, op. cit., p.60-1.