SANTA MONICA — Muslims rioted inside the Soviet Union during mid-December. The prompt Soviet reporting of unrest at Alma-Ata, in Central Asia, following the replacement of the local Kazakh party boss with a Russian official, seemed to the West another remarkable manifestation of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost --openness--and an example of the difficulties facing his struggle against corruption and nepotism.
But subsequent details reveal that glasnost and corruption were, at most, side shows to a violent outburst of anti-Russian and anti-Soviet resentment among Soviet Muslims. After two days of rioting by some 10,000 young Muslims, the regime was able to stabilize the situation. Yet there is real significance in the events at Alma-Ata. The replacement of Dinmukhamed Kunaev and the ensuing riot are symptomatic of a growing conflict between the regime and the Muslims, one that could prove an intractable problem for Kremlin leadership.
The trouble comes from a combination of powerful long-term trends and Gorbachev's own recent policies in predominantly Muslim areas. The best-known trend is a continuing demographic shift--enlarging the non-European, particularly Muslim, population of the Soviet Union. Representation of Muslims among the available labor force and the military pool has increased dramatically. Most of the surplus laborers and nearly one-third of the conscript pool are Muslims, although Muslims make up only about 20% of the population overall. Perhaps more important, explosive Muslim birth rates in regions such as Central Asia, are in contrast with a rapidly shrinking Russian and Slavic population that has provided the bulk of the quasi-colonial elites. In 1970, the Slavic population of Central Asia numbered about 21% of the total; today it is about 13% and decreasing. Moreover, a large majority of Muslims live in small towns and rural areas that are ethnically and culturally homogeneous, where efforts to inculcate them in the regime's value system have proved ineffective.
The demographic gains have been accompanied by two other important and closely-related trends presenting a serious long-term threat to the Russian-dominated regime. First, the Islamic revival in Central Asia and elsewhere seems to have reached proportions unacceptable to Soviet authorities. After years of depicting Islam as a moribund remnant of the "feudal past," Soviet officials have started presenting a much less sanguine picture. In Uzbekistan, a Pravda article noted, "a complicated religious situation has developed in recent years" and atheistic work to "oppose the teachings of Islam" was said to be unsatisfactory. A high official in Tadzhikistan complained that the number of believers and unauthorized mullahs is growing and noted that the clergy encourages "ugly varieties of regionalism and nationalism." Similarly, in Kirgizia, a party official warned that propagators of Islam are strengthening their influence over women, young people and children. In that republic, a survey of religious attitudes among first-year university students indicated that 42% admitted to be practicing believers while another 38% were not aware of the "harmful influence" of religion. Throughout Central Asia, Islamic rites are reported to be widely observed and underground Islamic activities are spreading.
Authorities are clearly worried that the Islamic reawakening of Soviet Muslims could one day become the basis for a nationalist challenge to the regime. Remarkably, officials have also started admitting that Soviet Muslims may not be immune to international influences such as the war in Afghanistan or the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. "Without a doubt," a Tajik functionary recently stated, "the activizing of Islam has been fostered to some degree by the circumstances surrounding the regional events of recent years in certain countries."
No less troublesome for Moscow is growing evidence of a live-and-let-live attitude--perhaps even collusion--between Muslims in government and the people. In many cases, the party is not only failing to neutralize Islam, Islam may be co-opting the party. Such concerns were publicly raised at the party congresses of the Central Asian republics earlier this year. In speech after speech, party luminaries lambasted local officials for neglecting atheist indoctrination, for the "internationalist upbringing" of native youth and for having "allied themselves with Islam." Party officials were accused of "hypocritical attitudes," including having tolerated: underground Islamic organizations, production of illegal religious items in state enterprises and construction of facilities for Muslim pilgrims at local "holy places."