Vienna, April 18 – At the end of the 19th century, the Muslim community of the Russian Empire saw the rise of the “jadids” – Arabic for “new people” – who sought to modernize and liberalize the faith and who captured the imagination of many young Muslims not only within Russia but abroad.
After the 1917 revolution, however, the Bolsheviks saw the jadids not as allies but as the greatest threat to their control of the Muslim areas of the empire and killed almost all of them, thereby creating a situation in which the most conservative, even archaic Muslim leaders were the only ones who survived.
That served Soviet interests well, but it casts a double shadow on Muslims there now. On the one hand, it means that today’s Muslims have been largely cut off from the modernist traditions in their own national pasts. And on the other, it has opened the way for radical groups from abroad to gain influence because they can easily attack traditionalist mullahs and imams.
Some scholars, among whom Rafael Khakim of Tatarstan is the most prominent, have sought to focus attention on and revive interest the jadids. (Khakim’s book, “Jadidism (Reformed Islam)” (in Russian; Kazan, 2010), is particularly valuable in that regard. It is available in electronic form from the author of these lines.)
But precisely because of the open and democratic nature of jadidism, both traditionalist Muslim leaders and authoritarian post-Soviet governments, just like their Soviet predecessors, appear to be afraid of its potential impact and thus are seeking to prevent the Islamic community from learning about these Islamic modernists.
Yesterday, on Centrasia.ru, Nusrat Rakhmat of Samarkand addresses this question in an essay entitled “Who is Persecuting the Jadids of Turkestan Now?” The story he tells is disturbing, all the more so since the attitudes he finds among officials in Uzbekistan are not limited to that country alone (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1271571600).
Rakhmat begins his report by talking about the role of the jadids in pre-1917 Turkestan, a group which he argues “had not analogues before that time or afterwards even though the social-economic opportunities and even requirements for [the appearance of such groups] have arisen many times.”
As he notes, the jadids at that time consisted of “a group of educated and wealthy people, the local intelligentsia who came to share the view that progress in the state must begin with the transformation of instruction in the schools,” something to which they committed themselves through new schools, the introduction of new subjects, and the writing of new textbooks.
Not surprisingly, their efforts were resisted by those who controlled the traditional medrassahs who saw what jadids like Saidrizo Alizoda, Sadriddin Ayni, Azhiy, Ismatullo Rakhmatullo, and Makhmudkhodzha Bekhbudi not only as a violation of Islamic traditions but as a threat to their own power.
But prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the jadids were able to work despite such opposition. “After the October revolution,” Rakhmat notes, “difficult days came for the jadids.” In 1919, for example, one of their leaders Bekhbudi was killed in “doubtful circumstances, and buried in an unmarked grave. Seventeen years later, he was declared “an enemy of the people.”
With the exception of Ayni, who by “some miracle remained alive,” all the other jadids of Turkestan were “subjected to pitiless repressions” in the 1920s and 1930s. And “until the end of the 1970s,” Soviet scholars either ignored or minimized the role of these individuals and the movement they represented.
“But to hide the enormous enlightenment work of the jadids turned out to be impossible,” Rakhmat says, and writers in Central Asia first made “references” to them in their own work and then “began to come out memoirs and studies” of the jadids themselves. After 1991, some of the post-Soviet governments even made them national heroes posthumously.
“Despite all this,” the Samarkand writer continues, his own efforts to mark the 130th anniversary of the birth of Bekhbudi in 2005 and succeeding events show that the persecution of the jadids continues, apparently as a result of a combination of ignorance and ill-will on the part of some officials.
When and others tried to get official sanction for such an action, they were given a bureaucratic runaround so absurd – Rakhmat recounts the details – that he concludes that “the current leaders exceed their colleagues from the Soviet past in bureaucratic approach and ignorance on questions of literature, art and history.”
Indeed, he says, his experience has shown that “the generation of current leaders is quite far from literature and art. They do not read either classical or local writers and poets, they do not attend premiers of plays, they do not focus on the fine arts, and they do not make friends with the Internet.”
That explains a lot, Rakhmat says, but there is an even more important question here: “Why do we persecute great people not only during their lives but even after their deaths? This is immoral. Isn’t it? Perhaps, this is all the result of envy, that their names will remain for centuries, and we are just passing by?”