If Central Asia conjures more than obscurity in popular imagination, it’s likely as a restive region, possibly teetering on collapse, misruled by authoritarian regimes, bubbling with oil, gas, and other natural resources, or a bulwark against religious fanatics. The anthropologist Morgan Liu has written that “Central Asia is a curiously overdetermined yet understudied region of the world.” What he meant was that the region’s relevancy in US minds most often comes in its similarity or proximity to somewhere else; it is Muslim like the Middle East, a vector of Great Power competition, or a spillover for the global “War on Terror,” for instance.
Fixations on dictators, hydrocarbons, and violent Islamism share a common emphasis on security. It’s not that security concerns don’t exist in Central Asia. But whatever their salience, they get filtered through a distorted prism. That’s partly because, as Sarah Kendzior noted in the Atlantic, Central Asia isn’t America’s “Other,” but Russia’s, making Central Asia in some ways our Other’s Other. What’s most troubling is that security-centric framing plays into the agendas of the region’s autocrats. With respect to Muslim life in particular, it legitimates repression and the tight regulation of public piety.
When I first went to Tajikistan in 2010, everyday believers with whom I interacted walked a fine line between accommodating, what they saw as, unreasonable demands on religious expression and charting the course that their piety required. For Sufis, in particular, Muslims that had taken on special initiations and trace different genealogies of Muslim history, such concerns took on a special valence because the public practices they were obliged to perform easily ran afoul of a hostile state security service. As the Sufis I knew lived their lives, the securitization of Islam always lurked in the background, even as what was most important to their daily existence, what they talked about the most—the price of foodstuffs, jobs, crumbling rural infrastructure, dependence on labor remittances sent from Russia, etc.—seemed mostly absent from the concerns of the governing elite.
The Sufis I knew did their best to construct alternatives: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of talking, alternative times, alternative ways of dress even. Their everyday ways of living told a remarkably different story than the official one proffered by organs of the state. It was folklore, expressive culture, art, humor, memories, rituals, poetry, and dress that allowed the men I knew to create alternative selves. Sufi stories weren’t so much resistant as transcendent, taking their tellers and hearers beyond the state’s hostile interference.
In a world seemingly obsessed with the alleged political resonances of Islam, especially in Central Asia, expressive culture offers a key vantage point for seeing how everyday people act, think, respond, and negotiate their worlds. For Sufis in Tajikistan, it’s how they construct what it means to be Muslim in 21st-century Central Asia.
is an assistant professor of folklore at George Mason University.