Ahmed Rashid, who has spent much of his journalistic career covering the region, provides a spirited account of its revival and political development. Five republics are examined with a sharp eye for detail and an uncanny ability to focus on the internal feuds and rivalries of the newly independent states. Rashid is particularly good at examining the relationship of unstable central Asian countries with their equally volatile neighbours: Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
But the central question of his book is summed up by the subtitle: 'Islam or nationalism?' Islam has deep roots in central Asia. For centuries, central Asian cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, which first introduced paper to the Muslim world, led the Muslim civilisation in thought and learning. Colleges and universities in the region attracted students from as far away as Morocco and Indonesia. Bukhara is considered by Muslims as a place of pilgrimage and the most important city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The region is also the cradle of Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam, which, according to Rashid, has played a more important part in central Asia than in almost any other area in the Muslim world. Historically, Sufism has been an instrument of political resistance. The Sufis stood up to Russian encroachment of central Aria and led clandestine movements of resistance against Stalin.
The colonisation of central Asia by the Soviet Union wreaked havoc. Stalin closed all mosques, Muslim colleges and universities, declared the Imams to be parasites and enemy agents, and openly ridiculed the Sufis. Collectivisation killed thousands of natives, and forced an even greater number to flee to China. Later, Stalin simply used the region as a dumping ground for bothersome minorities in other parts of the Soviet Union. Rashid recounts this segment of central Asian history with harrowing detail.
When glasnost and perestroika ended the old campaigns against religion, Islam began to flourish once again in central Asia. Life- long atheists suddenly developed the urge to go to the mosque and study the Koran. In June 1990, a new Union-wide political party was formed. The Islamic Revival Party (IRP) declared itself to be a democratic, non- militant alliance aimed at reviving the political role of Islam in central Asia. IRP argued that the Muslims should be allowed, if they wished, to follow Islamic law.
After independence, the ex-Communist bureaucracy (more Communist than 'ex') saw the revival of Islam as a challenge and a threat. Ex-Communists consistently and persistently raised the spectre of 'Muslim fanatics' and painted horror pictures of Tajikistan becoming 'another Iran'. In early 1993, with military support from Uzbekistan and the help of the Russian division based in Tajikistan, the ex-Communists drove the democratic alliance out of the capital, Dushanbe.
Rashid provides a telling account of recent events. He distinguishes between the democratic aspirations of most Muslims and the demands of the fundamentalists. The real cause for concern in central Asia, meanwhile, are the ruthless ex-Communist apparatchiks given a new lease of life as champions of the market economy.