Democracy Lab

A Frank Debate about Identity and Islam

A young Sudanese author explores his fraught relationship to religion.

A new Sudanese generation is raising its voice. They are finally addressing an issue central to their existence, an issue that has long been held hostage by the ruling elites, the older generation, and a few academics, but which has never been simplified for public consumption or opened up to wider participation. Now, at last, we can finally get on with a debate that has, until now, been frozen in time -- about the relationship between Islam and identity. 

There is no more fitting moment to open this debate than today. It is one of urgent relevance, both globally and locally. This is especially true in Sudan, where 24 years of rule by fundamental Islamists have led the country to the brink of imminent disintegration and state collapse. Sudan is a place where Islam and the national identity have been reconstructed through the narrow lens of Arabism and fundamental/political Islam. This has marginalized the majority in one of Africa's most ethnically diverse countries. 

In his first book, entitled My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind-and Doubt Freed My Soul, the 26-year-old Sudanese blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr (otherwise known as "Drima" in the blogsphere), courageously, eloquently, and unapologetically asks the tough questions. In the course of his autobiographical yet deeply philosophical account, Amir charts a painful and often treacherous journey in the search of his own personal "truth." 

Born to Sudanese parents who left Sudan shortly after he was born in 1986, Amir's first stop was Qatar. There he received a primary education that included an orthodox and dogmatic version of Islam with a heavy anti-Jewish/anti-Israeli accent. Although his parents are moderate Muslims, his school environment was far from tolerant and did not encourage his persistent questioning, which his teachers equated with "weak faith" and "the work of the devil." 

When his parents moved to Malaysia, Amir was placed in a Western international school where all his presumptions about his identity and the Islam he has been taught so far were put to the test. He refers to his relationship with Islam as "an arranged marriage" that took place without his consent. It's a marriage that, like so many others, gradually moves toward divorce and ultimately culminates in reconciliation (at least of a sort). 

Amir's quest for his "truth" is one that focuses on empiricism and sound reasoning. As Amir puts it, one of the first and toughest questions is: "How did Islamdom really lose its virtue?" In trying to find an answer, his quest takes him to the ninth century and the war of ideas between two schools of theological philosophy: One that advocated reason, free will, and an allegorical reading of sacred texts (al-Mu'tazila); and another that advocated tradition, predestination, and a more literal reading of the Quran (al-Ashariya). Eventually al-Ashariya's school of thought prevailed because it was supported by the stronger political establishment of the time; and eventually it became the predominant mode of thinking about and interpreting Islam. 

According to Amir, "this would later prove to be politically useful in getting the masses to accept their rulers whether just or unjust," and to obey without questioning. This is the Islam we have inherited today.

But his crisis of faith was not the only crisis he experienced. He was also simultaneously obliged to straddle multiple cultures and assimilate the values of his parents to create what he calls, "a colorful culture of my own." The drastic shift in his schooling and cultural surroundings eventually made Amir feel "sandwiched between two worlds, between two planes of existence: the Afro-Arab Muslim ingrained within me versus the liberal ‘Westernized' me." 

Feeling utterly lonely, Amir goes on a frantic search for answers in the place that is most natural for his generation to seek answers from: the Internet. Here he stumbles, by accident, on the diverse world of the blogosphere and comfortably finds a voice and a community. He blogs anonymously for six years; he goes "on a quest to learn and unlearn. To blog and to grow." 

It is in this virtual world that Amir starts to feel that he is not alone; he learns that "Arab dissidents and political ‘heretics' of all stripes were discovering one another online and slowly forming a massive self-organized network." The Egyptian blogsphere, for example, had prominent voices of dissent which later became known to the rest of the world at the height of the Egyptian revolution, such as activist and blogger, Alaa Abdul Fatah and Mahmoud Salem. The American-Muslim blogosphere, or the "Islamosphere," was another virtual space that was diverse yet accommodated, for the most part, respectful and non-dogmatic debate. 

This book is a gift to the generation that grew under the darkness of Sudan's murderous regime (whether inside or outside Sudan), the National Congress Party. It is a song to freedom of expression, freedom of thought and critical inquiry, and freedom from organized religion. It will shake the foundations of many Muslims who have never been exposed to Islamic or Western philosophy; it will create a stir in a closed society like Sudan where the debate on religion, the secular state, and identity has been stunted. Although My Isl@m is appearing first in English, there is already interest from readers in the Arab world for an Arabic translation. 

This book will also resonate regionally and globally. For the countries of the Arab Spring that voted in Islamist regimes who are now clamping down on freedom of expression, this book is a treasure trove that can equip normal citizens with an accessible counter-dialogue to Islamist rhetoric that the people in Muslim countries are rarely able to respond to, since the way Islam has been taught for centuries has all too often discouraged questioning and critical thinking. 

In My Isl@m, Amir is calling for a "revolt against the abusive dinosaur preachers of our times." He argues for a paradigm shift in the way Islam is taught and understood. More importantly, following the footsteps of the Sudanese scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, he explains in a very accessible manner how Islamic theology isn't holy or sacred, but is in fact man-made and has developed over time in certain ways due to socio-political and other factors. 

For the West, whose relationship with Islam is often contentious, My Isl@m offers a possible reconciliation of East and West through an acceptance that the rich philosophical traditions of both worldviews can lead to an "integral Islam" that marries the empirical, the rational, and the spiritual.


Democracy Lab

A Turbulent Valley in a Turbulent Decade

A Review of Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia by Philip Shishkin. 

In 2005, the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan experienced its own version of the "color revolutions" that had already swept through other parts of the former Soviet Union. During the Tulip Revolution, angry crowds toppled the notoriously corrupt President Askar Akayev and brought a key opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to power in his place. A fevered crowd of protesters then ransacked the presidential palace, rummaging through Akayev's personal effects, drinking his booze, and stealing his collection of luxurious neckties.

Two months later, in Uzbekistan, a disaster unfolded in the town of Andijan. The American-supported regime of President Islam Karimov, who received money and military training in exchange for America's use of an airbase to resupply the war in Afghanistan, faced off against a growing crowd angry at the arbitrary imprisonment of local businessmen. Government forces, some of them trained in the United States, opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians.

2005 marked a dramatic turning point in the region's history. It was the year when the West could no longer ignore the Uzbek regime's increasingly brutal grip on its people, but it was also the moment when Kyrgyzstan began to stumble toward a semblance of democracy. Both developments are still poorly understood by the outside world. Even though Central Asia is a vital strategic hinterland for the war in Afghanistan, few Europeans or Americans can find these countries on a map, much less identify their leaders and explain how and why these events happened.

Philip Shishkin's Restless Valley, which looks at the recent history of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, is based on many years of reporting from the region. Shishkin knows the territory well; he even has relatives in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Still, any reporter who aspires to explain these countries to the outside world faces some serious challenges. The twists and turns of Central Asia's recent history are difficult to capture on paper. The cast of characters is large and fluid, and getting to the truth behind events can be a daunting task.

Shishkin's title refers to the Ferghana Valley, a broad, triangular basin surrounded by high mountains and covering an area roughly equivalent to the state of New Jersey. Crisscrossed by two major rivers, the Ferghana is agriculturally rich, and also boasts a history of trade stretching back thousands of years to the ancient Silk Road.

Russia colonized the area in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the establishment of the Soviet Union brought even greater changes. Between 1924 and 1936, Joseph Stalin, who served for a time as the Kremlin's commissar for nationalities, divided Central Asia up into "republics" based on dominant ethnic groups. The ostensible reason for this was to provide for "national self-determination," but in reality the new ethnic homelands undermined old regional identities by laying down borders where none had existed before. Nowhere does the capriciousness of this strategy come through more clearly than in the Ferghana, which Stalin divided up among three republics (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). The borders he created are responsible for aggravating tensions in the area today.

Islam is another complicating factor. The people who live in the Ferghana Valley tend to be the most religious in the region. This poses a big challenge to those who would rule the valley -- not only the Soviet state, which discouraged religiosity, but also post-Soviet leaders, who see political Islamic movements as threats to their regimes.

In 1991, Karimov traveled to the Ferghana Valley to debate a new religious group called "Adolat" (there's even a YouTube video of the meeting). After arguing with the activists, he went back to Tashkent and promptly banned the group. Adolat began to use violence to oppose Karimov's rule, and changed its name to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU bombed western targets in Central Asia and even fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yet it was the Americans, not Karimov, who ultimately dealt the IMU its two biggest blows. An American airstrike in northern Afghanistan killed the group's first leader in 2001, and a drone strike in Pakistan, where the group fled with its Taliban comrades, killed his successor in 2009. Despite the break caused by the Andijan massacre, counterterrorism defined America's relationship with Uzbekistan almost as much as resupplying the war in Afghanistan. These two strands in American policy toward Tashkent are closely related. It was Washington's continuing reliance on Uzbek support for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan that led the two countries to start restoring ties in 2010.

2010 was also the year when Kyrygzstan went through its second revolution -- one that proved far more deadly and damaging than the first in 2005. (The inter-ethnic violence that followed President Bakiyev's ousting ultimately took the lives of some 2,000 people.) Shishkin shines as a reporter in his description of Kyrgyzstan's fresh change of regime. Skillfully weaving together many competing accounts of what happened, he provides the most coherent explanation of the forces behind the revolution and those who were responsible for the acts of ethnic violence committed in its wake.

Shishkin also shows how the drug trade complicates the region's politics. The biggest markets for the opium raised by Afghan poppy farmers are in Russia and Europe, and Kyrgyzstan lies squarely across the natural smuggling route to places north. The trade has fueled the rise of powerful mafias who have a pervasive and corrupting influence on the politics of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz-organized crime groups have links to business, to government, to the police; drug-motivated violence is frequent.

By reporting Kyrgyz politics in all its confusing glory, Shishkin (perhaps unintentionally) shows how false narratives can become embedded in popular discourse and have major implications down the line. To give one particularly good example, he lays out the entire conspiracy, prevalent in the south, that the June 2010 ethnic violence in Osh was just cover for a massive narcotics smuggling operation. He presents the case credibly, yet subtly dissects it through personal anecdotes of those caught up in the violence. For many, it's easier to pretend such bloodshed was the result of nefarious outsiders rather than the horrifying actions of one community against another.

Kyrgyzstan's prospects for democracy are still uncertain. I was in the capital, Bishkek, in the month leading up to the 2011 election of Almazbek Atambayev, the current president. It was the first peaceful transition of power in Central Asia's post-Soviet history. Much like the 2005 revolution, the streets buzzed with excitement, even hope.

As soon became apparent, however, that hope was not shared by all. In Osh, simmering ethnic tension boiled over into horrific violence within weeks of the revolution. Brutal street fighting over the course of three days killed hundreds of people, most of them Uzbeks relegated to minority status within Kyrgyzstan thanks to the borders crafted by Stalin 80 years earlier. The Kyrgyz government did conduct an investigation into the violence, but human rights groups widely condemned it as unfair to the ethnic Uzbeks.

When I visited Osh in October 2011, the scars of that ethnic violence, 16 months in the past, were still visible. Shops remained burned out, and I spoke with many Uzbek business owners who simply never recovered from their personal and property losses. Many of their restaurants, barber shops, and even beauty salons were simply taken over by Kyrgyz, and their original owners saw little recourse for recovering them.

During my stay, I witnessed a political rally for a deeply divisive former revolutionary named Kamchybek Tashiev, whom Shishkin profiles in his book. This rally took place in the shadow of a gigantic statue of Lenin, and the crowd held posters proclaiming "Kyrgyzstan for Kyrgyz" and "This is our land." Few seemed to share the excitement about the election that was so palpable in the capital. Osh and Bishkek, ostensibly parts of the same country, turned out to be worlds apart.

The contrast between these two cities forms one of the major themes of Shishkin's book. It's not an easy story to tell, but Shishkin doesn't take the background for granted. Newcomers to the region can be easily daunted by the unfamiliar names and convoluted contexts, but Shishkin is always there to provide a needed recap of crucial information.

As an introduction to the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan's complicated recent history, and more importantly as a primer on Kyrgyzstan's dynamic and often confounding politics, Shishkin unquestionably succeeds. He ably covers the many personalities vying for influence and power in Kyrgyzstan's fragile democracy. But after reading his account, one is left with a big question mark about the long-term viability of democratic institutions. Can such a faltering country ever be successful? Shishkin is reluctant to give a definitive answer, but his reporting suggests that the chances aren't good.

Last week's deadly bombing in Boston unexpectedly brought Kyrgyzstan into the spotlight. The two accused bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, grew up, at least in part, in the Kyrgyz town of Tokmok. It would be silly to connect Kyrgyzstan is any meaningful way to such carnage. But the events in Boston have certainly prompted people to ask how a little-known country can suddenly insert itself into the lives of Americans half a world away.

As the lone holdout for democracy in the region, Kyrgyzstan holds symbolic importance to the West. But it's future as a democratic country is far from assured: The internal divisions it faces, ethnic discord, and continued struggles with corruption all conspire against stability. For clarifying what the top players in Kyrgyzstan are up to, and for showing the deeper roots of their inability to rule effectively, Philip Shishkin deserves praise.