Other Muslim Peoples

Names: (i) Tadjiks, Turkmen, Kirghiz, Karakalpaks; (ii) Bashkirs; (iii) Chechens, Ossetians, Avars, Lezghins, Kabardins, Dargins, Kurds, Abkhazians, Ingush, Adygeis, Kumyks, Karachais
Location: (i) Central Asian (ii) Central (iii) Caucasian regions of USSR; China (Kirghiz and Tadjiks); Afghanistan (Kirghiz, Tadjiks and Turkmen); Iran (Turkmen, Kurds); Iraq (Kurds); Turkey (Kurds); Syria (Kurds)
Population: about 13 million (1979), est. 15-16 million (1989)
% of population; 5% (1979), est. 5.5% (1989)
Religion: Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Muslim (Lezghins, Kurds). Many Ossetians are Orthodox Christian
Language: each of the nations named above has its own language

Together with the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tatars and Azerbaidjanis, this group represented nearly 44 million people (17% of the population) in 1979 and probably accounts for nearly 53 million (18.4%) in 1989. It is estimated that by 2000, Muslims will constitute one quarter of the Soviet population, provide one third of Soviet Army recruits and one half of all Soviet births. With the worldwide resurgence of Islam, the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan War, the Soviet Union’s rapidly growing Muslim population has become a key political, economic and social factor.

History and background

Most Soviet Muslims are Turkic peoples, but the Tadjiks, Ossetians and Kurds are Iranian and the Daghestani peoples (Avars, Lezghins, Dargins etc.), Abkhazians, Chechens and Kabardins are Indo-European, as are the Muslim Georgians and Gypsies.

The overwhelming majority of Soviet Muslims are Sunni Hanafis, except for Daghestan (where the majority are Sunni Shafe’is), Azerbaidjan (75% of the Azerbaidjanis are Shi’ite, as are the Lezghins, Kurds and Meskhetian Turks) and Gorno-Badakhstan (where the Pamir Tadjiks are Ismaelis). This is reflected in the structure of the official Muslim organizations recognized by the Soviet State. Thus the four spiritual directorates serve Central Asia and Kazakhstan (based in Tashkent, Sunni Hanafi); Europe and Siberia (based in Ufa, Bashkiria — Sunni Hanafi); Northern Caucasus and Daghestan (Makhachkala, Daghestan — Sunni Shafe’i) and Transcausasia (Baku, Azerbaidjan — Shi’ite). However, the unofficial side of Soviet Islam — the Sufi brotherhoods based on secret Tariqa (Path to God) societies — is very widespread and is particularly strong in the Northern Caucasus.

Given the ethnic, linguistic and geographical diversity of Soviet Muslims there would appear to be little prospect of a cohesive Pan-Islamic movement flourishing in the USSR. However, there is a common resentment at the repression of Islamic customs and at the dominance of Slavic cultural norms. Morover, in Central Asia, the concept of the Muslim Umma (commonwealth or community) is still strong.

Constitution and law

The three largest of the smaller Muslim nations: the Tadjiks (estimated in 1989 at 3.9 million or 1.4% of Soviet population); Turkmen 2.6 million or 0.9%) and Kirghiz (2.3 million or 0.8%) all have their own Union Republics (population 1989: 5.1 million, 3.5 million and 4.3 million respectively). As such each elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and three to the Council of the Union in the 542 member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (every five years). In addition they nominally have the right to secede from the USSR federation.

The next largest grouping are the peoples of Daghestan (Avars, Lezghins, Dargins, Kumyks), who in 1989 had an estimated combined total of 1.8 million or 0.6% of the Soviet population. They reside in the Daghestan Autonomous Republic (part of the RSFSR), where they constitute an overwhelming majority. The estimated 1.4 million Baskhkirs (0.5%) also have an Autonomous Republic within the RSFSR but account for only 24% (1979) of the population (Russians 40%, Tatars 24%). The estimated 840,000 (0.3%) Chechens share with the less numerous Ingush (200,000) the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic in the RSFSR and the 360,000 Kabardins (0.1%) share with the 75,000 Balkars the Kabardin-Balkar ASSR. The 400,000 Karakalpaks (0.15%) and the 100,000 Abkhazians (0.03%) have their own autonomous republics within Uzbekistan and Georgia respectively. All these territorial formations elect four deputies to the Council of Nationalities and a varying number (depending on population density) to the Council of the Union in the USSR Supreme Soviet.

The Ossetians (estimated at 570,000 or 0.3%) are divided between the North Ossetian ASSR in the RSFSR (four deputies to the Council of Nationalities) and the South Ossetian Autonomous Region in Georgia (two deputies). Other groups having autonomous regions in the RSFSR are the 150,000 (0.05%) Adygeis and the 150,000 Karachais (who share the Karachai-Circassian AR with the 50,000 Circassians). The Karachais, Balkars, Chechens and Ingush were all deported during World War II but allowed to return home in the 1950s — the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks are still in exile.

In addition the estimated 200,000 Pamir Tadjiks have their own Gorno-Badakhstan Autonomous Region in Tadjikistan, about 300,000 Georgians (a large proportion of whom are Shi’ite Muslim) live in the Adzharian ASSR in Georgia, and approximately half of the 200,000 Roma Gypsy (Romani) population of the USSR is Muslim.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Most of the groups listed have hitherto been relatively untouched by the ethnic violence that has erupted recently in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, there were nationalist riots in Tadjikistan in December 1988 and Turkmenia in May 1989. In Tadjikistan in July 1989 security forces shot dead two rioters in ethnic clashes between Kirghiz and Tadjiks, and Lezghins were involved in bloody clashes with Kazakhs in Novy Uzen (Kazakhstan) in June 1989. In July 1989 11 people were killed in clashes between Muslim Abkhazians and Orthodox Christian Georgians after plans were announced to open a branch of Tbilisi University in the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi. Given the proximity of other flashpoints in Armenia, Azerbaidjan and Uzbekistan the potential for outbursts of nationalism among these groups is apparent.

(See also Azerbaidjanis; Deported Nationalities; Kazakhs; Tatars; )