Washington — The Russian invasion of Afghanistan has galvanized a commitment to Islam long present below the surface among the majority of the Soviet Union's vast Muslim population.
There are in all some 44 million Muslims in the USSR, and they have a higher birthrate than the dominant "European" Russians.By the end of this century, one in every three or four Soviet citizens is likely to be a Muslim.
The implications of this for future cohesion and stability of the Soviet Union are enormous -- particularly if Muslim solidarity and frustration are eventually translated into action.
One of the Western world's leading authorities on Muslims in the Soviet Union , Alexandre Bennigsen of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris and of the University of Chicago, recently explained that Soviet Muslims keep the emotions raised among them by the invasion of Afghanistan under restraint.
Addressing Muslim affairs analysts in Washington recently, Dr. Bennigsen said Muslims in Soviet Central Asia, knowing that they are outstripping ethnic Russians in their rate of population growth, "have the absolute feeling that time is on their side." But, he added, "they won't ruin the possibility by any premature rebellion or uprising. That is why there is currently no insurrection and why the Muslim community keeps quiet."
Western newsmen visiting the Soviet Central Asian republics following the Afghanistan invasion generally reported little or no outward evidence of an impact on the local population likely to give trouble to Soviet authorities.
But visitors to the area who have either a Muslim or Middle Eastern background have long gotten a different impression about local Muslim attitudes.
Westerners, of course, have a language problem and usually find themselves dealing with officials who, even if of Muslim background themselves, understandably feel constrained to give the official Soviet line. A recurring theme of this line is that the Soviet move into Afghanistan will bring about a long-needed improvement in the Standard of living of the Muslims of Afghanistan.
At the Washington meeting, Dr. Bennigsen put forward the following evidence to support his view that events in Afgahnistan have deeply affected Muslim public opinion in the USSR:
* Disdain for the invasion surfaced among Soviet Muslim soldiers both while in Afghanistan and on their return to Soviet Central Asia. In January, the Soviet force that invaded Afghanistan included a high proportion of Muslim soldiers -- 25-40 percent. But their fighting morale was low. They fraternized with local Afghans. There were desertions. By February all Soviet Muslim soldiers had been pulled out of Afghanistan.
* Anti-Soviet riots broke out several months ago among Muslims in Alma Ata, Tazakhstan (a province north of Afghanistan). Bodies of several Muslim soldiers killed in Afghanistan had just been returned to the area. Official Soviet plans for burial in a military cemetery led to riots among Muslims adamant that burial be in a Muslim cemetery -- a requirement of Islamic law.
* Hostility to Soviet domination has grown among the "Sufi brotherhood," Islamic mystics outlawed by Soviet law. They are now more numerous and influential than before the Russian Revolution, Dr. Bennigsen says. The Sufi activism is anti-Russian, anti-Marxist, and anti-modernist. It has been organized extensively on the basis of principles of "holy war" and has popular ties.
* Growing nationalism among Muslim intellectuals has taken form in fierce competition with Russians for jobs and a desire to reestablish more autonomy for the ethnic cultures of the Muslim population.
Contrary to such reports, US State Department officials do not feel that the Afghanistan invasion has, in fact, made much of an impact on the Soviet Central Asian region.
Given standards of living that are far higher than those of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iran, the Soviet Muslims are "counting their lucky stars," said one official.
Dr. Bennigsen's emphasis on Islam as the focus of discontent is also challenged by some analysts who see ethnic pride among Soviet Central Asians overlapping with the Islam to produce the discontent.
That the Islamic religion has been radically suppressed in the USSR in the last half century, he concedes. Anti-religion policies have reduced the number of mosques from 25,000 before the Russian Revolution to about 300 today; religious schools from 14,500 to 2 today; clerics from 35,000 to less than 1,000 today. Islam as a religion has been all but eliminated from public life.
Yet, Dr. Bennigsen says, that religious meaning of Islamic tradition still persists for many Soviet Central Asians. Its cultural importance remains even more powerful. Some 80 percent of Soviet Muslims observe certain religious rites relating to circumcision, religious burial, marriage, respect for elders, and large families.
Some atheistic members of the Communist Party preferred in the recent Soviet census to be classified as "nonbelieving Muslim." Over the last decade there also has been a surge of interest in rediscovering historical and cultural roots , particularly among young Muslim intellectuals.
The extent to which anti-Soviet Islamic fervor in Afghanistan catches on in Soviet Central Asia may depend on how much longer Soviet forces remain in Afghanistan, adds Dr. Bennigesen. "It's just not possible any longer to keep people from crossing the border between Afghanistan and Soviet Central Asia, including those in touch with Afghan freedom fighters. It's having an impact."