Edward Mortimer, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is studying the politics of Islam. This March he organized a conference in New York that brought together a number of experts on Soviet Muslims. He is on leave from the editorial desk of The Times (London).

Many Western commentators saw the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 as the continuation of a historic Russian policy, dating from long before the Bolshevik Revolution, of expanding southward toward the "warm water" of the Indian Ocean.

That Russia has expanded southward over the centuries is, indeed, incontestable. It was one of the European colonial powers that conquered most of Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The limits of its southward expansion were drawn neither by self-restraint on its part nor by any clear ethnic or geographical divide. Rather they were drawn essentially by the influence of its imperial rival, Great Britain, which shored up the nominal authority of three weak Islamic states -- Ottoman Turkey, Qajar Persia, and the turbulent Afghan kingdom -- as buffer states between the Russian and British empires.

Today the British empire has vanished, along with the empires of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Even the much newer and more informal United States empire has contracted spectacularly. Everywhere the formerly colonized peoples have revolted -- sometimes peacefully, sometimes with violence -- and asserted their independence. Everywhere except in the Russian empire.

If the Russian empire has really resumed its southward march, that is surely an anachronism. What should have happened is the reverse. The peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus, colonized by Russia in the 19th century, might have been expected to revolt and assert their independence.

They have not done so. But are these historically Muslim people likely to be affected by the wave of "antiimperialist" revivalism that has lately shaken so many Muslim countries? Can Soviet power be challenged by a resurgence of Islam?

These questions have intrigued me since the fall of 1978. At that time, when the Islamic revolution in Tehran was already in full cry, an article appeared in the British review, Religion in Communist Lands, entitled "Muslim Religious Conservatism and Dissent in the USSR."

Written by two French specialists in the subject, Alexandre Bennigsen and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, the article began by drawing attention to the fact that the USSR, with an estimated 45 to 50 million Muslim inhabitants, is "the fifth Muslim power in the world (behind Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh)" and went on to make the astounding claim that, owing to a demographic explosion, "by the turn of this century there will be at least 100 million Muslims in the Soviet Union (as against some 150 million Russians)."

The authors went on to assert the existence of widespread clandestine religious organizations in the Soviet Muslim lands, in the form of Sufi (mystical) brotherhoods, which they described as "a dangerous foe for the Soviet establishment" and "the only underground organization in the Soviet Union which has not only managed to survive all persecution, but also to acquire a new vigor during the last 10 years."

In 1979, my curiosity was further stimulated by events in Afghanistan. There , a Soviet-backed Communist regime encountered fierce opposition from groups that fought it in the name of Islam. Suppose the successful Islamic revolution in Iran against American influence were followed by a successful Islamic counterrevolution in Afghanistan against Soviet influence. Would this not have implications for the Muslims living within the Soviet Union?

Perhaps this question was asked also in Kremlin, and that was why some 80,000 Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Perhaps, but why, if so, did Central Asian Muslims make up 40 percent of this invading force? If the Soviet decision was motivated even party by fears about the loyalty of Soviet Muslims, was it not tempting fate to send of those very Muslims to do the job?

At the end of February 1980 these Soviet Muslim contingents in Afghanistan were recalled. This was not in itself surprising, since they were mainly reservists on short-term call-up. But the units that replaced them were almost entirely Russian.

Clearly the Soviet leadership had had second thoughts about the suitability of Muslim units for the task in hand. Probably it had been under some illusion about the nature of that task. It must have hoped that the overthrow of the brutal regime of Hafizullah Amin would earn the Soviet Union some gratitude from the Afghan population. In particular, Amin's anti-Islamic policies were repudiated and the new Soviet-backed regime of Babrak Karmal proclaimed its respect for Islam.

The Soviet leaders presumably thought that the use of Muslim troops would make this line more credible and that they would be able to fraternize with the local population. But by the end of February it was clear that local people were more or less unanimously hostile and that the occupying force would be directly and heavily involved in operations against resistance forces fighting in the name of Islam -- operations for which the Afghan Army had neither the muscle nor the stomach.

For such a task the Soviet Muslim troops might well have been thought unsuitable in the first place. But it appears that some of them also demonstrated their unsuitability by their behavior while in Afghanistan. some fraternization between them and local residents had occurred, but the results were the opposite of what the Soviet leaders wanted. The Soviet Muslims were influenced by the Afghans rather than the other way around.

There is said to have been an active black market in copies of the Koran, for clandestine importation into the Soviet Union. some Soviet Muslim soldiers even went so far as to desert and join up with the Afghan resistance.

At a New York conference on Soviet Muslims earlier this year, experts confirmed that the demographic problem is real, although they suggested it is less dramatic than Bennigsen and LemercierQuelquejay theorized in their 1978 article.

The projected figure for the Soviet Muslim polulation in the year 2000 is not "at least 100 million" but "over 60 million," which would be 1 of every 4 or 5 Soviet citizens.

But the difference between the birthrates for Muslims and nonMuslims is so marked that, if present trends were to continue, every second Soviet child born in the year 2000 would be a "Muslim." And the Soviet authorities are getting worried about it. At their Communist Party congress this February the need for an "effective demographic policy" was for the first time discussed at some length, and it was specified that fertility studies should be undertaken on a regional basis.

The most immediate aspect of the problem is manpower. Taken as a whole, the rate of increase in the Soviet population of working age is slowing down quite abruptly: In the 1980s it will be only a quarter of what it was in the 1970s, and the net increase will come entirely from the "southern tier" -- that is, the predominantly Muslim part of the country. In the rest of the country there will be a net decrease -- unless, Of course, there is a massive migration of Muslim workers from south to north.

Most specialists, whether Western or Soviet, do no expect that to happen. If it did, one can well imagine, on the basis of European experience, that the effect would be to exacerbate racial tensions within the Soviet Union rather than to soften them.

What is already noticeable, by contrast, is a tendency of the Russian settlers to leave predominantly Muslim areas and return northward.

If that trend continues, the effect will inevitably be to accentuate the "Muslim" character of the southern Soviet republics. For that reason alone, the Soviet authorities are unlikely to encourage it on a large scale. It seems, on the contrary, that they favor an increased concentration of industrial investment in the southern tier, and that, too, raises awkward political questions: How will the rest of the country react to an apparent discrimination in favor of the south, and what will be the social consequences in the south of an increased rate of urbanization?

The demographic problem is also a military one. According to Dr. Murray Feshback, the leading US expert on Soviet demography, the tasks to which soldiers from Muslim backgrounds are assigned in the Soviet armed forces indicate that the military command does not have full confidence in them as fighting troops.

They tend to be relegated to service in rear battalions, construction divisions, and farm troops. Whether or not there are doubts about their political reliability, there certainly are about their social and educational preparedness for military service and above all about their ability to speak the Russian language. Yet an increasing percentage of new recruits will be Muslim, and by the year 2000 one-third of the total intake will come from the southern tier.

What makes this problem so awkward is the persistence among the Muslims of a strong sense of their separate identity. In the words of French writer Helene Carrere d'Encausse, they remain obstinately Homo Islamicusm as opposed to the officially promoted, albeit mythical Homo Sovieticus.m

Yet, Bennigsen notwithstanding, it still seems very doubtful how far this identity has any strictly religious connotation. The "unexpected and multiform religious revival" he detects is still known to us only from references in Soviet publications whose authors, liKE THE rest of us, may simply have been prompted by events in Iran to take the activities of "reactionary clerics" more seriously than they did before. And most of the references relate to the northern Caucasus -- THE most mountainous and backward of the regions where Soviet Muslims live.

There was, indeed, some discussion at the conference as to whether the people in question think of themselves primarily as "Muslims" at all. Some stressed that 80 percent of them speak closely related Turkic languages and suggested they should be considered Turks, not Muslims.

Others said that the different nationalities fostered by the Soviet state -- Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, Azeri, etc. -- were not just the products of a cynical divide-and-rule policy but corresponded to longstanding and geniune ethnic identities.

The conclusion of this debate was that different identities take on greater importance in different contexts, but that all the identities mentioned served to differentiate the people concerned from Slavic Russians. In any "us vs. them" discussion, the Russians were always "them."

None of the participants expected the outbreak of a general jihad,m or holy war, in the near or even middle-term future. But all emphasized the clear persistence of a separate, Asiatic Muslim culture of which religious belief may or may not be part, but which shows itself through adherence to certain Muslim rites -- such as those of circumcision, marriage, and burial -- and certain social and cultural patterns. The high birthrate itself is one example of the latter, and the refusal to intermarry with non-Muslims is another.

Much evidence was also adduced of a growing self-confidence among the Muslim elites -- whether that of the "official" religious leadership, which patronizingly portrays communism as a kind of byproduct of Islam, or that of local communist leaders who present themselves less and less as representative of the Soviet Communist Party in the provinces (a role left increasingly to the second secretary of each regional party, who is always a Russian) and more and more as representatives of their own nationalities bargaining with Moscow for more power, more perquisites, and more exclusive control of their own affairs. The feeling is that, as the demographic balance swings against the Russians, these Islamo-communists will bargain increasingly from a position of strength.

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