IN analyzing the present and future of the vast Soviet empire, few commentators have focused on the role of Islam. Islam's role becomes paramount when one considers the large number of its followers - about 1 billion, with 50 million in the USSR; the fact that almost every other Soviet conscript is Muslim; and the linkage of Islam to petroleum, since much of the world's oil is found in Islamic areas from Algeria to Indonesia.
In seeking an 11th-hour role of peacemaker in the Persian Gulf war, Moscow was influenced partly by its own Muslim population. Alarmed by the military actions of United States-led forces against Iraq, Soviet Muslims met in Moscow with President Gorbachev, urging that he seek a diplomatic solution.
In late 1990, speaking at a symposium in Washington, Prof. Alexei Vassiliev of the Soviet Academy of Sciences said the USSR would have "severe limitations" in supporting a war against Iraq. Moscow was aware of the pitfalls of asking its Muslim conscripts to kill Iraqi Muslims. Moscow lost its war in Afghanistan because, among other reasons, Soviet Muslim conscripts refused to fire on "brother" Afghan Muslims.
Last month the parliament of Uzbekistan in Central Asia adopted a resolution calling on Gorbachev to use all means to bring "a halt to the [Gulf] conflict." In condemning the war, the Uzbeks stated: "This bloody war is causing the death of innocent victims, the destruction of towns and villages 201&gt; of monuments from the Muslim civilization in the Middle East, and an unprecedented ecological catastrophe."
In Azerbaijan, located on the Iranian border, Muslim Azeris formed a division of volunteers, called Saddam's division, to fight with the Iraqis. The Azerbaijan parliament declared that the US-led war was going beyond the mandate set by the UN Security Council, saying that the liberation of Kuwait was "a pretext for a large-scale military action designed to protect US oil interests in the region."
During the bloody war over Kuwaiti petroleum, the oil in the Soviet Union was largely overlooked. Yet it loomed important as the Saudis and the Soviets, who never really liked each other, emerged as nations that could become decisive arbiters in determining the future direction of oil prices worldwide. The Soviet Union is the world's largest producer and second-largest exporter of oil. Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter. The Saudis renewed diplomatic relations with Moscow in September 1990.
Six of the Soviet Union's 15 republics (five Central Asian republics plus Azerbaijan in the Caucasus) are Muslim. The majority of Muslims living in the empire ruled from Moscow are Turks (the Turks of Turkey and elsewhere having originated in Central Asia), and most speak a Turkic language. The Russians, since their conquest of Azerbaijan and Central Asia, have never integrated with the Muslims.
Increasingly, Muslims of the Soviet empire have become nationalistic, searching for their roots in the heritage of Islam. New nationalism in Azerbaijan bred a protest movement that prompted Moscow to send in tanks and armed troops. The unrest that has spread throughout the southern rim of the USSR is felt not only within the six Soviet Muslim republics, but also in neighboring countries. Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan, still in turmoil despite Moscow's troop withdrawal. Turkmenia is on the borders of Ir an and Afghanistan. Tadzhikistan touches Afghanistan and China. And Kirghizia is on the frontier of China, which in 1990 closed its province of Xinjiang to foreign travel due to Muslim unrest and demonstrations. Xinjiang Muslims, once a part of Turkestan, still feel more closely tied to their Muslim brethren in Central Asia than to non-Muslim Chinese.
The USSR cannot exist as an empire without its Muslim republics. If it loses them, it loses much of its raw materials, labor force, and military manpower. Although Moscow has built most of its factories in European Russia, Moscow's pool of workers and army recruits are 1,000 miles removed - in the vast southern rim of the Muslim republics.
If the Moscow government loses Central Asia, it also loses natural resources:
Central Asians produce 90 percent of all USSR cotton, making the Soviet Union the largest grower of cotton in the world.
Central Asia is the third largest producer of oil in the USSR.
Central Asia produces one-quarter of all Soviet natural gas (natural gas deposits in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the largest in the world).
The Central Asian Muslim republics produce one-quarter of the Soviet Union's copper and 50 percent of the gold, as well as most of the uranium.
Coal fields in Kazakhstan produce the third largest yield of coal (110 million tons annually) for the Soviet Union.
Muslim republics produce 50 percent of all USSR agricultural products.
The Soviets have placed vital military establishments in Central Asia. They have concentrated the Soviet space program in Kazakhstan. Here they launch and recover their missiles at the nuclear-weapons testing range, Semipalatinsk. Should Central Asian Muslims revolt or sabotage the missile-testing site, they could deal the Moscow government a devastating blow.
My visits to the USSR made clear that despite a 70-year attempt by communists to eradicate Islam - including the destruction of some 25,000 mosques and religious schools - Islam has not only survived but flourished. And, while the communists came to those lands only 70 years ago, the Turkic peoples there have been Muslim for 1,300 years. The Muslims may largely determine the fate of the vast Soviet empire.