“Our seminar-title today has a question mark that deserves attention, not only with regard to whether we have meaningful progress toward civil society in Central Asia - which our guest speaker will address directly - but also in terms of the nature of the evolving concept of civil society itself.”

“Let me offer 5 general observations drawing on the thrust of current thinking by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and activists. ”


  1. “First, the public sphere, as Jurgen Habermas tells us, is a fundamental aspect of civil society in which networking by individuals and groups yields public opinion which in turn influences official policy and civic life. The critical point here is that for the networks to mature into civil society, we need institutionalisation - of a free media, of the rule of law, of professional associations. And these institutions do not just thrive because they have a constitutional umbrella of rights; they thrive because they have a dynamic, communicative energy whose spaces the law safeguards.”

  2. “My second observation is that the nature of the spaces in which the institutions of civil society thrive, as Charles Taylor has pointed out, involve a secular culture of citizenship - which Mohammed Arkoun in the opening seminar in our series deemed as crucial for Islamic contexts as they are for Euro-American ones.”

    “But beyond the institutional separation of Mosque and State, how much secularity is really needed? The answer is up for grabs right across the transitional Muslim world, from Central Asia to West Africa to Indonesia: secularity does not have to mean a divorce of duniya and din, world and faith, especially when it comes to the social capital generated by the umma.”

  3. “Which brings us to my third observation: Benedict Anderson’s brilliantly articulated idea of the “imagined community” in a variety of global contexts applies, it would seem to me, convincingly to Muslim societies in the widest sense: communities with the shared traditions of Islam but encompassing a plurality of cultures, ethnicities and religious minorities - in other words, a civic dimension limited only by the imagination and tolerance of its members.”

    “After all, why should the tag “Muslim” or “Islamic” be seen as limiting rather than empowering the scope of civil society as an imagined community, where the bonds of citizenship are buttressed by those of moral commitment?”

  4. “And yet, to offer my fourth observation, we must have the elements of a sustained public life - or what Dale Eickelman calls “emerging publics” - in order to create a public sphere and civil society.”

    “Whereas these emerging publics in the West were marked by collective literacy in relation to the print media, which so profoundly influenced the Reformation in Europe, the American Revolution, and the anti-colonial movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, today's emerging publics also look to the Internet, mobile telephones, and other instruments of global communication.”

    “Clearly, these are not easily controlled by the State - and by default, if nothing else, can empower civil society. But from Iran and Turkey to Central Asia, the process of turning potential into reality has been painfully slow.”

  5. “Which brings me to my final observation - on the relationship between the State and the individual in our present context. That relationship is supposed to be defined by the norms of citizenship, a crucial legal and political vehicle for the exercise of civic freedom and responsibility in fostering civil society.”

    “But in a Muslim context, taken in the inclusive sense, the imagined community will surely expect an ethical dimension to the State-Society relationship. There is far too robust a tradition of humanistic values in Islam for this not to be the case, and arguably, it is what distinguishes a Muslim discourse on civil society from a mainstream Euro-American one.”

“My own sense is that as this series of lectures on civil society moves forward and we move regionally in terms of our focus, that there cannot be in the Muslim world any more significant area that we can look on today than Central Asia; in part because of what has happened really in the last decade and a few years. We've had some significant tectonic shifts that have taken place in the global context and the re-emergence, the remaking and the re-establishment of an identity for Central Asia in a global context and in the larger context of our pursuit for civil society has become very, very important.”


This seminar focuses on three themes in the broad context of Central Asia, and more specifically in Tajikistan: modernisation, post-Soviet politics and the role of Islam.

Tracing Tajik contemporary history from the 1917 revolution to its recent civil war until the present day, the paper looks at the prospects of organised participation in the civil process. Modernisation In the early 20th century, life in many parts of Central Asia was still very much the same as it had been for hundreds of years.

This was to change dramatically when Soviet rule was established in the region shortly after the 1917 revolution. The first, and symbolically most important, step towards the modernisation and Sovietisation of Central Asia was the National Delimitation of 1924-1925. This resulted in the creation of five large territorial-administrative units, precursors of the independent states of today. A programme of radical social transformation was introduced, including the emphases on mass literacy for adults, programmes for women and improving the standards of health care. Collectivisation and the sedentarisation of nomads changed the face of rural life.

Electrification programmes, mass communication and cultural initiatives were introduced. In the private sphere however, there was still a high degree of conservatism. Post-Soviet Society When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a general expectation that the independent Central Asia states, given their high level of modernisation, would be able to make a smooth and rapid transition to liberal democracy and civil society. In fact, they have followed a very different trajectory. The sudden disintegration of the Union was accompanied by both psychological and economic dislocation. In a very real sense, the Central Asians were ‘cheated of their revolution’, not only on the bonding experience of the struggle itself, but also the preparatory period of politicisation, mobilisation and organisation. The immediate response to independence was a strengthening of the most conservative features of society.

There was no transfer of power to new leaders: on the contrary, the ruling elites, far from from being discredited on account of their umbilical links to the Communist regime, gained additional legitimacy as symbols of continuity in a time of flux and uncertainty.

They did indeed maintain stability, though this was very largely at the price of stalled reforms. By contrast, Tajikistan, on one country in which there has been significant signs of emerging pluralism in the last years of the Soviet era, rapidly spiralled out of control, political freedom soon turned to anarchy. A few months after independence, it plunged into a five-year long civil war. Islam During the Soviet era faith traditions were severely persecuted and their infrastructure almost totally destroyed. During World War II a state-controlled Muslim hierarchy was re-established and some of the formal elements of religious observance were permitted to reappear. By the 1970s, the chief manifestations of Islamic practice were the celebrations of religious ceremonies and rites of passage. In the 1980s, Islam began to acquire renewed significance. In the early 1990s mosque congregations grew rapidly. The constitutions of all the Central Asian countries enshrine the principle of the separation of religion and state. Yet throughout the region the incumbent leaders have elevated Islam to a status akin to that of a state ideology.

Consequently, in all the Central Asian states an immediate campaign was set in motion to emphasize the role of Islam as an integral component of national heritage. On a personal level, the heads of state (all former Communist Party members who came to power under Soviet rule) have been at pains to emphasise their own Muslim credentials. Islam stands for many things in Central Asia today.

Despite the growing presence of other faith groups, e.g. various Protestant communities, Islam is still the main religious affiliation. It also represents a culture and an identity. Most recently it has become a vehicle of political protest. Central Asian Studies Ismaili Studies Qur'anic Studies Shi'i Studies South Asian Studies Faculty Fellowships and Scholarships


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Professor Azim Nanji

Professor Azim Nanji serves currently as Special Advisor to the Provost at the Aga Khan University. Most recently he served as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University 2008-2010 and also lectured on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies. He was previously the of Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1998 - 2008. Prior to this, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and has held academic and administrative appointments at various American and Canadian universities.

Professor Nanji has authored, co-authored and edited several books including: The Nizari Ismaili Tradition (1976), The Muslim Almanac (1996), Mapping Islamic Studies (1997) and The Historical Atlas of Islam (with M. Ruthven) (2004) and The Dictionary of Islam (with Razia Nanji), Penguin 2008. In addition, he has contributed numerous shorter studies and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism in journals and collective volumes including The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, and A Companion to Ethics. He was the Associate Editor for the revised Second Edition of The Encyclopaedia of Religion. In 1988 he was Margaret Gest Visiting Professor at Haverford College and a Visiting Professor at Stanford University in 2004, where he was also invited to give the Baccalaureate Address in 1995 (see Baccalaureate Address at Stanford University). He has also lectured widely at international conferences all over the world.

Professor Nanji has served as Co-Chair of the Islam section at the American Academy of Religion and on the Editorial Board of the Academy’s Journal. He has also been a member of the Philanthropy Committee of the Council on Foundations and has been the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In 2004 he gave the Birks Lecture at McGill University.

Within the Aga Khan Development Network, Professor Nanji has served as a Member of the Steering Committee and Master Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Task Force Member for the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) and Vice Chair of the Madrasa-based Early Childhood Education Programme in East-Africa.