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University of Toronto

Bucerius Ph.D. Fellow

Afterlives of Soviet Secularism: Islamic Revival and Skepticism in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan



In the 1920s, the Soviet state began forcefully secularizing Muslim-majority Central Asia. By the beginning of WWII, the state had destroyed almost all Islamic institutions in the region, marginalizing Islamic discourses and key ritual obligations—including namaz, or Islamic ritual prayer—among lay Muslims. Nevertheless, most Central Asians continued to believe in God and identify as Muslim, and despite being alienated from the major pietistic aspects of Islam, remained committed to Islamic life-cycle rites such as male circumcision, the marriage ceremony, and funerary prayer. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, multiple Islamic piety movements became increasingly active in Central Asia, entreating lay Muslims to learn the basics of Islamic theology and to become Islamically observant. Based on two years of ethnographic research in Kyrgyzstan, this project examines the conceptual legacy of Soviet forced secularization against the backdrop of the ongoing Islamic revival. More specifically, it engages with non-observant Muslims of the last Soviet generation, focusing particularly on the ways in which Soviet secular concepts constitute how they understand Islam and relate to the changing religious landscape of their country.


Usmon is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. His research centers on the entanglement of Islam and secular modernity in Soviet and post-Soviet Eurasia. His current book project, entitled “In the Shadow of Tradition: Soviet Secularism and Islamic Revival in Kyrgyzstan,” illuminates the rise of secularism in Soviet Central Asia and explores how Soviet secular categories continue to inform the lives of Central Asian Muslims. Usmon received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 2022.



Boron, Usmon. 2024. “‘And I Believe in Signs’: Soviet Secularity and Islamic Tradition in Kyrgyzstan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1–27, doi:10.1017/S0010417523000488

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