Catherine Lytle: Differences are easy to find. Its the similarities that everyone forgets

When considering the difference between East Asian and West Asian Muslim states the preordained notion that the majority of non-Muslims is that a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim. There are 1.6 billion muslims in the world so naturally they must all have the same beliefs about Islam and live the same way. Non-Muslims seem so forget though that there are more than just religious beliefs that mould a person. A person is a reflection of their nation’s history, be it Pakistan or Iran, and while histories may overlap there is more to consider. It is ironic because most people would undisputedly accept that a Chinese Christian is different from an American Christian. So why the double standard?

It is no secret that one of USSR’s main missions was to eradicate any trace of religion and in Afghanistan’s case it was to deIslamicize. USSR mandated their ethos of wanting to transform culture, establish modern schools in the vernacular and improve the position of women without disclosing that the vernacular would in fact be Russian and the cultural transformation would be through a Russian lens. By 1917 many organizations had been “Sovietized” and Adeeb argues that by the mid-1920s there was a whole new political class in Central Asia who’s members had entered public life after the revolution, largely through soviet and Party institutions. Through amazing Soviet reforms that were implemented they rescued people who previously, allegedly, had no means of riding themselves of the horrors of inequality were now able to join the ranks of other comrades on the Soviet path to their version of equality. I am severely dubious of how striping people of their religion, language and cultural practices champions equality. Nevertheless, the effects of Soviet colonization can still be felt today in countries, such as Turkmenistan, and therefore how can we consider Muslims from countries which were attempted to be deIslamized, like Afghanistan, to have the same beliefs as Muslims from country where Islam is at the forefront of everything as it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Cole states that “westerners confuse the social conflict between urban and rural society in [Afghanistan and Pakistan] with mere terrorism and tend to assume that the deployment of military… is synonymous with a war on terror” Cole adds that similarly seeing the two countries as Taliban creates a caricature that gets in the way of practical misunderstanding. Pakistan has struggled for decades to overcome a colonial legacy of low literacy and a lack of industry to become the 6th most populous country in the world with an unceasingly rising population. After overcoming a colonial rule the successive rule will often be split on the direction that they want the rule to turn to.  This is often much more problematic than a firm authoritative regime that has clearly defined ideals and values. I am not advocating for oppression, however, before someone decides to topple a regime they must secure a successive power that will fill the incumbent power vacuum. As this was not considered it first gave the rise to the Taliban in Afghanistan and later ISIS in Iraq.

On the other side we can see that in countries such as Indonesia that Islam can be peacefully spread as it was between the 13th and 16th century during the Mughal empire. Indonesia embraces Pacansila as the philosophical basis for the state. Consisting of five principles: monotheism, just and civilized humanity, unity of Indonesia, democracy by deliberation and representation (democracy is based on the freedom of talking and engaging with each other), and social justice. These principles demonstrate “shift from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocen­tric focus…” while at the same time maintaining “Qur’anic values [into an] inclusive and integrative agendas of political action” This structure is unique to Indonesia and therefore will also influence the people to think in a way that is different to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even though Indonesia does not identify as an ‘Islamic State’ it has not hindered the development of a system of legal thinking. Wedded to this strain of thought is the value of freethinking and borrowing of foreign ideas. The veneration of communication, education and freethinking that lies at the heart of Indonesian society has been able to be upheld because it has not been subject to the scrutinization of Wester foreign policy as Pakistan has, or Soviet oppression as Afghanistan and was not a player during the cold war. Indonesia is more geographically isolated than the middle east and of course the lack of petrodollars is not important enough for the West to be too terribly interested in it. Historically, the Indonesian model that peaceful Islamic conversion is not only possible but also beneficial for trade and that intrinsically undermines the whole argument that a Muslim during this period must be synonymous with the Taliban because we mustn’t forget that a Muslim is a Muslim. Whatever direction Indonesia will continue to develop in it will be so because of pre-existing historical and socio-economical factors that are unique to Indonesia.

We can see that even between West Asian countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan) there are differences in beliefs so how can we presume that a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim?  Central Asia therefore experienced the modern era through Russia and their concept of modernism came through Russian culture while other countries such as Indonesia, retained their cultural practices till today. If non-Muslims are to come to any kind of understanding about Islam and the nuances of Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries we need to eradicate the media’s dogma of Islamization and what it means to call someone a ‘Muslim.’ Education and understanding must be at the forefront of our reform. Only through mutual understanding of social, historical, economical and political factors can we begin to make progress toward reconciliation.



  1. Adeeb, Islam after Communism, 65
  2. ibid 66
  3. ibid 67
  4. Mahallati, class lecture, October 31
  5. Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 157
  6. ibid 158
  7. ibid 160
  8. Mahallati, class lecture, November 7
  9. ibid
  10. Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values,140-141
  11. ibid
  12. ibid 283
  13. Mahallati, class lecture, November 7
  14. Mahallati, class lecture, October 31




Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism, Religion and Politics in Central Asia, Berkeley, Los      Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2007

Cole, Juan Ricardo. Engaging the Muslim World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Carool Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015