Is there an Islamic Public Administration Legacy in Central Asia? An Ethnographic Study of Mahalla Institutions in Uzbekistan

ACGIS Guest Lecture with Rustam Urinboyev

Tuesday, October 17, 2023 1:30 PM EDT
Horizon Hall, 5th Floor Conference Room #5225

Is there an Islamic Public Administration Legacy in Central Asia? An Ethnographic Study of Mahalla Institutions in Uzbekistan

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan, like other post-Soviet states, were faced with the complex task of rebuilding its nation-state. After independence in 1992 and coming on the heels of the global (Western) good governance and democratization discourse, Uzbekistan adopted a Western-style constitution and proclaimed its strong commitment to ideals of market economy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. At the same time, Uzbekistan made it clear that its public administration (PA) system, whilst adhering to Western notions of PA (Western PA), would also deploy Uzbekistan’s ancient traditions, rich Islamic heritage and centuries-old administrative traditions as a nation-building project.

The analysis of Uzbekistan’s development trajectories since 1991 shows that the country has made little progress in promoting the rule of law and good governance and that formal institutions merely have attained a showcase quality. One commonly raised argument in these debates is that the public administration system of Uzbekistan, in spite of having incorporated many features of Western PA, still continues to be influenced by its Soviet legacy. However, one highly important variable that has been overlooked in these debates is the legacy and context of Islamic Public Administration. This oversight is somewhat surprising given the fact that Uzbekistan has a Muslim majority and was the ‘heartland‘ of three Sharia law-based independent states (Khiva and Kokand Khanates and the Emirate of Bukhara) until the late nineteenth century. Thus, Islam’s role as a public management system is neither well researched nor understood in the prevailing research on Uzbekistan and Central Asian studies, generally ignoring it in favour of macro-level topics and state-centred approaches.

In this talk, I argue that the more the focus moves from state-centred understandings of public administration to ethnographic analyses of everyday life and micro-level social processes, the more it becomes discernible that Islamic administrative traditions are a salient feature of socio-political processes in Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, what we might think of as “Islamic Public Administration” can be found in everyday social interactions, informal norms, moral values, traditions, reciprocal exchanges and people’s ‘getting things done strategies.

In illustrating these processes, I will focus on mahalla institutions (neighbourhood/community-based institutions) in Uzbekistan. I argue that the mahalla system, which is anchored on Islamic principles, has now become an institutionalized feature of Uzbekistan’s public administration (through legislative codification and executive incorporation) and now operates partly on behalf of the state and partly community-driven as a local-level provider of social welfare and increasingly, as the [state] mechanism of social control. Also, this paper aims to illuminate the processes and dynamics of the mahalla system and how it has evolved to respond to the changing political regime in the post-Soviet period, acting as a pseudo-local- government entity, given the failure of the existing regime to provide much-needed development in rural Uzbekistan. In other words, this article utilizes the case of mahalla to better understand the legacy of Islamic PA in everyday life and governance trajectories in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. 

Rustam Urinboyev is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology of Law. He is an interdisciplinary socio-legal scholar studying migration, corruption, governance and penal institutions in the context of Russia, Central Asia and Turkey. His research interests and publications cover diverse fields and topics, such as corruption and informality, socio-legal approaches to migration, religious and ethnic identities in Russian prisons, Islamic public administration, law and society in Central Asia, migration and shadow economy, and Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. He is the author of the book Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes: Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia (2020), published by the University of California Press 

Add this event to your calendar