In the widening stream of books and essays on post-Soviet Central Asia, this is the closest thing to a primer. After a brief summary of the region's ancient heritage and fate in two revolutions -- 1917 and 1991 -- Rashid proceeds country by country, setting out basic ethnic, political, and economic characteristics, describing the political forces in play, and relating all this to the scars and effects of the Soviet past.
Rashid is a Pakistani journalist, a contributor to the Far Eastern Economic Review, and, thanks to his many trips into the region, a sympathetic observer with a good eye for the color and texture of these societies. It also may help that he comes from a Muslim environment and senses the subtler dimensions of Islam's progress in the area. He certainly knows what Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan are up to in the region and reports on this very well.
As for the large question in the title of the book "Islam or Nationalism?" the author waffles. For a host of reasons he doubts that primitive and passionate nationalism can seize these states. For a separate set of equally formidable reasons he also believes Islamic fundamentalism will not easily prevail. Yet at the same time he stresses the vast gap between political elites and the masses, the enormous economic challenge ahead, and the uncertain impulses of a large younger generation about to enter the political arena. His only rejoinder to the unpredictability he freely acknowledges is a somewhat quixotic faith in "the deep wells of knowledge and experience that these ancient peoples have to draw on."