Oversimplifying Central Asia

by Asher Kohn on 1/30/2010 · 14 comments

I’ve written before on the absence of a coherent narrative from the United States’ perspective on Central Asia, and I’ve talked about the importance of using words with meaning when we’re doing analysis (others have agreed with me, here). But I haven’t talked as much about the local understanding of a narrative.

The more anthropology-focused folks here will and should rip this to shreds, but I was chatting with another Central Asia nerd and he brought up the idea of a dual-axis frame of identity for individuals. The idea was to have “‘Soviet’ and ‘Islam’ being two universalist poles and ‘Turkic’ and ‘Pagan’ being two particularist poles, not to mention all four being measures of to what extent identification is made with modernity or antiquity.” I’m not nearly as accomplished a Photoshopper as my compatriot Christian is, though. So I went with the old standby, MSPaint, for a mockup (click on the image to get an un-blurry look).
So what is the point here? I think there is plenty to unravel on the individual scale: how does someone view his role in society, and how does that role make him act in a certain way? How do Pan-Turkic or Pan-Islamic movements affect individuals? That sort of thing. I’m really out of my depth talking on the individual scale, though, so I thought about what the axes mean on a state level.

None of the Central Asian countries are too proud of their Muslim heritage, I would venture to say. They certainly don’t brand themselves Islamic, no Jumhuriye Islamiye north of Afghanistan. And not all of them are as Stalinist as Turkmenbashy’ Turkmenistan, but they’re all certainly towards that end of the spectrum.

The Turkic/Pagan axis is a little more interesting, though. I have a dream Ph.D. Dissertation I’m going to write one day on “Enver Pasha in history and memory” or something like that, and I think there’s something to the whole Pan-Turanian ideal that Soviets quashed. Then again, there’s some good reasons why it never caught on. And if you want to get all Hobsbawm, young states otherize those nearby, and that’ll make states look to their “essential” roots, which’ll be more on the Pagan side of things.

So it’s food for thought. It’s overly simplistic, I realize, and that’s why I’m more comfortable using it for the state level than the individual level. The Central Asian Republics try to brand themselves in a certain way, and they each try to identify what about their pasts they want to be represented by. For Uzbekistan that’s Tamerlane, for example. It’s a complicated issue, sure, but I just wanted to supply some food for thought.

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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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shohmurod January 30, 2010 at 8:40 pm

what are you smokin dude?

Schwartz January 31, 2010 at 12:15 pm

@ Shohmurod: he’s not smoking anything; he’s listening to too much schwartztronica. 😉

@ Asher: it’s definitely more appropriate for the state level, and moreover, for the various factions within each state. Cheers!

Cyrus January 31, 2010 at 7:01 pm

A whacked out combo of Afghan Hash, me thinks…

Michael Hancock January 31, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Uh… what about Iranian/Persian influence, historically speaking? No room between Turkic and Pagan, between Muslim and Soviet? The problem with these scales is that they have to ignore so much that really damages the argument to ignore.

Still, the urge to generalize is a natural one, and useful for pedagogy, as students and the uninitiated cannot absorb the whole of Central Asia in one swallow. Nor in 1000.

Cyrus January 31, 2010 at 6:59 pm

My sentiments exactly. The one nation in the modern world that is the most related to the “Stans” of Central Asia virtually never gets mention as a form of influence, past, present or future. I have seen everything from India to China having some kind of connection(no idea what that may be), but never a “Persian” element. Seems almost deliberate, as well as foolish. Pan-Turkism is a dead concept. Pan-Islamism is about the weakest ideological link to come along…ever. It will ultimately go the way communism. What is left? The nations of a region and their close cultural connection. Hell, much of what this author just wrote of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia I could apply to Iran, religion included.

The bottom line is that the “Stans” are all run by former Soviet communists political “bosses” who just carried things over into the modern world, in the form of their own personal fiefdoms called “nations.” Paganism? Go figure…

AJK January 31, 2010 at 8:40 pm

I meant this post to be a form of pedagogy, not a deeply focused examination of the various conceptions of identity in Central Asian states. For as much as we talk about how little people in DC “get” Central Asia, I figure we ought to have some basic statements of “Here’s a way to think about Central Asia that doesn’t involve saying ‘Silk Road’ a bunch of times and mentioning Temujin.”

As for Persian elements, well, they’re pretty obvious with Dari and Tajik, more so with Timurid architecture throughout the region. Persian culture is obviously huge. And if you want to make the argument about a “Greater Iran” throughout Southern Central Asia, I’d listen to it. But it is just about as logical as Pan-Turkic ideology in Northern Central Asia.

So the Turkic – Pagan axis is the idea of common bond among all of the people, versus the idea of an essentialized Turkmen, or Buryat, or Kazakh or what have you. And you hit on the head the idea that many states still see themselves as Soviet. Muslim identity hasn’t been promoted as a way to reach out for commonality.

The idea was basically to see how states (or individuals) see themselves as relative to their neighbors. That’s the idea. To stir up some thought/debate.

So I’m curious: if Pan-Turkism is dead and Pan-Islamism is following it, is there any sort of common ideology besides a Soviet past?

Metin February 1, 2010 at 9:10 am

AJK wrote:
“As for Persian elements, well, they’re pretty obvious with Dari and Tajik, more so with Timurid architecture throughout the region. ”

Stereotypes about “persian culture” is evident here. Someone in different threat argued that Timur’s court was persian speaking, and Navoi wrote mostly in Persian. This is incorrect.
Timur and its court was turkic speaking. Timur’s mentor was Said Baraka, sufi of Turkic origin (Timur’s tomb is located on feet of S. Baraka). Turkic-ness of Timur and his court was mentioned by Babur (he clearly distinguished Turks from those speaking persian and mogol).
Timur’s architecture is unique & famous for extensive use of blue (azure) color in domes. The blue is a sacred color in Turkic mythology and symbolizes heaven. Timur’s flag was also blue with three circles. In fact, it was Timur who possessed Iran and other countries, not vice-versa. It would correct to mention about Timurid’s influence on Iran’s architecture.
The last point – Iran is not about Persians only. What’s famous in West as ‘Persian carpets’ mostly are not persian. Best carpets in Iran are made by Qashqais and other non-persians.

Cyrus February 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

Uhmmm….No. Your post reads like a poster for a “Pan-Turkic” eulogy of some sort. I am not going to waste much time with a response to you, other than to say these terms like “Turkic” and “Iranian” in the modern sense were not really used or understood back then. People have been “mixing” so long in Central Asia(and Iran) that where someone “Iranian” ends and someone “Turk” begins really does not exist, especially in the cultural sense.

As as far as architecture in CA, well, that is 100% Persian in places like Samarkand. That is not even open to debate, and this is coming from someone you would define as “Turk.”

Cyrus January 31, 2010 at 10:56 pm

1) I see what you are saying now.

2) I am not pushing for a greater Iran. Don’t even have a reason to. I am not “Persian”. I don’t give much weight to those kind of ideas anyways. It is the way of the past. Iran shares a close culture and history with the Central Asian states, at least prior to the coming of the Russian Empire especially. The remnants are still there, even if under the surface. Just as Istanbul is the gateway to/from Europe to the East/West…Well, who knows. Tehran or Mashad could become the economic hub for for business in the “Stans” someday, as opposed to Moscow. Possible? yes. Likely soon? No. I would not discount Tehran’s future influence in the region, though.

3) Pan-Turkism died simply because the one real Turkic power, Turkey, is neither directly connected to the region by physical means, and really only shares a common linguistic connection and little more. A great model for those Central Asian nations, but little more. Islamism…Well, Saudi money is wonderful, but how long will this last. Never before have I ever encountered a fundamental ideology crafted in a manor that is assured to offend 90% of the people who encounter it. Other than a very loose religious connection the Central Asian states, what commonality is shared with the Arab world? Zero, nada, nothing. Islamism, and least in the 9/11 kind of flavor, has already “shot it’s wad” as they say. It is still around, and will be for some time. Another form of Islamism may replace it someday. Probably not originating in the Arab World, but in the east somewhere. As far as I can see, that movement has already peeked.

4) Yah, they are mini-Soviet states form my vantage point, just minus any real influence beyond their “Utopian” borders. Also explains their lack of any real cooperation with one another.

4) The future of the Stans? Well, sadly it will be at the hands of outsiders. In their current form, I highly doubt will see any kind of “Turkestan Union” that pools the resources of the region, and limits foreign exploitation. U.S influence in the area is waning sharply, but will return. Russia is ever present for many reasons, and never really “left” it’s old territories. It is not going away. China is the massive behemoth right next door, hungry for resources. Iran may just turn East, once it is done securing itself as a global player through the control of petroleum resources in the gulf. The possibility of the five “stans” foruming some kind of EU type union? Maybe in the future, with a change of regime in Uzbekistan. Even them, there is no real incentive to do so. It would take a foreign force to push an organization into existence, which defeats the purpose. Who knows how that may take shape.

Grant February 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

It’s hard not to generalize. Western writers are trying to write articles less than 1000 words on a region that they barely paid attention to before now, has a VERY long and complex history that makes Central Europe look simple, and they have to convince readers that this is important when those readers prefer simple problems. Also I would estimate that less than 10% of the people writing grand books and monographs on this really have made a study of it.

wyatt February 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Ok teach me something.

I get why Islam and Soviet were used as opposite ends of the specturm.

I don’t get why Pagan and Turkic were used. I would have thought it would be Turkic/Persian or something like that. Please enlighten me.

AJK February 2, 2010 at 11:44 pm

OK, OK, I’m going to write “Never post half-finished thoughts on the internet” 50 times on the blackboard when I come in early tomorrow morning.

The graph is more about how a state (or an individual) sees itself in relation to other states (or individuals). The Turkic – Pagan axis displays whether a state views itself predominantly as part of the Turkic world and thus similar to its neighbors, or as a particular outspringing of its own, essentialized, pagan past. I guess it could be stated as “Are the fellow -stans brothers or cousins?”

Doing it over again, I would’ve made the X-axis the “geographic” axis and the Y-axis the “historiographical” axis.

wyatt February 3, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Cool. That comes across as an important insight into the region.

I had never really thought of it that way. Now that you mention it, I can totally see it in, for example, the official ideology of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

There is nothing “turkic” about the Ruhnama, but it does put Turkmen at the center of world history.

Ok next question. Which states have a more turkic indentity? I am struggling with that one. Maybe it is something that you only see amongst individuals?


AJK February 4, 2010 at 11:46 pm

…This is a bit over my personal knowledge, and I hope someone with more of an ANTH/SOCY background helps you out here. I have some ideas, but nothing that I would put for everlasting times on the internet to get made fun of for later.

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