Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oversimplifying Central Asia

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.
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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