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Central Asia: New Arc of Crisis.

WHATEVER ELSE the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union may be, they are not homogeneous nation states. The ethnic and national identities for peoples of the region - split as they are across different state borders of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran (and further across the Middle East, with Turkmen and other peoples also in Iraq and Turkey) - will necessarily continue to play a major role in the republics' future political evolution. The cultural and ethnic background of Central Asian societies is the theme of Muslims in Central Asia, published in the United States like most recent books in English on the region.

The book revolves around the theme of cultural identity. An introduction by the editor, Jo-Ann Gross (an historian at Trenton State College, New Jersey), makes clear the approaches adopted here to the process of identity formation, stressing the belief that comparative research into the Muslim societies of Central Asia as a whole is justified. The geographic sweep is wide, taking in Chinese Xinjiang (or "eastern Turkestan") and Afghanistan as well as ex-Soviet Central Asia. The main emphasis, though, is upon the lands formerly ruled by Russia.

The duality of Central Asian culture goes far back, with Turkic and Iranian heritages, with sedentary and nomadic traditions and, even in our own era, with the Muslim traditional patterns of society vying with modern Russian, Soviet and Western influences. For a perspective on contemporary trends in Central Asia, probably the most illuminating chapter is one on Tajik identities by Muriel Atkin, an historian at George Washington University.

Tajikistan contrasts in some key respects with the Turkic republics, with no standardised language in this society which remains basically traditional, rural and inward-looking. Tajik history is little taught in schools, usually at a low standard, and most Tajiks actually have little interest or knowledge of the history of Tajikistan.

The question of Tajik national identity inevitably raises the issue of the Central Asian component in Persian civilisation, and the relative importance of Persian and Turkish cultural contributions. The role of historian Bobojon Ghafurov, a former first secretary of Tajikistan's Communist party, was crucial in laying down what became the official line. Tajiks assert their kinship to fellow-Persian speakers of other lands by avoiding the subject directly. They treat the cultural achievements of Persians and eastern Iranian peoples, writes Atkin, "as a seamless whole, without divisions according to contemporary definitions of nationalities or states."

Writing on northern Afghanistan, the French specialist Olivier Roy denies there is any political expression of a pan-Turkic national identity. Local alignments there are explained by qawm (family or clan ties), not ethnic affiliations. Roy points to a process of polarisation between Uzbek identity and fundamentalism during the past decade in Afghanistan. "Nowhere have the |Afghan~ Uzbeks been able to create a viable ethnic Uzbek political movement," he goes on to claim.

However, during the past year, since Roy wrote his chapter, the rise to power of the Uzbek General Dostam as a key power-broker and potential arbiter in Kabul between the rival Afghan parties has radically altered the equation. The important city of Mazar i Sharif and a large part of northern Afghanistan are currently under the control of Uzbek-led military forces. For the future, a shared history and strong cultural ties make the border along the Amu Darya (river Oxus) between Afghanistan and the newly-independent Central Asian republics seem wide open to contacts and influences from both sides.

Edward Lazzerini writes eloquently on the jadid (or modernist Muslim) response to pressures for change in this century, while other chapters include a study of the poetry of the eminent Turkmen poet Makhtumquli, and another on the modern Uzbek writer Abdullah Qadiriy and his relationship to the Bolsheviks.

Part of a new series of books on Central Asia to be published from Duke University, Muslims in Central Asia offers much valuable information on the cultural and ethnic identities of peoples of this frontier region which is once again re-establishing contacts with the Middle East and the rest of the outside world.

Important issues about the Central Asian republics are also raised in a new and highly topical booklet by Shirin Akiner, a specialist in Central Asia at London University. The importance of Central Asia's past and future relationship with Russia is given prominence. This relationship is close and extremely complex, with much depending upon the viability of Russia itself. Akiner stresses that "the chief concern for all the Central Asian states is that Moscow will try to regain control of the region."

Besides Russia, there is also China to consider. The author writes that the governments of these newly independent states with small populations, and without effective defence forces of their own, have keen worries about their place in a region which looks unstable and which is surrounded by powerful neighbours.

Quite apart from foreign pressures and dangers, the regional scene presents obvious dangers. The sudden coming of independence has served to sharpen economic and political rivalries between the republics. The treatment of expatriate groups or ethnic minorities in the respective republics is highlighted here. Through the delimitations of the republics under Soviet rule in the 1920s, large ethnic minorities were cut off from the main body of their communities - for example, Uzbeks in Kyrghyzstan, and Tajikistan, Kazakhs and Tajiks in Uzbekistan.

The ideal of regional unity or even confederation of Central Asia survives among intelligentsia circles (especially of Uzbekistan) in the form of "Turkestan". Yet the reality is five rival republics. Even though closer collaboration is vital between the republics, notably on environmental issues, it is proving very difficult to achieve.

Since the mid-1980s, a process began which amounts to an Islamic revival, or a virtual rediscovery of Islam, after decades of Communist repression and persecution. Akiner believes this Islamic factor will count, but that speculation about a Muslim fundamentalist "threat" is grossly exaggerated.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union hurt the republics particularly badly, since they were highly dependent upon trade with Russia and on state subsidies. A serious economic crisis in Central Asia is aggravated by the high birth rate. Massive unemployment exists already, with no realistic hopes for creating enough jobs for the many young people leaving schools each year.

Another potential source of friction comes from the mixed populations, especially in Kazakhstan and all the cities of Central Asia. Immigration of Russians and Ukrainians, and deportations of entire peoples (notably Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars) to Central Asia under Stalin brought new skills to Central Asia, but in current conditions these non-Muslim outsiders are often seen as taking up scarce housing and jobs which should belong by right to natives of Central Asia.

In all these republics, claims the author, "there are element of potential chaos as well as of potential order." Shirin Akiner concludes her study by stating the greatest challenge facing the governments of the five republics of Central Asia is winning the confidence of their own peoples. They need to give them hope for a future which is bound to remain uncertain.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1171
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