Tag Archives: central asia

The Turkic nomads of the Central Asian steppe had a complex relationship with thriving settled civilizations.

Symbiosis: Everyday Life in Central Asia

A succinct distinction between nomadic culture and settled civilization in Central Asia prior to the Russian conquest does not seem to exist, as evidenced by both Scott Levi and Adrienne Edgar in both “Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History,” and “Everyday Life Among the Turkmen Nomads.” In the beginning Levi acknowledges that the modern conception of “Central Asia” is defined by the five ex-Soviet nation states (Levi 15), but then he delves into the ultra-complex political and social history of the region—aptly described as “waves”—in which first the Persians (then Muslims, Chinese, Mongols, and even a fusion of all of the above) dominated the region. Levi stresses that pastoral nomads and settled farming peoples existed in a symbiotic state, perpetually in flux due to perhaps population pressures, climate change, disease, and displacement (Levi 16). Hence the distinction, or more accurately, the differences between pastoral nomads are probably cultural perceptions and not definite constructs.

For example, Edgar (with more descriptive imagery) delineates between how Europeans perceived nomads as “exotic” and “dangerous” (Edgar 38), whereas nomads—specifically Turkmen—are proud of their nomadic heritage, descending from the Oghuz tribes (Levi 23), and even look down upon sedentary farming peoples  (Edgar 39). In fact, “kinship and genealogy are not just sources of pride to the Turkmen; they are also vital sources of economic and political solidarity” (Edgar 40). After the Russian conquest, ethnic differences are easier to define, but that is not necessarily a positive result. According to Edgar, pastoral nomads in Turkmenistan were forced to settle; this often resulted in starvation (Edgar 43). However, as far as the division between pastoral nomads and sedentary civilization is concerned, two words come to mind that can be interchanged for each: trade and raid.

Russian imperialism shaped Central Asian Islam in profound ways.

18th Century Colonial Russia and Islamic Feuds: Jadids v. Ulama

Muslims—specifically jadids and ulama—reacted to indirect imperial rule in different ways. The ulama first rejected Russian rule in the late 19th century, then they filled the power vacuum left by Russia’s policy of “ignoring Islam,” thereby functioning as agents of imperial power (Khalid 38-40). Simultaneously, a younger generation of Muslims–jadids–suffered from an existential religious crisis and subsequently denounced “traditional” Islam (41). While the reaction of the ulama seems predictable, the plight of the jadids seems much more fascinating. One sentence in Khalid’s analysis offered clues to the foundational philosophy of the reformists: “Enlightenment and education would solve all the problems of the community” (41).

Enlightenment. This refrain sounds familiar. Khalid refers to the “Europhilia” of the jadids, but I kept wondering if this reformist platform is a direct reaction to Russian imperial authority and its relation to the ulama. The Russian empire arguably suffered from Europhilia, and it seems possible that these Enlightened ideas infiltrated Central Asia’s Islamic society. Khalid noted that reformist Islam was a hallmark of modernist thinking in the 19th century (44), but I wonder if this broader redefinition of Islam correlates with colonialism around the globe.

Fitrat gives a satire-laden critique of the conservative ulama as he reconstructs a Socratic dialogue between a “European” and a “teacher.” To Fitrat, the teacher signifies the ulama, and the European symbolizes the endeavors of the jadids (244-245). Conversely, Cholpan extols the virtues of modernization through the teacher—a Russian teacher—who educates a young Turk “according to the needs of the times” (264-265). In each case, the “European” bestows knowledge.


For Prophet and Tsar: Russia’s Civilizing Mission in Central Asia

According to Crews, the “disastrous” conclusions of the Crimean War and the Polish rebellion increased Russia’s European inferiority complex (Crews 245). As a result, the empire expanded its territory, effectively encroaching on its geopolitical foes: Britain and China (245).  That’s the ostensibly “real” reason for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and I can stomach that notion a bit easier than any “civilizing mission.” Russia was in Central Asia for Russia. Period.

For one thing, I have never bought the legitimacy of a civilizing mission. Largely influenced by studying the British exercise of similar devices, I understand that these “missions” have ulterior motives. In this instance, Russians used Islamic intermediaries to institute orthodox, shari’a-based imperial law under the guise of eradicating irreligious activity (251-253).

Ironically, while trying to “civilize” Turkestan’s religious structure by introducing an electoral system, polarization between Muslims intensified (259). Additionally, imperial officials manipulated the legality of waqfs to justify acquiring land from their political opponents (270). Tsarist officials claimed that natives were backward in some way, but usually to preserve their own interests—i.e. when Abramov dismantled a committee of Islamic scholars because “given the current, relatively low mental condition of the Muslim population…its members would not be in a position to relate to those being examined impartially and would act in their own personal interests” (266).

In reality, the Russian empire seemingly adhered to its policy of “ignoring Islam.” Expanding under the notion of a “civilizing mission” was purely a façade for the British, the rest of Europe and Turkmen. According to Dostoevsky in “Geok-Tepe. What does Asia Mean to Us,” “This shame that Europe will consider us Asians has been hanging over us for almost two centuries now. But the shame has become particularly strong in us during the present nineteenth century and has almost reached the point of panic” (Dostoevsky 1369). Likewise, Gorchakov compared (and justified) Russia’s Asian “mission” with other European colonial campaigns: the United States in America, the French in Algeria, and English in India (Cracraft 410-411).

If “civilizing” includes impaling infants with lances then throwing them into a fire—as Bayani recounts—the imperial military civilized Yomuts quite well, especially women and children (Islamic 305). Hence a “civilizing mission” is a euphemism for the imperial control of native populations.