From Marx to Muhammad


A kind of cultural myopia often afflicts human beings, causing them to perceive anything foreign as monolithic and making it difficult to distinguish the individual parts that comprise the whole. This has certainly long been true of the Western world's perception of the Soviet Union, to the point where the terms "Russian" and "Soviet" came to appear interchangeable. With the demise of the Soviet Union as a political entity, this is no longer possible. But in their quest for political and economic sovereignty, the Soviet republics face a daunting series of hurdles. In particular, the members of the erstwhile Soviet Union must establish themselves as culturally distinct from the former whole.

For decades, Soviet ideologies sought to foster a supranational consciousness transcending ethnic and linguistic boundaries. National differences were to become insignificant, and the multitudinous groups of the Soviet Union were to rally around Marxism-Leninism, drawing together until the world would witness the birth of an entity that was neither Russian nor Estonian nor Uzbek: homo Sovieticus.

This grand design failed conclusively, and the former Soviet nations are now asserting their separateness overtly. Yet decades of Sovietization and Russification, religious repression, and the penetration of Marxist-Leninist dogma into virtually every sphere of life have taken a toll, and the process of cultural rediscovery has been slow and painful, sometimes even eclipsing political and economic reforms. Such as the case in the Republic of Uzbekistan.


Located in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is an ethnic and linguistic pastiche. Roughly two-thirds of the republic's inhabitants are ethnic Uzbeks, with ethnic Russians forming the next largest group. Scores of other nationalities live in Uzbekistan, including members of other Central Asian nationalities and many peoples that Stalin deported there for alleged collaboration with Axis forces in the 1930s and '40s - Crimean Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Meskhetian Turks, Koreans.

Today, the region is in crisis, plagued by rising unemployment, political corruption, and a string of environmental catastrophes of which the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea is only the most spectacular example. It also faces an exodus of Russians, Tatars, and other non-Uzbeks, recurrent outbreaks of interethnic strife, and comparatively sluggish political and economic reform. And while several national movements have appeared in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia, they differ markedly from their counterparts in other former Soviet republics or Eastern Europe. According to Radio Liberty's Bess Brown, they seem to offer little immediate challenge to the existing political order.

This state of affairs is unlikely to last much longer. The collapse of communism throughout the Soviet Union has engendered a deep crisis among the Soviet people. In many cases, nationalism is rushing in to fill an ideological void, and this is certainly true in Central Asia. As nationalist sentiment supplants Marxism-Leninism in the hearts and minds of the Central Asian peoples, it likewise erodes the ideological base from which the conservative leadership derives its legitimacy.

For the time being, though, political challenges have been few, a fact that may help explain why this fledgling national ideology in Central Asia manifests itself most prominently in a renewed interest in the past. Central Asians in general value links with their past very highly, both with their ancestors and to the perceived grandeur of another era. Traditionally, notes literary scholar Joseph Mozur, Central Asians have seen themselves as part of a continuous line of ancestors reaching into ancient times.

The Uzbeks are no exception. Many of my Uzbek acquaintances in Tashkent, the republic's capital, eagerly seized any opportunity to expound on perceived bygone glories, telling of Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane), whose empire stretched from India to Turkey; the fifteenth-century poet Alisher Nawai, the father of Uzbek literature; and the medieval philosopher Berunii, who, I was told, predicted such historical events as the European discovery of America and the invention of television. That many of these great figures were not Uzbeks hardly seems to matter; they represent a golden past of which the Uzbeks feel themselves to be the natural heirs, from which they now feel estranged.

In this 1983 novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, the Kirghiz writer and activist Chingiz Aitmatove recounts the legend of the Zhuanzhuan, a fierce nomadic tribe that reduced its captives to mindless slaves (mankurts) by placing caps made of the wet skin of camel udders on their victims' heads. The caps constricted and hardened in the fierce sun of the steppe, causing the wearers such great agony that they went completely insane, ultimately losing their memories, forgetting their own names, and, worst of all, the names of their clans and ancestors. This, according to Aitmatov, is the most despicable act of barbarism imaginable, the most shocking violation of a person's identity.

The mankurt has particular applicability to modern-day Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks feel that off from their past, and they see the Russians as identical to the barbarians Aitmatov describes. Alluding to the novel, an Uzbek acquaintance of mine said, "If you take away a person's sense of who he is, he will do anything you ask of him. This is what has happened to us."

Language a major source of anti-Russian resentment. In 1928 the Soviets replaced the Arabic alphabet, in use in Central Asia for over a thousand years, with a Latin-based one, only to replace that 12 years later with one based on Russian Cyrillic. Combined with a 1925 ban on the import of materials printed in the Arabic alphabet, this has served to cut the Uzbeks off from any documents written prior to Soviet rule. "The Russians have taken everything away from us," an Uzbek friend told me. "Even our history, our literature. We can't read anything that was written before the Revolution. All we know is what they tell us."

One way to reestablish the links with their past, many Uzbeks feel, is to return to the Arabic alphabet. Calls for the teaching of the Arabic alphabet and the Chaghatay language, the predecessor of modern Uzbek, in secondary schools and universities began appearing in many periodicals in the late 1980s, and interest in the Arabic alphabet has since grown rapidly. Several textbooks for studying the Arabic alphabet have appeared, and posters and children's books explaining it sold rapidly in Tashkent newspaper stands in 1989 and 1990. During a series of rallies in 1989, members of the nationalist group Birlik (Unity) carried placards bearing slogans in the Arabic alphabet, and banners with Arabic lettering hung from windows at Tashkent State University during the 1990 New Year celebrations.

This admiration of the Arabic alphabet is by no means universal. There are those among the Uzbek intelligentsia who see the Arabic script as no less imperialistic than the Cyrillic. The poet Muhammad Solih, who is secretary of the Uzbek Writers Union, has denounced those who endorse the Arabic alphabet as the natural Uzbek alphabet. He points out that the eighth-century Arab invaders, seeking to demolish the Turkic peoples' sense of identity, destroyed the ancient Turkic archives. The Arabic alphabet, Solih argues, is every bit as foreign as the Cyrillic. Rather, schools should begin teaching the Turkic runic alphabet of the sixth and seventh centuries, the "true" Turkic script.

A possible alternative is the Latin alphabet, which was used in Uzbekistan from 1928 to 1940 and is very similar to the alphabet used today in Turkey. If adopted, this alphabet could strengthen Uzbekistan's cultural ties with Turkey.


The alphabet debate is symptomatic of a deep identity crisis afflicting Uzbeks. At the heart of this crisis is a single question: what is the "true" Uzbek heritage? What exactly is ozbeklik, or Uzbekness? There is no one answer but rather a continuum of possibilities, with the extremes represented by the sides in the alphabet debate: those who see Islam as the true basis of ozbeklik and those who see the roots of Uzbek culture in its pre-Islamic Turkic heritage.

For a number of reasons, the pre-Islamic heritage is unlikely to form the basis of a unifying national consciousness. The so-called Uzbek nation is far from homogeneous. Uzbeks inhabit an area that has been repeatedly invaded and conquered. The new arrivals to the region intermingled with the previous inhabitants to such an extent that ethnic lines became blurred or vanished entirely. According to the noted historian and Turcologist Alexandre Bennigsen, for centuries prior to the Soviet takeover in the 1920s, Central Asians were wont to define themselves not as nations but by lifestyle (sedentary vs. nomadic), religion (Muslim vs. pagan), or affiliation with a clan, city, or tribe. A sedentary Muslim Uzbek merchant from the city of Bukhara saw himself as quite different from a nomadic, possible pagan, Uzbek cattleherder of the Fergana Valley.

The creation of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924 changed all this as many diverse groups suddenly became part of a larger Uzbek nation. But the creation of distinct Central Asian nationalities has long been controversial. Soviets argued that the national delimitation of Central Asia concluded a process that had begun long before the Bolshevik Revolution, and there is an element of truth to this. Nevertheless, the new Uzbek nation included a wide variety of peoples. Moreover, over the last 70 years, many smaller ethnic groups, including Turks, Persians, and Arabs, have become assimilated with the Uzbeks.

Thus, the term Uzbek refers to a group of people with marked variety in speech, dress, and customs. The Uzbek language boasts a plethora of dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. "We're not like your Tashkent Uzbeks," an acquaintance of mine from the Western region of Khorezm once laughingly told me. "We're more honest, more easygoing. And when we speak, they can't understand us." This sense of regionalism remains very much alive. Relations between groups can be tense, and fights between groups of students from different areas of the republic are not uncommon at Tashkent State University.

Islam, on the other hand, provides something much more tangible to cling to, a way to overcome the Uzbek nation's lack of cultural and historical denominators. Yet here, too, problems exist. Decades of antireligious and Marxist-Leninist propaganda have drawn the Uzbeks away from Islam, so most are Muslim in name only. Some elements of Islamic culture remain - the subordinate position of women, dietary proscriptions, ritual circumcision - but the more spiritual aspects have faded. Alcohol, forbidden by the Koran, is abused as widely in Uzbekistan as elsewhere in the Soviet Union. And few Uzbeks observe the holy Muslim fast of Ramadan, angering many foreign Muslims studying at local universities.

Yet if the Uzbeks' grasp of Islam is shaky, they are learning fast. At the Miri Arab medresseh, or Muslim seminary, in Bukhara, approximately 200 students enrolled in 1990, up from 80 the year before. Likewise, writes Peter Gumbel in the Wall Street Journal, the Tukhta Boyvatcha mosque in the heart of Tashkent's Old Town, wa sunused only two years ago; today, it is filled to overflowing for Friday prayer. A new generation of the faithful is emerging that did not experience decades of antireligious propaganda.

Still, this new interest in Islam is much more a manifestation of a nationalistic revival than a purely religious one. Uzbeks are returning to Islam because they see it as integral to their national identity. A young Uzbek acquaintance of mine admitted that while he did not believe in Allah, he enjoyed the rituals of Islam. Performing these gave him a sense of belonging, providing a link with his people's past.


As fulfilling as the emerging new national identity may be for many Uzbeks, the cultural renaissance is not all positive, coming with increasing chauvinism, xenophobia, and, on more than one occasion, interethnic violence. "Our young people are ready to fight - all we need now is a leader," a young Uzbek told me. Although he was referring to fighting the Russians, Uzbeks seem willing to fight any perceived threat to their rights as a nation. This applies to other Turkic peoples as well, as clashes with Meskhetian Turks in 1989 and with Kirghiz in 1990 demonstrate. Nor are some Uzbeks safe, particularly those who were educated in Russian-language schools and speak Uzbek poorly. Many of the more traditional Uzbeks seem to hate these "Russified Uzbeks" more deeply than they do the Russians themselves.

The political effects of the Uzbek cultural renaissance are more difficult to assess. The republic's government still rests in the hands of conservative Communist Party members, and corruption and nepotism are as rife as ever, with regional party leaders running their local fiefdoms like mafia godfathers. No viable contenders for power have emerged, and many young Uzbeks, while seeking greater cultural freedom, seem willing to accept an authoritarian regime. In fact, many university students praised the "order" and alleged economic well-being under Stalin while blaming Gorbachev for the chaos and crises of today. While the demands of such nationalist groups as Birlik have political overtones - establishing Uzbek as the official language, for example - calls to change the fundamental political structure of the republic have been few.

Nonetheless, as the cultural reawakening gathers steam, it can't help but alter the political shape of the republic, and cultural movements are taking an increasingly political tone. One example is the creation in June 1990 of the Islamic Renaissance Party, which seeks to achieve greater religious freedom for Muslims throughout the former Soviet Union. Headed by Akhmad-Kazi Akhtaev, an ethnic Avar from the northern Caucasus, the party established a branch in Tashkent in 1991. It has drawn considerable support from the Uzbek intelligentsia; a founder of the Tashkent chapter was Abdurahhim Pulatov, founder of Birlik.

Despite the apparently moderate nature of the Islamic Renaissance Party and its avowed dedication to human rights and the rights of the various nationalities to cultural and political self-determination, it has been outlawed in both Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan, the sources of the party's strongest support in Central Asia. This may turn out to be counter-productive to the governments of the republics in the long run. Central Asians, having struggled for years to win more cultural freedom, are unlikely to look kindly on new restrictions. The Uzbeks may be willing to tolerate the existing political structure for awhile, but should conflicting interests emerge between the political bosses and the nationalists, tolerance could be short-lived.

For years, many Uzbeks sincerely desired independence, at the same time believing the republic was by no means prepared for full independence. As irksome as they may have found their subordination to Moscow, the Soviet Union did provide them with considerable economic, military, and political protection. Now the Uzbeks, like the other former Soviet peoples, must prepare themselves for independence, whether they feel ready for it or not.

In this process, cultural reform is at least as important as political or economic reform. If Uzbekistan is to survive as a unified political entity, its people must have a sense of belonging to a common culture. Otherwise, the centrifugal forces resulting from regional differences may pull the country apart.

At the same time, growing Uzbek chauvinism could hamper efforts to establish close ties with the other Turkic republics of Central Asia, and could lead to further bloodshed, perhaps plunging the entire region into chaos. It is hardly surprising that the Uzbeks look back longingly to a glorious past. Both the present and the future are uncertain and perilous.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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