Central Asia: Shatter Zone

It has been a long time since the world was preoccupied with “the Turks,” but we may be hearing from them again soon.

Forty years ago, when most of northern Central Asia was strapped into a Soviet straitjacket, most of eastern Central Asia was isolated behind Mao’s Bamboo Curtain, most of southern Central Asia had been absorbed into India and Pakistan, and Afghanistan was a forgotten mountain fastness, a zone unto itself, William O. Douglas, the Supreme Court justice and intrepid traveler, pointed out an abiding truth in his book Beyond the High Himalayas (1952): all these parts of Central Asia, no matter in what jurisdiction they may happen to lie, “are one world.”

It is, in fact, primarily a Turkic world, one that with recent political dislocations throughout Eurasia is beginning to re-emerge. If a fluent Turkish-speaker were to set out overland from European Turkey, with several exceptions he could communicate with everyone he met along the way from the Balkans to a point a thousand miles inside China, where the Turkic Uighurs still use the Arabic script, as in the days of the Ottoman Empire. That is because Turkish is part of a subfamily of closely related languages called Turkic, whose reach extends to the northern parts of Iran and Afghanistan, all the former Muslim Soviet republics save Tajikistan (where Persian is dominant), and China’s Xinjiang Province. Sir Auriel Stein and other great Central Asian travelers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used Turkic languages everywhere, at a time when the whole region was known simply as “Turkistan,” a word that is quickly coming back into vogue. “There is one cultural world based on the Turkic languages,” says Almaz Estekov, a Kazakh and a former Soviet dissident. “Turkey, having achieved modern nationhood, is the head of this world. The Crimean Tatars and the Azeris are the neck and shoulders. The Kazakhs are the heart. The Uzbeks and Turkomens, with their nomadic traditions, are the legs. Though the body is torn apart, the old roots and languages are still there.” Estekov and others explain how the creation of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and the “autonomous regions” of the Karakalpaks and the Crimean Tartars was just the Stalinist method of divide-and-rule, whereby “nationalities” were ordained out of tribal and linguistic subgroups of the same Turkic people, most of whom once shared a common literary language.

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The Turkic people reach far back in antiquity. The Great Wall of China, begun in the third century B.C., may have been built to keep these tribesmen at bay. But the word “Turk” first makes its appearance in the sixth century A.D., in the Chinese form Tu-Kiu, to denote a nomadic group that founded an empire stretching from Mongolia to the Black Sea, and spoke an agglutinative tongue that, like Mongolian, Hungarian, and Finnish, comes under the heading of Ural-Altaic. The succeeding centuries are a drum roll of Turkic migrations on the Central Asian steppe which involve such dimly known horsemen as the Uighurs, the Oghuz, and the Khazars. Empires briefly coalesced, leaving little residue as they compounded with yet another onslaught. Turkic groups like the Pechenegs, the Kipchaks, and the Seljuks, along with the Huns and the Mongols (peoples distantly related to the Turks), are slightly better known because of the fact that they penetrated Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The conquests of Genghis Khan, in the thirteenth century, had only a limited effect on the Turkic people, since most of the original Mongols went home; the remainder interbred with the local population. It was the Russians who first lumped together the Mongols and their Turkic subjects under the name “Tatar.”

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Europe was still emerging. Ottoman Turkey and China were the most important states in the world, with Central Asia the link between them. A string of Islamic centers, fusing Turkic and Persian cultures, constituted a strategic caravan network. But the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama had discovered the sea route to India in 1498. History soon bypassed Central Asia, leaving the bulk of it to the mercies of czarist Russian and, later, Soviet imperialism. Stalin exterminated the Muslim intelligentsia and deliberately moved whole populations around, bedeviling each republic with illogical borders and huge minorities in a region where, owing to a lack of natural frontiers, imperial boundaries had always been volatile and arbitrary. In the Middle East, Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Yemen are easily identifiable as age-old civilization clusters around which regions could be organized. Central Asia has only a loose string of cities and towns—Bukhara, Samarkand, Ghazni, and so on—supported by adjacent agricultural areas. Robert L. Canfield, a professor of anthropology at Washington University, in St. Louis, has noted that even these primordial city-states embody “composite” identities—for example, Persian language, Turkic race, and Muslim religion—that don’t easily separate out into a modern form of ethnicity or nationality.

During a recent interview Jon Anderson, an anthropologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., traced overlapping circles on a map that depicted an area stretching from eastern Turkey to western China. He defined Central Asia as “a vast shatter zone of peoples and cultures,” an unorganized world where “national identities are multiple and polycentric.” He spoke of it as “the greatest thought experiment in international politics.” Whereas in Eastern Europe “history” has in some sense resumed after a half century of dormancy, in Central Asia it is resuming after a half millennium.

The pivotal question for Central Asia is this: How might the sudden reappearance of the Turkic peoples as political forces affect Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China?

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American journalists and academics have tended to see the collapse of Soviet communism from a Eurocentric viewpoint, comparing it to the French Revolution and the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Yet the events in the former USSR bear a much closer resemblance to the gradual collapse of Ottoman Turkey, when the reformer Enver Pasha—attempting to preserve the empire by liberalizing it—succeeded only in hastening its demise. Various parts of the Ottoman Empire declared their independence, and the heartland of Anatolia became a modern, almost wholly Turkish state. It is from this Turkic-Asian perspective that Russia’s past and future are, in terms of historical process, clearly glimpsed. In his book For Lust of Knowing, Archie Roosevelt, a former Near East operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, writes

Much of Russian history concerns the struggle between the Slavs and the Turkic peoples on their borders, which dates back to the foundation of the Russian state more than a thousand years ago. In the Slavs’ millennium-long confrontation with their eastern neighbors lies the key to an understanding not only of Russian history, but Russian character. To understand Russian realities today one has to have a concept of the great Turkic ethnic group that has preoccupied Russians throughout the centuries.

Roosevelt notes that Genghis Khan’s successors subjugated Russia for a century and a half, shielding it from the Renaissance and other developments in Europe. The Tatars were, by and large, responsible for Orientalizing Russia. And ever since the days of Ivan the Terrible, in the sixteenth century, the Russians, burdened whit an inferiority complex and a need for revenge, have been on the offensive against the Turkic peoples. Stalin’s assault on the Turkic unity and his forcing of the Cyrillic alphabet on his Turkic subjects, in order both to Slavicize them and to cut them off from fellow ethnics in neighboring countries, are manifestations of this legacy.

Will economic and other practical considerations move the leaders of the various Turkic states that have been formed out of the southern tier of the former Soviet Union to participate, despite the weight of history, in a new Slavic-dominated commonwealth? For the moment it seems so. But scholars emphasize that the agreements leading to the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States inside the former Soviet Union have been, and are being, made by power networks in the various Turkic capitals which came into being during Communist rule or in its immediate aftermath. A societal sea change is under way in these former Soviet republics which is sure to result in a new politics. In the long run, the direction taken by Turkic society will be more important than today’s political deals. And that direction will largely be determined by the future role of Islam in Central Asia.

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Although the Mediterranean Sea and the mountainous Balkan peninsula act as a territorial buffer between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East, the religious revival in both the Slavic and Turkic halves of the former Soviet Union has brought Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam face to face on a long land border. Experts observe that whereas Central Asians themselves may be confused about whether they should be defined broadly as Turkic or more narrowly as, for example, Uzbek, or both, they are not confused about their religion. Islam is the one unifying factor throughout Central Asia, bridging ethnic and class differences. More than Turkic racial identity or the various Soviet-created nationalities, it has the capacity to create political legitimacy.

What this means depends on what Islam becomes here. In Central Asia now there is a renewed interest in learning Arabic script, which was the means of writing Turkic until Stalin’s day and is still used among the Turkic peoples of Iran, Afghanistan, and China. Though Central Asian Islam is fiercely traditional, it is not at present fanatical. Islam in these mountains and steppes is simply a way of life: the natural, apolitical outgrowth of a materially poor existence. But the situation could change as a result of missionary activity by fundamentalist Iranians and by the very different fundamentalist “Wahhabi” groups from Saudi Arabia.

The Turkic world represents a new frontier for Middle Eastern fundamentalists. For Iran, there are opportunities but also difficulties and dangers. Whereas Iran is mostly Shi’ite, formerly Soviet Central Asia is Sunni, including the Persian-speaking Tajiks. This will severely limit the appeal of the mullahs. Culturally, the three million Sunni Tajiks have a strong sense of having been cut off from their Persian heritage and thus welcome closer contact with Iran. But Iran’s integrity as a nation is threatened by the Soviet collapse, because much of its northern tier is, like Afghanistan, inhabited by Turks—Azeri Turks in the west and Turkomens in the east—who in the future could be ripe for pan-Turkism.

More than Iran, however, it is our ally Saudi Arabia whose citizens may demonstrate a real influence in the emerging Turkic world. During the Afghan war Saudi religious groups were active among both Afghan mujahidin and Pakistanis, handing out large sums of money as part of an effort to convert these traditionalist Muslims to Wahhabism.

Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab was an eighteenth-century Arabian religious leader who led a back-to-the roots Islamic movement, away from the calcified orthodoxy of Ottoman Turkey and the pre-Islamic paganism practiced by some desert tribes. Though almost all Saudis today are nominally Wahhabis, it is the most extreme Wahhabi fundamentalists who have been active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I’ll never forget leaving the Afghan city of Kandahar with a group of mujahidin, with gunfire all about, and being stopped by two Wahhabi missionaries who tried telling the mujahidin that they were not pure enough Muslims. Because these Wahhabis are very aggressive activists, their message was not well received among Afghans, whose Islam is steeped and traditional. The Wahhabis’ success came among the most unsavory and extreme elements within the mujahidin movement: the Afghans who during the Gulf War supported Saddam Hussein instead of their own Saudi financiers. Though one would assume that the Saudi government learned a lesson from this experience, the Wahhabis are now extending their activities throughout the former Soviet Muslim republics, armed with Korans and plenty of cash. “The defeat of communist ideology,” coupled with the awful economic conditions in the region, “may permit the Wahhabis to fill the ideological vacuum,” says Almaz Estekov, who was taught by Wahhabis in Kazakhstan. This is not necessarily a development that the West must fear, but it is certainly one that should be understood.

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Muddying the waters for Iran and for Saudi Wahhabis in Central Asia will be the influence of Turkey, the surviving remnant of the Ottoman Empire, whose Turkic people are said to descend from Osman, the third chief of a small tribe who brought his kinsmen westward, out of the lands devastated by the Mongols, and established them in Asia Minor. Rather than religion, Turkey will be promoting a secular and racially based nationalism in its role as the only Turkic society thus far to have evolved into a modern nation-state. “If the U.S. and the Europeans can train the Slavic Christian world, why can’t Turkey train ours?” says Rusi Nasar, an Uzbek who runs a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., which specializes in Central Asian matters. He notes that the leaders of almost all the former Soviet Turkic republics have recently made official visits to Turkey. Turkey is now opening banks and establishing air links throughout Central Asia. It has signed contracts to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan and cotton from Uzbekistan. Instead of the Arabic typewriters that Iran is sending to the region, the Turks are dispatching Latin ones, Turkic Central Asians today discuss Turkey’s internal politics and its historical enmity toward the Greeks and the Armenians as though these concerns were their own. But again, as in the case of Iran, the opportunities for Turkey may be equaled by the dangers.

Turkey’s internal situation is perhaps more fragile politically than it has been at any moment since the 1980 military takeover that ended the administration of Suleiman Demirel, who was recently re-elected Prime Minister. Demirel has a weak parliamentary power base and a reputation for populist demagoguery. Though Turkey returned to civilian rule in 1983, it has been able to maintain stability only thoruhg a dictatorial style of governance. Demirel and the President, Turgut Ozal, are known to despise each other. Prior to the 1980 coup Turkey was wracked by armed conflicts among various extremist groups. Some of these groups espoused pan-Turkism, which at the time represented a theoretical pipe dream. But no longer. Pan-Turkism suddenly has a practical flavor in Turkey, where Attila and Ghengiz are common first names. There is little consensus on this inflammatory issue now that Turkey, for the first time ever, must quickly articulate a policy toward the greater Turkic world. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was an opponent of pan-Turkism. Thus the debate gets tangled with the one over Atatürk’s philosophy—another issue that is highly sensitive in the country.

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At least Turkey and Iran are distinct national entities, more or less easily defined by means of language and culture. But farther to the east identities are multiple and no border can ever be right.

Take the case of Afghanistan. In the mid-eighteenth century the Pathans, a Muslim people provably of Indo-Iranian stock, created a buffer between the Safavid Persian Empire and the Moghul Empire, established by Turkic invaders in India. This buffer zone—Afghanistan—kept moving around as the czars extended their control southward while in the east the Moghul Empire gave way to a Sikh empire and then a British one. Afghanistan came to consist of a fragile balance of Pathan, Turkic, and Persianized (Tajik) tribesmen, surviving finally as a buffer between the British and czarist or Soviet empires. British rule in the Indian subcontinent ended in 1947. Soviet rule in Central Asia ended a few months ago. As a result, the psychological links uniting the Uzbeks, Turkomens, and Tajiks living on both sides of what was once the Soviet-Afghan border have been invigorated.

Eight of Afghanistan’s nine northern provinces abutting the former Soviet Union are largely Turkic. The internecine fighting among Afghan mujahidin is taking on the air of an ethnic struggle between on one side, Tajik and Turkic guerrillas from northern Afghanistan, whose politics are increasingly oriented toward the former Soviet republics, and, on the other, Pathans from southern Afghanistan, whose military and political base has since 1980 been in ethnic-Pathan areas of Pakistan.

These divisions are mirrored in the regime of Najibullah, Afghanistan’s President, which is also fracturing along Pathan-Tajik lines, even as fighting between the regime and the mujahidin dies down. As Afghanistan evaporates, the border between Central and South Asia is effectively shifting northward from the Khyber Pass to the Hindu Kush mountains, which separate the Turkic world from the Pathan one. No doubt we will be hearing more about “Pakhtunistan,” meaning a separate nation for the Pathans. That was a notion one heard little about in the 1980s, while the challenges of expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan were being met. In the 1990s it could become a rallying cry for ethnic upheaval in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan is where the fault lines of Central Asia join up with those of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan, like Iran, is an Islamic republic. But its regional subdivisions, unlike Iran’s, have little in the way of a shared history and ethnic identity. The very word Pakistan is said to be an acronym invented by a Muslim intellectual for Punjab, Afghania (the Pathan-inhabited Northwest Frontier Province), Kashmir, Iran, Sind, “Tukharistan” (a region no scholar seems able to locate), Afghanistan, and Baluchistan (which donates the n)—attesting to the unwieldy and artificial nature of this austere “ideological state” where religion was meant to serve in place of nationality. After a long bout of military rule, which clamped a lid on ethnic-regional divisions, civilian rule in Pakistan has led to mob violence and anarchy on a monumental scale. Though India, too, is plagued by intercommunal strife, India has the advantages of a territorial logic and an institutionalized democracy that is more than four decades old. Following the collapse of ideological states from Berlin to Samarkand, and the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia (a state deliberately created, like Pakistan, out of disparate groups), one must seriously worry about this volatile society whose political establishment is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

Finally we come to China, whose communist gerontocracy is close to a historical reckoning similar to that which has occurred in the former Soviet Union. Perestroika in China—which must sooner or later take place—will involve the liberation of several million Tibetans and perhaps also the 12 million Turkic Uighurs who inhabit western China. Besides the Uighurs, there are Kazakh, Uzbek, and other Muslim minorities in western China, which was in fact independent of Chinese rule for brief periods in the 1930s and 1940s. The founder of Nationalist China, Sun Yat Sen, recognized the right of these Muslims to self-determination. To this day the secretary-general of the national government in East Turkistan in the 1940s, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, lives in exile in Istanbul. He meets regularly with the leaders of all of Turkey’s major political parties. In Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, a Uighur “liberation organization” has just been established. Reports of demonstrations in Muslim China continue to reach the outside world.

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What does the future hold for Central Asia? “Had the Bolsheviks not come to power, you would have had a pan-Turkic nation take shape earlier in the century,” says Martha Brill Olcott, a professor of political science at Colgate University. “But now I’m not so sure. The decades in between, though not creating new nations in the traditional sense, have created different interests and cleavages. The Kazakhs, who have a large Russian population to think about, are focusing on ties to Russia. The Uzbeks have a Muslim orientation. And the Azeri Turks in Transcaucasia are the focus for Turkic re-entry into the Middle East, via Iran and Turkey.” Azizullah Aral, an Uzbek born in Afghanistan who now works for Radio Liberty, sees the other side of the coin: “History will force these peoples together because we know each other much better than we know the outside world. It will take ten or fifteen years, but then there will be some sort of Turkic federation of Central Asia. The comparison with the Arab world is natural.”

No doubt the years ahead will see neither complete anarchy nor tidy cohesion. They may very well see a series of fractious experiments in free trade and the free movement of peoples which might offer lessons in the virtues and drawbacks of national ambiguity. And they may rescue from hyperbole (inspired, no doubt, by the adrenaline of travel) Justice Douglas’s prediction that Central Asia would become “one of the most dramatic and important political stories of the century.”