For most scholars of Central Asian history Adeeb Khalid‘s work needs no introduction. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform is one of the most cited books in the field and Islam after Communism stands as one of the very few synthetic treatments of Central Asia’s Soviet century. I had the chance to catch up with my former teacher after his presentation at the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies convention in Sarajevo – where he had the courage to stand in front of a room full of Persianate scholars and argue that “Tajik” as a category only came into being in opposition to “Uzbek” after 1924.
By way of discussing his forthcoming monograph (Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Making of Uzbekistan, which follows the Jadids into the 1920s and early 1930s), Khalid outlined his attempts to answer some of the biggest misconceptions of a very misunderstood period of Central Asian history.
Prelude: Some background on the monograph
This monograph has been in the works since July of 2000 and grew out of a basic question emerging from Khalid’s first book: “What happens to Muslim modernism in a radical age?” Although the project is based in part on his research in the State Archive of Uzbekistan in 2000-2001, he has not been allowed back in since then, and his new research is consequently more dependent on newspapers and Soviet archives in Moscow (mostly RGASPI, some GARF as well) than he initially anticipated. This slight change in plans in turn affected the scope of the project because much of the material he encountered was related to Soviet state building and economic issues not directly related to intellectual history. “I decided there were two different stories to tell: one about the Central Asian intelligentsia, the Jadids and their successor; the other about Soviet state building. The book coming out is about the political, cultural, and religious radicalization of the Jadids.”
Chronologically, the book picks up where the previous one left off and continues through the 1930’s. “The final chapter takes it to 1938. You can’t stop before 1938, that’s when everyone gets shot, but the last chapter is a bit of an epilogue.”
So on to the misconceptions:
#1: Stalin drew the Central Asian borders to “divide and rule”
He had better things to do.
Khalid views his new research as reinforcing the conclusions of Arne Haugen and Adrienne Edgar, which overturn the “divide and rule” canard and emphasize the involvement of local actors. The idea that Stalin carved up the region most frequently manifests itself in one-off statements in the popular press, but it still finds its way into academic literature as well. “The narrative seems to be: ‘Stalin drew these lines. Why? To screw these people over.’ As if he had nothing better to do. Yet no one talks about this as ‘divide and rule’ in the region actually affected by the policies during the period in question,” remarked Khalid.
The forthcoming book emphasizes the pre-revolutionary roots of the Uzbek national project.
“The national project and the national movement is not the same thing as the nation itself. And Uzbekistan is not a Soviet project.” (However, Khalid also emphasized that the pre-revolutionary roots of the nationalist project only exist for Uzbekistan – and to some extent Kazakhstan; for the cases of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, he emphasizes precisely the opposite.) He also argues that the role of Russian / Soviet ethnographers and orientalists have been over-emphasized in the secondary literature.
Part of Khalid’s case here rests on simple logic: “How the hell can you destroy the unity of a ‘Turkestan’ created only sixty years ago by the tsars?”
#2: The Soviet Union was an empire
If it was, it was a new kind of empire.
Khalid is critical of scholarship that posits a binary between “local” and “outsider” categories and emphasizes resistance to Soviet rule. This was a period of immense upheaval and chaos. Most of the conflicts were within Central Asian society. “The chaos is based on civil war, famine, politics. The Basmachi were not a national movement. They are fragmented, local; they defend Islam, by which they mean the traditional way of life. Uzbek and Soviet were not necessarily opposed categories,” Khalid said.
This violence continued throughout the 1920’s, though it does not get the attention it merits in the secondary literature. By the time the Soviets instituted the hujum, or de-veiling campaigns, the process of radicalization of the local elites had already been going on for nearly a decade. Many Central Asian Muslims bought into and enacted these anti-religion policies. “It was not just Europeans going around closing mosques; Muslims were doing it too. There were Muslim modernists and Muslim communists who saw great promise in the Soviet vision – not only the space for cultural reform, but sanitation, hygiene, industry.”
The Bolsheviks were obsessed with the idea of pan-Turkism and that paranoia has at times filtered into the secondary literature. However, it had virtually no presence on the ground. Khalid conceives of the national project in Turkestan as informed by reformist movements in the Ottoman Empire and Tatarstan, but one nevertheless dedicated to a goal fundamentally at odds with pan-Turkism: the creation of an eastern Turkic, Chaghatai nation. The term “Turk,” which was mostly replaced by “Uzbek” by the end of the 1910’s, was used in contrast with Tajik or Kazakh, not for any kind of political affiliation with Turkey. The Jadids internalized the notion that a people’s relationship to Islam should be filtered through an ethnic discourse, but that very understanding subverted pan-Turkism.
Moreover, the content of the Jadids’ national project was in many ways anti-Ottoman. “You remember what Timur did to the Ottomans?” quipped Khalid in reference to Timur’s defeat of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid in 1402.
#4: Tajiks were central to the national project game
Not until after 1924, and even then only as a residual category.
During his presentation, Khalid remarked: “The most striking thing about the identity discourses of Central Asia in the early twentieth century is the almost complete absence of any mobilization or agitation on behalf of the Tajiks, the indigenous Persian-speaking population of Transoxiana.” Most of the Jadids were multi-lingual and were very comfortable moving back and forth between Turkic and Persian mediums throughout their careers. But most of the reformers were captivated by Turkism as a lens through which to refract the idea of the nation and were immersed in the print media reformism of the Ottoman Empire and Tatarstan. In their minds, speaking or writing in Persian did not preclude one from being part of a Central Asian, Turkic nation, and they associated “Tajik” with the rural and mountainous hinterland, not – ironically – the urban centers where Persian had flourished for a thousand years.
This territory in eastern Bukhara that could not as easily be fit into the Turkic national mold was eventually upgraded to ASSR status by intervention from Moscow in 1924 (and then to a full SSR in 1929), but finding self-identified Tajiks to staff the new autonomous region proved a challenge. Ultimately, much of the key Tajik leadership emerged from the ranks of Jadids who switched their identification from Uzbek to Tajik as a political strategy. For instance, Abduqodir Muhiddinov became the chair of the Tajik sovnarkom after losing out in a political dispute to Fayzulla Xo’jayev. Throughout the 1920’s this crop of new “Tajiks” reimagined the term to include not only the mountain Tajiks, but also the region’s millennia-spanning urban heritage, but only in competition with the Uzbek national project.
#5: The Jadids were a monolith
There were different flavors of Jadism and multiple purges separating them chronologically.
The Jadids have been appropriated as Soviet-style heroes of national liberation, an ideological role they retain in the official discourse of independent Uzbekistan. However, these reformers were in fact a rather diverse lot, consisting of a cultural, political, and religious elite that remained divided on fundamental issues. In particular, their interest in Islamic reform was studiously avoided in the USSR, just as it continues to be to the present day. Khalid noted: “In Uzbekistan ‘Jadid’ is used very expansively to refer to both the cultural and political elite, and I try to draw some contrasts between them.”
In particular, the current literature for the most part elides a schism within the group that took place around 1927. During this period, a new crop of self-described Uzbek Soviet intellectuals denounced their predecessors. Many of these individuals, such as Ziyo Said, Ghafur Ghulam, and Olim Sharafuddinov, now make up the pantheon of Uzbek cultural heroes, and their role in the liquidation of their forebears constitutes a poorly understood episode in Central Asian history. In the late 1930’s, the first class of Jadids would be much more thoroughly disposed of – nearly everyone except Sadriddin Ayni was purged. The Soviet Uzbek intellectuals from the late 1920’s also fell victim to the Stalinist liquidation, but less completely and without much rhyme or reason. “The murky relationship between the Jadids and their predecessors is something that is not really talked about very much in Uzbekistan today,” Khalid said.
Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Making of Uzbekistan is making its way through peer review and should see the light of day before the centenary of the Russian revolution.