Nazif Shahrani on Greater Central Asia, regional integration and stability

Anthropology professor at the Indiana University Nazif Shahrani has been studying Central Asia for decades and knows the region very well. His initial field research (1972-1974) was a study of the cultural ecological adaptation of a small Turkic-speaking Kirghiz pastoral nomadic group and their sedentary neighbors, the Wakhi, in northeastern Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Hence his first book is The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers (1979). Since the early 1980’s his research has been directed toward an understanding of the impact of Islam upon the social imagination of the people of Afghanistan concerning their future, and the impact of such images of the future upon their present actions and activities. More specifically, he was examining how former Soviet Central Asian Uzbek have experienced and managed their lives and careers as individual members of Uzbek Muslim families within the broader context of Soviet colonial rule, and the particular demands of the dominant Soviet “political culture of scientific atheism.”

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You are a well-known scholar and have led many anthropological studies in Central Asia. In recent years, the idea of a greater Central Asia has picked up where post-Soviet Central Asia is viewed in connection with South Asia and Afghanistan in particular. In your view, how are these theories grounded anthropologically? How 25 years of independence fostered, if at all, the people-to-people exchange in particular? There are certain migration flows, tourist and education exchanges while politically and economically the ties are still underdeveloped, right?

Yes, I think these are good questions. It is not too late. Unfortunately, it has taken too long for the leaders of Central Asian countries to realize it. These regions share common interests with each other far more than they probably do with Russia or with Western Europe. The relationship between Central Asia, Southwestern Asia and the Middle East has a very long history going back more than 1,300 years since the arrival of Islam, and even earlier during the ancient times. During the historic periods, at least since the rise of Islam, these regions— Central Asia, Indian subcontinent, Iran and Turkey, and the Arab Middle East & North Africa – have had very close relationships, both commercial as well as political, cultural and educational and religious. Moreover, the sooner these areas connect with each other the better it will be for the entire peoples of this region.

In former Soviet Central Asian republics, they have become Russified and directed towards Russian culture; in İndian subcontinent, they have become more Anglicized and moved towards British culture. Some Arab and North African countries are influenced by France.
Sadly, national borders were created and imposed by outsiders—i.e., by Russians in Central Asia and by France and United Kingdom in southwestern Asia as well as the Middle East. Of course, we all know the Europeans themselves fought over their national borders in the 18th century and created independent countries with their own flags, names, national anthems and so forth. During the last 65-70 years, however, they have realized that those borders were not very helpful so they created the European Union. The EU has eradicated the significance of those borders for creation of which they had fought bitterly. Unfortunately, Central Asians and others in the neighboring regions did not create their own borders, they did not fight over the borders in Central Asia with each other or in the Indian subcontinent or in the Arab world for that matter. Their national borders were created by Europeans for them, and since they have become firmly solidified and now they are ready to fight with each other to protect them. These artificial, European imposed border lines have kept the kinsmen and co-ethnics apart and their common cultural traditions have also grown distinct, moving in different orientations. In former Soviet Central Asian republics, they have become Russified and directed towards Russian culture; in İndian subcontinent, they have become more Anglicized and moved towards British culture. Some Arab and North African countries are influenced by France. So it is about time that leaders of these countries tried to come together and create their own Central, Southwestern and Middle Eastern Union in the region to protect their own interests from the Chinese, Russian, Western European and American penetrations in their region.

How can we connect this diverse region in terms of bitter ethic and religious conflicts? Is such connectivity needed in any case? Does history have any lessons? 

I don’t think current conflicts in this region and beyond have religious roots. It is Europe and Russia trying to convince us that these conflicts are religious. They are not. They are fundamentally political. They emanate from competition for access to the fast natural resources of these regions. The Russians want to continue to control the resources in their former colonies and Americans want to have their share, and now Chinese are entering the picture and of course European have been involved in it for a long time. So I think we need to come to understanding that our religious-sectarian differences in Islam in themselves are not the source of conflicts. But instrumentalization of our religious faith by outsiders, as well as, by uncaring local ruling elites in the countries of these regions is. The national leaders allege the conflicts to be religious in order to justify their own dictatorship and oppressive rules. This is the core of the problem. I think, the people of this region need to realize this and demand that the political system in these regions become more democratic, giving more attention to consideration of human rights on the basis of Islamic values of justice and peaceful coexistence. Values which have helped the peoples of this region live together as Muslims as they had done so without consideration of differences of language, ethnicity, and sectarian issues for thousands of years. We can reclaim relative calm of the pre-colonial times if we realize that politicization of religion, language, ethnicity and nationality are poisonous gifts of the Western colonialism. The problem created for us such border closures and border disputes are utterly new, hindering trade and exchanges, blocking flow people, education and knowledge, goods and services within and between regions. Now because of artificially created countries and oppressive conditions, people from Central Asia, Afghanistan and Southwestern Asia are forced to look for work in Russia or Western Europe or indulge in the processes of brain drain even to America. These are the true nature of the problems in the region. I think, if within the region, the national leaderships could work through their interpersonal difference, and help create an environment where together, Central Asia, South Asia and Middle East could form a powerful economic and political bloc. One which could resist future penetration of China as well as remove the existing Russian, American and European exploitation of regional resources which has resulted in poverty and conflicts within and between the regions. But this requires wise leadership on the part of these countries and also insistence on the part of the people of this region for better and just governance. So, a more inclusive politics and economic systems in the region could in turn be able to address the myriads problems of poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities for the bludgeoning younger population of these regions.

What are your views on American and Chinese regional initiatives? How do Russians view such connections (even they are not happy with Greater Central Asia theory)?

This region has very young population and if they could be educated properly with effective knowledge and appropriate skills, they are the greater wealth of the region
Both of these countries are having imperial ambitions globally. The new shape of twenty first century empires is called “empires of trust” or “empires by invitation”. These new empires keep their targeted countries in constant turmoil, politically and/or economically. So that, the big powers like America and China are called-upon or invited, by smaller countries in turmoil, to intervene like a big brother in order to resolve the regional or national problems. This is something that needs to be understood, as an entirely new form of imperialism in the twenty first century. The new empires of “trust”/invitations” are part of the realities of our times, whether they are Americans, Russians, Chinese or Indian or EU countries. They can be helpful or harmful, but peoples of the region and their governments need to act smart in how to make use of their presence in the area. For example, the new initiative by China – One Belt, One Road – reviving of the old Silk Road is a very good idea but it shouldn’t be so that the sole beneficiary of this development is only China. We need to be able to be smart and act smart in how we could promote our own interest along with Chinese interest in the region or American interest or European interest. I think starting land and sea communication to ease flow of energy transnationally, or increasing trade and exchange in the region, all of these are very positive developments. But it shouldn’t be so that the natural resources, the hydrocarbon material or hydro-electric energy would be taken out of the region and used by the great powers and peoples of these countries are again left in poverty and without benefiting from their own natural resources or growing human capital such their young population. You remember this region has very young population and if they could be educated properly with effective knowledge and appropriate skills, they are the greater wealth of the region of Central Asia, Western Asia, and the Middle East. But that again requires wise, caring and smart leadership to be able to harness these opportunities which the great powers bring to the region, especially with revival of the old Silk Road.

Does Central Asian religious radicalism have their roots in Afghanistan? How justified are the fears of extremist spillovers?

There is no doubt that the problem in Afghanistan for the last 40 years has its roots in the event of the invasion of the country by the former Soviet Union.  It was that unwise decision by the Soviet leadership that led to the popular Islamic jihad resistance against Communism and the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Americans, Saudis and some Europeans used it as an opportunity for fighting their Cold War by proxy with the former Soviet Union. It was, indeed, the popular resistance of the peoples of Afghanistan against the Soviet transgression resulting in the globalization of jihad. That is, Muslims from all over the world came to the aid of the Afghan Mujahedeen. Many thousands of Muslims, from all over the world participated in the Afghanistan jihad, of course they got training in military skills as well as ideological radicalization. Former Soviets were defeated and forced to withdraw their troops (1989) in humiliation from Afghanistan.

The peoples of these regions are not allowed to become/feel that they are part of their own governance system.
What followed the collapse of the USSR opened an entirely new phase of political radicalization in the region. The implosion of the Soviet Union plus the American invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War, were critical in defining the trajectory of radicalism in the region and globally. After collapse of the Soviet Union, the successor states of Central Asian republics became extremely autocratic against their own people and adopted very harsh anti-Islamic and anti-religious policies. The Afghan Mujahideen’s military triumph did not accompany formation of the promised Islamic state as it was expected. Instead, bloody internecine wars ensued for a variety of complex reasons, eventually affecting the rise of Taliban movement and greater war and instability. These developments were accompanied by the first signs of global terrorism against the USA, culminating in the attacks of the September 11, 2001, the subsequent US-NATO intervention in Afghanistan and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As it was indicated earlier, the root of the problem wasn’t religious or Islam. The problem is rooted in the policies of the “super powers” in the region towards upholding, aiding and abating oppressive governance systems in most of the countries of these regions and hostility towards Islam. The peoples of these regions are not allowed to become/feel that they are part of their own governance system. Governments seem like something alien imposed upon them by external forces. Again, religion is not at the core of the regional problems.

Therefore, religion cannot be expected to provide the solution either.  Rather, it will depend on whether and how national and regional leaderships will help create a more inclusive governance and economic structures in response to prevailing challenges, both domestic and global, to address their challenges. They must face the fact that, in order to solve their critical local, national and regional problems, they will have to rely on making use of their own values, their own religion, and their own ideology instead of dismissing them and becoming hateful towards themselves and their own people and culture. Unfortunately, so far, this is the case with power elites of this region, whether it is Central Asia, Afghanistan or Indian subcontinent, Iran and Turkey, to varying degrees.

Are there any interesting projections for Afghanistan-Uzbekistan relations with the new Uzbekistan president and his regional initiatives?

I have heard recently of some initiatives from the new president of Uzbekistan to be launched in the region and we hope that his initiatives can result in improving relations and better connections, not only with Afghanistan, but also with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately, the citizens of these countries have suffered very long because of the idiosyncrasies and personality clashes of particular rulers. We hope that the situation will change after the consolidation of the new regime in Uzbekistan. Certainly, the peoples of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have much in common, and they would welcome any improvement in bilateral relations. Both countries could benefit from closer ties with each other and they shouldn’t be afraid of each other.

Central Asian reformist ulama who understand post-Soviet realities of their own environment, given the chance, can provide far more progressive and humane alternative to reclaiming Islamic knowledge and practices for the region.
Pakistan and Iran, unfortunately are middling in Afghanistan’s affairs for their own regional interests. The security problem in Afghanistan however cannot be solved unless problem of governance is solved. We have had Americans and Europeans during the past decade and a half helping to create democratic government. Unfortunately, what they have created are kleptocratic regimes that steals everything from foreign aid to whatever is in the country just for themselves and line their own pockets instead of helping their own poor people and create work.

The worst problem in Afghanistan today is the absence of better government. Western Europeans and Americans instead of creating an appropriate and effective government, created the most corrupt government on Earth. Uzbekistan also needs to relax its domestic policy on its own people. I know that people of Uzbekistan will never accept Taliban’s harsh and inhumane interpretation of Islam. The same will be also true of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Why should they be fearful of Taliban? Criminal gangs such as Taliban, giving bad name to Islam, will never succeed finding followers in these countries, because peoples of post-Soviet Central Asia are far more educated, and sophisticated to accept the Taliban version of corrupted and bigoted practices in the name of Islam. Central Asian reformist ulama who understand post-Soviet realities of their own environment, given the chance, can provide far more progressive and humane alternative to reclaiming Islamic knowledge and practices for the region. That’s what is needed to be promoted in the region if they wish not to be negatively influenced by what’s going on in Afghanistan. Those who call themselves Taliban, Daesh, ISIS or by any other names, I don’t think have any place in Central Asia now or in future, therefore they should not be feared.  Because their kind of interpretation of Islam is false, and in the service of outside powers wishing to harm Islam, as such the Taliban rendition of Islam has no place in Central Asia.

What are the reasons for the recent failure to establish good governance in Afghanistan?  Can we separate myths from reality here?

The main reason, domestically, is politicization of ethnic identities, excessive tribalism, nepotism, corruption and oppression resulting in the fragmentation of society in the hands of Afghanistan’s self-indulgent power elites who have collaborated with the international invasion forces. That is, a small group of corrupt self-serving elites have ruled Afghanistan in the name of Pashtun tribes and ethnic group since the middle of eighteenth century. These usurpers of Pashtun tribal community’s power, often as clients of foreign powers, have come think they have the exclusive rights of monopoly to governing the country. They have insisted on a person-centered centralized government system where they can dictate everything from Kabul and essentially reward themselves and their kinsmen and cronies and punish or ignore all other peoples, Pashtun and non-Pashtun alike. They have also adopted a policy of internal colonialism encouraging and facilitating the resettlement of Pashtuns from the south and west to the North.  This century-long project has born fruit, culminating in availability local support base for the Taliban’s war and violence in the Northern Afghanistan. This is the core of the problem in Afghanistan. Because a small selfish group from one ethnic group think that it has the right rule over the rest of the country with help from external patrons through a centralized regime.

In order to stabilize the country, what needs to be done is to adopt the principles of community self-government in Afghanistan. A governance principle by which people in district, provinces and national levels can elect their own political officers, consultative and legislative bodies and recruit/hire their own professional staff including judges, police commanders, accountants, teachers, agronomists and so on to allow the communities to participate in their own governance without reference to tribe, ethnicity or sectarian affiliation. That is, they should have the right to elect their own provincial governors, district officers, the village headman and members of local, provincial and national councils, as well as parliamentarians. Why should government from Kabul appoint everybody from governor, judge, accountants to school teachers and clerks, to custodians of a particular office? They should advertise jobs whoever from any part of the country wishes to apply to jobs, whether in judiciary, finance, education or hospital should be able to do so.

How does the Afghan society view own future?

There is growing hopelessness. In 2002, after routing the Taliban from Kabul, by the Americans and NATO forces together with the Northern Alliance fighters, people were very hopeful. They thought with Europeans and Americans coming to the country, the situation will stabilize and their lives will improve.  The hope was that the country could have a better and more appropriate Constitution, better system of governance and improvement in their life and economic reconstruction. Unfortunately, none of these wishes came true in nightmarish last fifteen years. Because the Americans and their NATO allies busied themselves fighting Al Qaeda but not Taliban, and wasted huge amounts of funds in the so-called reconstruction projects.

Trump is now starting to put a little bit of pressure on Pakistan to cease their support of the Taliban and Haqqani terrorist group, but we don’t know what the outcome of these efforts will be yet. However, I don’t think more war is the solution. If they had focused on establishing of a honest government as their partner in Afghanistan, and encouraged decentralized state institutions based on the principles of community of self-governance, Afghanistan wouldn’t have become what it is today. People would have participated in their own governance, in their own economic development and gotten out of poverty and misery. Unfortunately people have become extremely disheartened and some of them hopeless and that’s why a lot of the working force as well as educated and skilled youth are trying to leave Afghanistan for good and move to Europe, but Europeans are not willing to take them. Only last year, 280 thousands young educated Afghans, most of them through Iran and Turkey, tried with their families to get to European countries. It is a major case of brain drain and it is the worst expression of hopelessness. It is once again the result of inappropriate and dysfunctional political system in Afghanistan. The peoples of Afghanistan are fed up with the corrupt governments that the US and NATO forces have established for themselves to serve the interests of their patron, not the peoples of the country. This certainly was not what they had expected to happen.

Note: Professor Nazif Shahrani’s picture is taken from the IUB Bloomington web-site

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