University of Pittsburgh Press

Central Eurasia in Context

Douglas Northrop, Editor

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

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Central Eurasia in Context

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Azan on the Moon

Entangling Modernity Along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway

by Till Mostowlansky

Azan on the Moon is an in-depth anthropological study of people’s lives along the Pamir Highway in eastern Tajikistan. Constructed in the 1930s in rugged high altitude terrain, the road fundamentally altered the material and social fabric of this former Soviet outpost on the border with Afghanistan and China. The highway initially brought sentiments of disconnection and hardship, followed by Soviet modernization and development, and ultimately a sense of distinction from bordering countries and urban centers that continues to this day. Based on extensive fieldwork and through an analysis of construction, mobility, technology, media, development, Islam, and the state along the Pamir Highway, Till Mostowlansky shows how conceptualizations of modernity are both challenged and reinforced in contemporary Tajikistan. In this vein, modernity as a future state to aspire to is juxtaposed with a modern past that people along the highway yearn for, and in the wake of the country’s marginalization and unequal relations with China, with a present in which modernity is under threat. Weaving together the road, a population, and a region, Azan on the Moon presents a rich ethnography of encounters marked by far-reaching transnational connections.

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Chaos, Violence, and Dynasty

Politics in Central Asia

Eric McGlinchey

In the post-Soviet era, democracy has made little progress in Central Asia. Chaos, Violence, Dynasty presents a compelling explanation for this through a comparison of the divergent political courses taken by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan in the wake of Soviet rule. While the Soviet legacy is crucial to understanding the varying outcomes in these countries, Eric McGlinchey also examines the economics, religion, politics, foreign investment, and ethnic composition of these nations for insights into their relative strengths and weaknesses today. Soviet rule and influence in the region was inconsistent. Thus, their manipulation of the politics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the late 1980s solidified the role of local elites, while in Kyrgyzstan Moscow looked away as leadership crumbled during the ethnic riots of 1990. Today, Kyrgyzstan is the poorest and most politically unstable country in the region, thanks to a small, corrupt, and fractured political elite. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov maintains power through the brutal suppression of disaffected Muslims, who are nevertheless rising in numbers and influence. In Kazakhstan, a political machine fueled by oil wealth and patronage underlies the greatest economic equity in the region, and far less political violence. This timely study concludes with a call for a more realistic and flexible view of the authoritarian systems in the region, if there is to be any potential benefit from foreign engagement with the nations of Central Asia and similar political systems globally.

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Despite Cultures

Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan

by Botakoz Kassymbekova

An examination of Soviet state-building and related policies in Tajikistan during the 1920s and 1930s, that works toward a clearer theoretical understanding of early Soviet rule throughout Central Asia.

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The Force of Custom

Law and the Ordering of Everyday Like in Kygyzstan

by Judith Beyer

Judith Beyer presents a finely textured ethnographic study that sheds new light on the legal and moral ordering of everyday life in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. Through her extensive fieldwork, Beyer captures the thoughts and voices of local people in two villages: Aral and Engels, and combines these with firsthand observations to create an original ethnography. Beyer shows how local Kyrgyz negotiate proper behavior and regulate disputes by invoking custom, known to the locals as salt. While salt is presented as age-old tradition, its invocation needs to be understood as a highly developed and flexible rhetorical strategy that people adapt to suit the political, legal, economic, and religious environments.Officially, codified state law should take precedence when it comes to dispute resolution, yet the unwritten laws of salt and the increasing importance of Islamic law provide the standards for ordering everyday life. As Beyer further reveals, interpretations of both Islamic and state law are also intrinsically linked to salt. By interweaving case studies on kinship, legal negotiations, festive events, mourning rituals, and political and business dealings, Beyer shows how salt is the binding element in rural Kyrgyz social life, used to explain and negotiate moral behavior and to postulate communal identity. In this way, salt provides a time-tested, sustainable source of authentication that defies changes in government and the tides of religious movements. Beyer’s ground-level analysis provides a broad base of knowledge that will be valuable for students and researchers of contemporary Central Asia.

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From Belonging to Belief

Modern Secularisms and the Construction of Religion in Kyrgyzstan

by Julie McBrien

From Belonging to Belief presents a nuanced ethnographic study of Islam and secularism in post-Soviet Central Asia, as seen from the small town of Bazaar-Korgon in southern Kyrgyzstan. Opening with the juxtaposition of a statue of Lenin and a mosque in the town square, Julie McBrien proceeds to peel away the multiple layers that have shaped the return of public Islam in the region. She explores belief and nonbelief, varying practices of Islam, discourses of extremism, and the role of the state, to elucidate the everyday experiences of Bazaar-Korgonians. McBrien shows how Islam is explored, lived, and debated in both conventional and novel sites: a Soviet-era cleric who continues to hold great influence; popular television programs; religious instruction at wedding parties; clothing; celebrations; and others. Through ethnographic research, McBrien reveals how moving toward Islam is not a simple step but rather a deliberate and personal journey of experimentation, testing, and knowledge acquisition.  Moreover she argues that religion is not always a matter of belief—sometimes it is essentially about belonging.
            From Belonging to Belief offers an important corrective to studies that focus only on the pious turns among Muslims in Central Asia, and instead shows the complex process of evolving religion in a region that has experienced both Soviet atheism and post-Soviet secularism, each of which has profoundly formed the way Muslims interpret and live Islam.

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Islam, Society, and Politics in Central Asia

Edited by Pauline Jones

This is an introductory survey of Islam in Central Asia.

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Living Language in Kazakhstan

The Dialogic Emergence of an Ancestral Worldview

by Eva-Marie Dubuisson

Dubuisson provides a fascinating anthropological inquiry into the deeply ingrained presence of ancestors within the cultural, political, and spiritual discourse of Kazakhs. In a climate of authoritarianism and economic uncertainty, the peoples of Central Asia turn to their forebearers for care, guidance, and advice, invoking them on a daily basis. This “living language” creates a powerful link to the past and a stable foundation for the present. Through Dubuisson’s participatory, observational, and lived experience among Kazakhs, we witness firsthand the public performances and private rituals that show how memory and identity are sustained through an oral tradition of invoking ancestors. The ancestral dialog serves as a unifying worldview by mediating questions of faith and morality, providing role models, and offering a mechanism for socio-political critique, change, and meaning-making. Looking beyond studies of Islam or heritage alone, Dubuisson provides fresh insights into understanding the Kazakh worldview that will serve students, researchers, GMOs, and policymakers in the region.

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Nationalism in Central Asia

A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary

by Nick Megoran

Nationalism in Central Asia explores the process of building independent nation-states in post-Soviet Central Asia through the lens of the disputed border territory between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In this rich "biography" of the boundary, Nick Megoran employs a combination of political, cultural, historical, ethnographic, and geographic frames to shed new light on nation-building processes in this volatile region. Grounded in his extensive research in Uzbek and Kyrgyz newspapers covering key events in the border region during a twenty-year period, combined with field interviews, observation, and participation, Megoran provides tangible evidence to back his thesis on this pivotal geopolitical space left in the void of the post-Soviet era. He considers the problems of elite national discourse versus local vernacular, border closures, riots, violence, and massacre, all of which have enflamed territorial anxieties. Megoran revisits theories of causation, such as the loss of Soviet control, poorly defined borders, natural resource disputes, and historic ethnic clashes, to show that while these serve to heighten tensions, political actors and their agendas have driven territorial aspirations, and are the overriding source of conflict.

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Practicing Islam

Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan

by David W. Montgomery

David W. Montgomery presents a rich ethnographic study on the practice and meaning of Islamic life in Kyrgyzstan. As he shows, becoming and being a Muslim are based on knowledge acquired from the surrounding environment, enabled through the practice of doing. Through these acts, Islam is imbued in both the individual and the community. To Montgomery, religious practice and lived experience combine to create an ideological space that is shaped by events, opportunities, and potentialities that form the context from which knowing emerges. This acquired knowledge further frames social navigation and political negotiation. Through his years of on-the-ground research, Montgomery assembles both an anthropology of knowledge and an anthropology of Islam, demonstrating how individuals make sense of and draw meanings from their environments. He reveals subtle individual interpretations of the religion and how people seek to define themselves and their lives as “good” within their communities and under Islam. Based on numerous in-depth interviews, bolstered by extensive survey and data collection, Montgomery offers the most thorough English-language study to date of Islam in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. His work provides a broad view into the cognitive processes of Central Asian populations that will serve students, researchers, and policymakers alike.

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The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709-1876

Central Asia in the Global Age

by Scott C. Levi

This book analyzes how Central Asians actively engaged with the rapidly globalizing world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In presenting the first English-language history of the Khanate of Khoqand (1709–1876), Scott C. Levi examines the rise of that extraordinarily dynamic state in the Ferghana Valley. Levi reveals the many ways in which the Khanate’s integration with globalizing forces shaped political, economic, demographic, and environmental developments in the region, and he illustrates how these same forces contributed to the downfall of Khoqand.
            To demonstrate the major historical significance of this vibrant state and region, too often relegated to the periphery of early modern Eurasian history, Levi applies a “connected history” methodology showing in great detail how Central Asians actively influenced policies among their larger imperial neighbors—notably tsarist Russia and Qing China. This original study will appeal to a wide interdisciplinary audience, including scholars and students of Central Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and world history, as well as the study of comparative empire and the history of globalization.

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