Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | May 30, 2008

Ethnicity ≠ language: in search of identity, or on how Tajiks became Uzbeks

Part I

“While all identities in pre Soviet Central Asia were weakly territorialized, the Tajiks were the least territorial. If nationalism is the political belief that ethnic and territorial boundaries should coincide, the Tajiks were uniquely unsuited for it. For Tajiks even more than for other Central Asians, the difficulty was not that borders were drawn incorrectly, but that no borders could have been ‘correct’ in any nationalist sense.” (Barnett R. Rubin in Sengupta 2002: 143)

As was mentioned above, the territory of Central Asia was supposed to be reorganised in the 1920s into nation-states, which would proceed along the self-determination principle of ethnic groups that call Central Asia home. The term nation-state might be an overstatement, as the states, which were being created were supposed to be part of a greater Soviet ‘Empire’ with the status of Soviet Socialist Republics, but having restrained sovereignty. Even if the Central Asian Soviet Republics had their own autonomous governments they weren’t totally sovereign in foreign affairs, as well as in many other policies where they largely depended on Moscow. According to Dadabaev, “all Central Asian republics were an integral part of a single state” (Dadabaev 2004).

Now when it comes to identifying ethnic groups and identities in Central Asia, the delimitation process proceeded under very suspicious circumstances. As Sengupta rightfully notes, “in 1924, the people of a region who had defined themselves in local terms through history, were transformed into Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen – names that would define their identities subsequently”, which was made on a linguistic basis (Sengupta 2002: 57-58). The ethnic composition of the Central Asian population wasn’t studied much before Soviet times. The Soviet regime literally created new ethnicities, identities and languages. As for instance, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbek languages were oral languages and didn’t have a written form, which was then developed by Soviet philologists and grammarians.

Central Asia is home to many various ethnic groups and even more diverse identities. Linguistically though, the population of the region can be divided into two major groups: Turkic speaking and Iranian speaking peoples, namely Ural Altaic and Indo-European languages, respectively. According to Sengupta “at the beginning of the Islamic period, Central Asia was still roughly divided into two well defined linguistic zones – Turkic, which included all the northern steppe regions – and Iranian which included the regions of the sedentary culture” (Sengupta 2002: 18). As Sengupta notes, “the indigenous population of the whole of Central Asia, both sedentary and nomadic, was Iranian and they still inhabited the region at the beginning of this era. However, by the sixth century the steppe belt had become completely Turkified and a similar process was about to begin in the sedentary zone…” (Sengupta 2002: 18).

Interestingly, the identity question usually touches upon the Turko-Persian differences in the region (cf. Sengupta 2002, Bergne 2007). Central Asia is mainly comprised of states and communities of Turkic peoples, or Turkic speaking peoples. The only non-Turkic indigenous population of the region is the Iranian people, the majority of which is known as Tajiks. Yet, there is a small minority of so called Pamiri Tajiks. Both speak Indo-European languages, which prior to Soviet rule where called Persian/Farsi and therefore not much differentiated. The Persian speaking Tajiks were mainly city dwellers or inhabited in mountainous regions in the southern parts of Central Asia. Different forms of Iranian languages were spoken and written in Central Asia for millennia, like Sogdian. In the most recent hundreds of years, though, the ruling elite comprised of various Turkic dynasties.

It is of utmost importance to note that the Turkic or Iranian speaking groups of people were not necessarily homogenous, and what is more important, the linguistic affiliation wasn’t necessarily the primary source of their identity. The way of life, the clan, or religion were more important signifiers of identity, rather than race, language or ethnicity, the latter being alien for the ‘Central Asians’. To support the argument, I refer to the words of Sengupta (2002:24) as she mentions the ‘fluidity of identities’ in Central Asia: “[T]he peoples of Central Asia expressed a variety of overlapping identities […], the most basic of [which] was related to place or lineage – to region or ‘clan’ for the oasis dweller and to tribe and tribal confederation for the inhabitants of the steppes.” Sengupta further argues that the “groups of people lacked any significant awareness of themselves as culturally distinct groups” (ibid. 16). Her strongest point regarding national identity is that “self definitions in the region had never been determined in terms of ‘nationalities” (ibid. 58).


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