TAJIKISTAN: CULTURAL HERITAGE AND THE IDENTITY ISSUE
Pulat Shozimov, Ph.D. (Philos.), research associate, Institute of Philosophy and Law, Academy of Sciences of the Tajik Republic (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)
Cultural heritage has always been a controversial issue in Central Asia. And its newly acquired independence has only added heat to the already ongoing debates.
Each layer of Central Asian cultural heritage consists of many elements. Tajik culture, for example, comprises many peacefully coexisting cultural forms: they include elements of the Iranian, Turkic, Russian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. And the artificially constructed models of pure culture offered by certain intellectuals cannot stand up to the practical test.
Any discussion of the Sunni religious-cultural tradition of Tajikistan within the context of field research leaves the impression that a monistic idea of the dominating religious and cultural tradition of the Tajiks and the Turki peoples associated with the Sunni tradition is not totally correct. Indeed, not only the common Muslims, but also religious figures in Jilikul, Matcha, Hissar, Isfara, and Chorkukh do not strictly separate Sunnism from Shi‘ism. For example, until quite recently the Arabic inscriptions (khufi graphics) found in the Khazrati-Shokh mosque (in the village of Chorkukh, one of the republic’s most religious places) dated to the 9th-10th centuries remained undeciphered. Arabic specialists, who recently visited the mosque, read the inscriptions and explained that the tomb inside the mosque contained Hussein’s son imam Zaynollobiddin (both were Shi‘a imams). The Arabs wanted to know whether the young man who looked after the tomb discerned the contradiction between the Sunni and Shi‘a traditions created by this fact. The young man shrugged his shoulders and said there were no contradictions since both were parts of the single Muslim tradition.
Francis Fukuyama has said in this connection that revived religious feelings will assume much softer and decentralized form in which faith is betrayed not so much as a dogma, but as a movement of social forms toward order.1 I think that this relates to the present rather than future. Today, all of us can see opposite trends: the cultural and political elites are doing their best to draw dividing lines inside religion in order to win popular support for various political projects. It appears that the spatial dimension and interpretation of cultural legacy have not yet been clearly identified: monuments of culture, intellectuals, and men-in-the-street belong to different contexts.
The further a cultural symbol or a historic event is from our day and age, the more stable its interpretation; interpretations of events and symbols close to our times are subject to dynamic changes in interpretation. In fact, every attempt at interpreting cultural heritage depends on personal approaches to any particular period of time.
Students of ancient history have definite reference points at their disposal, while politicians do not need them at all. The latter focus on the interests, motives and driving forces behind people’s actions, while the former cannot base their extrapolations on human activity alone. This simple fact creates the need for more stable targets of analysis and suggests a primordial approach; scholars, who use time as the main instrument and the central parameter of their analysis, have to look at the beginning of time. Indeed, if we treat time as eternal, it assumes a different dimension and stops being time at all. On the other hand, if time is not eternal, it certainly has a beginning and an end. Fukuyama’s The End of History deals with this interpretation. If we, together with Kant, look at time as an a priori phenomenon of human consciousness, then history is nothing more than an artificial model, while any of its interpretations (including of cultural heritage for the matter) is another variant which depends on certain elite groups wishing to stress some points and exclude others.
Political sciences are not very concerned about the beginning of time: they look at time as a way to prove that human and social nature is changeable. Those who think so believe that historical time cannot determine human conduct (of social groups and individuals). It itself is dominated by what people do, therefore time can be slowed down or accelerated. This is social time, which looks into the future, not into the past.
Here I am referring to the social and political process going on in my country to demonstrate how cultural and political symbols related to the past are selected. To do this we have to answer the key questions raised in the article: To what extent does cultural heritage determine the behavior of sociopolitical and cultural groups (the primordial approach)? Do the sociopolitical and cultural elites select and construct cultural heritage in terms of a “virtual community” (B. Anderson) (the constructivist approach)?
The two approaches may coexist and be realized in different contexts.
The Influence Symbols Exert on a Sociopolitical Structure
Those who watched the parliamentary debates about the best possible symbol of Tajikistan’s national flag could conclude that the same symbols allowed different interpretations. The deputies concentrated on two key elements: a crown and seven stars above it. The crown drew few objections (many of the deputies had learned that the crown expressed the Toj concept, meaning “the crown,” or “crowned”) for the simple reason that cultural figures associated it with the name of the nation (Tajiks).
The seven stars were unexpectedly interpreted in the Aryan and the religious (belonging to the Muslim tradition) contexts.2 Certain cultural figures tried to associate the symbol with the seven areas of the Aryan peoples described in the holy book Avesta. Linguists and poets detected connections between these names and the Maverannahr territory. Speaking at an international seminar organized by the Iranian Cultural Center in Dushanbe in 2000, one of the political figures re-adjusted these interpretations by moving them from the culturological to the political context. He pointed out that the seven stars represented the seven sociocultural centers of contemporary Tajikistan.
This is how cultural symbols affect the state’s sociopolitical and cultural structure and its strategy of seeking correspondence between cultural symbols and the current sociopolitical context.
How the Sociopolitical Structure Affects Cultural Symbols
This process is best illustrated by the replacement of old monuments with new ones. As soon as the Soviet Union fell apart its sacral symbol—the monument to Lenin—was replaced with a monument to Firdausi. (It should be said that the personal names from his epic poem Shah-Name are very much in vogue now.) The process of creating a new identity different from the Soviet one was headed by the linguistic elite. It was on its initiative that nearly all the streets in the Tajik capital received new names. In 2000, the monument to Firdausi was moved to the outskirts to be replaced with a monument to Ismoil Somoni, the founder of the Samanid dynasty.
This happened because by that time the country’s sociopolitical climate had changed and a new elite consisting of political scientists and historians had moved to the forefront to take the place of the linguistic elite. The newcomers obviously preferred the symbols that reflected their political ideas.
According to M. Kabiri, one of the IRPT leaders, the people at the helm know that the nation cannot live without religion: the answer to the challenge is sought in the pre-Islamic past. This and similar designs are doomed—all attempts made between 1997 and 2000 failed. Today, we are witnessing new attempts at creating a national identity based on the civilizational (Aryan) rather than on the religious (Zoroastrian) foundation. M. Kabiri, however, doubts its success.3
How the Symbols are Selected
The selection of symbols to be placed on national currency (somoni) is another striking example of the quest for national identity. The national currency was named in 2000 after an outstanding political figure Ismoil Somoni. In fact, the Tajik identity is to a great extent associated with the Samanid state (9th-late 10th centuries). It was in this state that the Tajiks were consolidated into one people. It should be said that portraits of certain Soviet political figures of Tajikistan found their way onto banknotes together with the portraits of famous writers and scholars of old times: a portrait of Mirzo Tursun-zadeh appears on the 1 somoni banknote; Sadriddin Ayni, on the 5 somoni banknote; Hamadoni, on the 10 somoni bill; Ibn-Sina, on the 20 somoni, Bobojon Gafurov, on the 50 somoni, and Ismoil Somoni, on the 100 somoni bill.
Two prominent Soviet poets—Tursun-zadeh and Ayni—appeared on banknotes; Sufi Sheik Hamadoni (his mausoleum is in Kulob) occupies a higher step on the hierarchical ladder followed by scholars Ibn-Sina (an outstanding philosopher of the Samanid and Ghaznevid period) and Gafurov, a Soviet political figure and scholar, author of the definitive work The Tajiks, regarded as the cornerstone of Tajik identity and a central work by most of the local intellectuals. The pyramid is crowned by Ismoil Somoni, the founder of the Samanid state. Why them and not others? During a TV press conference4 to discuss the new national currency, the deputy chairman of the National Bank answered the question about Rudaki in the following way: “Rudaki was excluded from the list because he was blind and we considered it improper to show him to the public.” There were other interpretations too: sociopolitical and culturological.
The deputy chairman of the National Bank told the truth—Rudaki was blind. The question is: was he born blind or was he blinded? Public opinion lays the blame for Rudaki’s blindness on Ismoil Somoni’s grandson. In this case, his face on a banknote would have been a constant reminder of what the grandson of a prominent historical figure did. Under these circumstances, few would recall that this was done under pressure from the Turkic military leaders and clergy who accused Rudaki of plotting with the Karmat (radical Ismaelites) movement. Rudaki’s portrait on a banknote would have crippled Somoni’s political image.
There is another version: Rudaki was born blind, but many leading historians disagree with this. Academician N. Negmatov voiced his doubts in an interview. Indeed, the poet took part in numerous feasts, which he described in his poems in greater detail than any blind man could have guessed.5 The majority favors the first version very much supported by the Soviet film Smert’ Poeta (Death of a Poet), a favorite on Tajik TV.
I am convinced that Ismoil Somoni is one of the best symbols for the new Tajik state. First, it was under him that the Tajiks began consolidating into a nation within the Samanid state. Second, at that time, the secular and the religious world outlooks peacefully coexisted. Third, science and culture flourished, while various religions (Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish) existed side by side. Finally, according to the latest sociological polls, 64.4 percent of Tajikistan’s population support this symbol.6 Somoni personifies both military might and lack of enmity toward foes and adversaries. At a time when symbols have acquired special importance, the image of a great man may help stabilize the situation in the republic. It should be added that Rudaki was blinded by Somoni’s grandson, under whom the country was drawn into religious intolerance, while the militarized pro-Turkic elite acquired great influence.
There was another reason why Rudaki was left off the list: in 2000-2001, the country’s political leaders and intellectual elite were striving to coordinate cultural and national identities, that is, to achieve a single cultural and political space.
This can best be illustrated by the linguistic policies. Rudaki, born in Penjikent (today the area is part of Tajikistan), was the founder of the Tajik-Persian language (the Farsi), with which Tajik culture is associated. His absence from the banknotes raised many questions.
To my mind, the “blame” for this should be placed on Ayni. Like Rudaki before him, he was the founder of the contemporary Tajik language based on the Cyrillic. Rudaki stands no chance of appearing on banknotes until the country abandons its orientation toward Iran. Even if the pro-Iranian bias is abandoned, identity will remain a controversial issue. Under the new Constitution, Tajik (Farsi) was re-instituted as the state language; the relations with Iran improved, while the cultural universalist (pro-Iranian) elite is gradually coming to the fore to influence the selection and conceptualization of the pro-Iranian form of identity. Despite this, Rudaki still remains on the axiological periphery of the political elite, because the Tajik (Farsi) language, which he founded, can be interpreted in the context of the pro-Iranian civilizational expanse closely associated with contemporary Tajikistan. And although a very limited number of coins were minted to mark the anniversary of his birth, many citizens of our republic did not even see them.
Today, a lot of criticism is being heaped on the contemporary Cyrillic-based Tajik language and on Sadriddin Ayni who founded it. It was he who enriched the language with local Tajik dialects. Academician M. Shukurov, a prominent linguist and a respected expert in the Tajik language, has pointed out: “Our leaders believe the language to be a class phenomenon; they are opposing its classical variant and support all local dialects as a sign of our language’s democratic nature. This explains why many Tajik intellectuals prefer to use the language of their regions or even their villages… Translation loans borrowed from the Russian have appeared; the language has lost its Tajik structure; many Tajiks think in Russian. If the classical Tajik language collapses, the nation collapses too. We have to improve the situation by referring to the classical (Farsi) Tajik tongue.”7
According to sociological studies, Rudaki’s rating is higher than Ayni’s and Firdausi’s (11.4, 8.3 and 2.6 percent, respectively). In fact, Rudaki (together with Gafurov) comes second after Somoni (even if the gap between them is wide—Somoni’s rating is 64 percent).8 These figures testify that most of the political elite and the common people prefer national symbols that express a balance between the national territory and the pro-Iranian cultural expanse.
The current process of nation-building demonstrates that there are several development strategies supported by different groups of the political and cultural elite, each of which appeals to the country’s cultural heritage and relies on the most important periods in the nation’s life. In other words, each social group has its own idea of a sociopolitical and cultural development model. In fact, the same equally applies to all other nations. The projects cannot coexist because each of them addresses the past as the only genuine cultural heritage.
I think that strict delimitation of the field of national symbols may lead to sociopolitical and cultural delimitation in the republic. This should not be taken to mean that chaos is preferable. Cultural heritage should be interpreted in full accord with the republic’s contemporary existence; these interpretations should complement, rather than exclude, each other.
1 See: F. Fukuyama, Velikiy razryv, AST Publishers, Moscow, 2003, p. 15. Back to text
2 It should be said in all justice that some of the leaders of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) offered their own, negative interpretation of the seven stars on the country’s flag. In 2000, speaking at one of the cabinet sittings, they suggested that one more star should be added to make eight stars. Islam interprets seven stars as the seven gates to hell and eight stars as eight gates to heaven. The IRPT leaders failed to convince their colleagues. Back to text
3 Interview with M. Kabiri, IRPT Deputy Chairman. Dushanbe, 21 September, 2003. Back to text
4 TV press conference. Deputy chairman of the National Bank answered TV viewers’ questions, Dushanbe, November 2000. Back to text
5 Interview with Academician N. Negmatov, Dushanbe, 30 September, 2003. Back to text
6 The poll was conducted by the Zerkalo group in nine cities: Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tiube, Kulob, Tursun-zadeh, Vakhdat, Bokhtar, Khujand, Nau, and Isfara. Dushanbe, July 2003. Back to text
7 M. Shukurii, Insongaroii omuzish va zaboni milli, Payvand Publishers, Dushanbe, 2002, pp. 140-141 (in Tajik). Back to text
8 See the poll conducted by the Zerkalo group. Back to text