In December 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to assist the communist party who had seized power in Kabul one year earlier. This was their first direct military involvement in a Muslim country since the final incorporation of Turkestan and the Republics of Bukhara and Khiva in the 1920s. Many Western observers had long expected that the opposition of Muslims in the Soviet Union would one day pose a major challenge to the regime (Wheeler 1964; Allworth 1967; Rywkin 1982; Bennigsen and Broxup 1983; D’Encausse 1989). In their view, this aggression could be the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The totalitarian communist regime, oppressing its Muslim colonies in Central Asia, could not survive this challenge (Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1984). The situation seemed to be particularly precarious because the northern parts of Afghanistan are inhabited by the same ethnic groups as on the other side of the border, so that many Soviet soldiers would have to fight their own brethren. Many soldiers who fought for the Red Army in Afghanistan were indeed from the Soviet Central Asian republics. Nearly every village in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan had at least one of its sons serving there, many of whom died during the fighting. In spite of this the above mentioned scenario largely failed to occur. There was neither open resistance against the war nor do we know of large numbers of Central Asians changing sides (although some undoubtedly did). Veterans of the war generally recall the fact that they had been Soviet citizens and followed their state’s interests, as soldiers do all over the world. Today, we know that the loyalty of the Muslims in Central Asia was never as tenuous as was suggested by some Sovietologists. When the Soviet Empire finally broke up, the Central Asian republics were practically forced into independence after Russia itself had already left the Union. In fact, many of them rather hesitated to become independent (Olcott 1996; Akiner 1996). When the USA and its allies began to attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in October 2001, history seemed to repeat itself. Once more there was anticipation of a broad Muslim fraternization in the Central Asian republics. This time, however, it was not imagined as an alliance against communism but as a threat to Western civilization. Again, nothing of this sort happened. When, in October 2001, we were about to leave for fieldwork in Uzbekistan, everyone thought this
was not a good idea.1 Against our own judgment-which was that Uzbekistan would be relatively untouched by the events in Afghanistan-we postponed the trip for one month. When we finally arrived in Tashkent in November, we encountered the situation we had anticipated-and many friends there had reported in the meantime-that there was no hint of a war taking place just a few hundred kilometers further south. There was no news on TV, no heated debates in public or at home. “Here in Uzbekistan is peace!” was the phrase repeated over and over again when people mentioned the word Afghanistan. The cohorts of journalists, who had been flown in, had already disappeared again because they had nothing to write about. They did this not without annoying President Karimov with complaints about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, the only topic they found worth reporting about, and enough people willing to talk about. In this chapter I give some hints as to why things were so different from what many expected. The main argument will be that Uzbek identity2 is of a very peculiar kind. One central aspect in this regard is the fact that Uzbekness, in contrast to many other identities in the region, is based primarily on local and regional communities (Finke, forthcoming). By way of increasing inclusiveness, the concept is extended to the nation-state as a territorial unit. Co-ethnics outside of Uzbekistan may also be considered Uzbeks but not to the same degree, while members of other ethnic groups living within Uzbekistan (depending on their perceived closeness) are included in a broader concept of (ethnic) Uzbekness. As a second factor, in the religious sphere fraternization was hampered by only a vague concept of the umma among Central Asian Muslims. While in the local or regional context Islam may be an important indicator of ethnic demarcation (primarily against Russians), Islamic identity does not transfer into large-scale expressions of solidarity (as is also reflected in the almost total lack of sympathy for the Chechen case in Central Asia). Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East are not considered particularly close, for that matter. Related to this is a third central feature of people’s identity, namely the ongoing identification with the Soviet Union. This does not necessarily imply socialist nostalgia (although it often does) but refers to its former status as a super power and a peak of civilization of which these people had been a part. The Middle East, in this respect, is regarded as backward, stuck in medieval customs and low-level technology.