WHATEVER ELSE the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union may be, they are not homogeneous nation states. The ethnic and national identities for peoples of the region - split as they are across different state borders of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran (and further across the Middle East, with Turkmen and other peoples also in Iraq and Turkey) - will necessarily continue to play a major role in the republics' future political evolution. The cultural and ethnic background of Central Asian societies is the theme of Muslims in Central Asia, published in the United States like most recent books in English on the region.
The book revolves around the theme of cultural identity. An introduction by the editor, Jo-Ann Gross (an historian at Trenton State College, New Jersey), makes clear the approaches adopted here to the process of identity formation, stressing the belief that comparative research into the Muslim societies of Central Asia as a whole is justified. The geographic sweep is wide, taking in Chinese Xinjiang (or "eastern Turkestan") and Afghanistan as well as ex-Soviet Central Asia. The main emphasis, though, is upon the lands formerly ruled by Russia.
The duality of Central Asian culture goes far back, with Turkic and Iranian heritages, with sedentary and nomadic traditions and, even in our own era, with the Muslim traditional patterns of society vying with modern Russian, Soviet and Western influences. For a perspective on contemporary trends in Central Asia, probably the most illuminating chapter is one on Tajik identities by Muriel Atkin, an historian at George Washington University.
Tajikistan contrasts in some key respects with the Turkic republics, with no standardised language in this society which remains basically traditional, rural and inward-looking. Tajik history is little taught in schools, usually at a low standard, and most Tajiks actually have little interest or knowledge of the history of Tajikistan.
The question of Tajik national identity inevitably raises the issue of the Central Asian component in Persian civilisation, and the relative importance of Persian and Turkish cultural contributions. The role of historian Bobojon Ghafurov, a former first secretary of Tajikistan's Communist party, was crucial in laying down what became the official line. Tajiks assert their kinship to fellow-Persian speakers of other lands by avoiding the subject directly. They treat the cultural achievements of Persians and...