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Last Updated: 10/19/2004
Central Asia: A Question of Identity
Muzaffar Sulaymanov

Muzaffar Suleymanov explores the uses and abuses of history teaching in two Central Asian Republics. Tamurlane and the mythical figure of Manas are being used, it is argued, in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to help build nation states regardless of the real histories of the region.

Role of History in the Creation of National Identities in Central Asia:

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan Case Studies.

  To create unified and distinctive nations and impart a sense of common destiny to their members,

nation-builders unearth, appropriate and exploit the ethnosymbolic resources at their disposal

(e.g. customs, toponyms and ethnonyms, heroes, myths, state iconography).

Annette Bohr, The Central Asian States as Nationalizing Regimes[i] 

The first rule which we have to follow is that of national character: every people has,
or must have, a character; if it lacks one, we must start by endowing it with one. [ii]
Jean Jacques Rousseau

In his Theological Political Treatise Baruch Spinoza wrote that when reading Scriptures one should not blindly follow the texts but always remember the hidden reefs s/he might encounter in the texts, one of those being demands of the time period and goals of a ruling regime. He gives this advice so that readers get into the core of the subject/matter discussed and not get misled by false assumptions and statements. This is a quite reasonable guideline since no interpretation of facts or events could be called objective: historians, like all human beings, are subject to different influences emotions, common values/beliefs, demands of the regimes, etc. When reading Spinoza one might infer that political regimes were using Scriptures in order to manipulate public opinion.

Interestingly, one might follow this logic when reading history textbooks that are recommended to students by the educational ministries of post-Soviet Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. While offering their interpretation of the respective states histories, authors make an emphasis on certain historical events and portray them as more significant than others for contemporary nation-building. This leads one to inquire into the logic of such an interpretation and challenge it on the grounds of objectivity.

I decided to undertake this inquiry for several reasons. Having been born and brought up in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, I have witnessed many transformations in the public attitude towards Tamerlane the medieval conqueror who chose my hometown to be the capital of his fourteenth century empire. If during Soviet times his personality did not attract much public attention, with the collapse of the USSR this has drastically changed. In some five years after the collapse of USSR, independent Uzbekistan celebrated the 660th birthday of Tamerlane. Known for his brutal conquests, Tamerlane suddenly became the Uzbek national hero. Uzbek History textbooks, newspaper articles, and speeches by the President of Uzbekistan have started depicting Tamerlane as a wise leader, creator of a centralized state, and as an enlightened ruler and protector of the arts and sciences. According to Shirin Akiner, today many Uzbeks regard him [Tamerlane] as the spiritual founder of their nation. [iii] Indeed the change in attitude was drastic and radical: being once characterized as a brutal nomad, Tamerlane is now praised and idealized.

Uzbekistan is not the only post-Soviet regime, which is engaged in the process of re-writing its history. The Government of Kyrgyzstan has launched the same campaign. In 1995 the Kyrgyz people celebrated the 1000th Anniversary of the epic Manas and in 2003 the 2200th Anniversary of Kyrgyz Statehood[iv]. There would be nothing wrong with the two celebrations were there no political underpinning of the two events. Similar to Tamerlane, the mythical Manas has been given much academic and public attention. One of the reasons was his consolidation of the dispersed Kyrgyz tribes and their subsequent united opposition to foreign conquerors. In the contemporary context the myth has certain political implications in the face of strong neighbors Kyrgyzstan, with its regional (North-South) and tribal divisions, is rather weak and needs an idea that could consolidate its society. Yet, it is worth mentioning that with the state being dominated by its Northern political elites, the role and fate of the South is predetermined. To put it simply, consolidation should enable contemporary political elites to get rid of internal opposition and retain their power.

There is no need to argue that historians were involved into the celebrations unearthing the facts that prove the two dates. Observation of the processes made me think of the nature and purpose of the decisions and policies, and the logic Spinoza employed in his Theologico-Political Treatise (as mentioned above) contributed to my decision to choose a topic for a senior thesis. I feel it necessary to mention that while taking the class on Spinoza I was thinking of writing a paper on Spinoza s critique of the modern Uzbek history textbooks. Not being able to do so, I was still thinking of the topic, and re-reading Spinoza in the summer of 2003 made me realize I found a topic for my senior thesis. Putting it simply, I realized that the work produced could in some way serve as a guideline to understanding the modern interpretation of the two states histories, as well as of the contemporary Central Asian politics.

Spinoza s advice can be applied to the reading of the (new) histories of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and used to test several assumptions with the help of the existing nationalism theories. The Central Asian regimes deliberately re-write the histories of their states in order to manipulate public opinion, and pursue the goal to create new national identities. While doing so the two states are planning to consolidate and solidify the ethnic identities of the titular ethnicities of the states, to make an attempt to overcome regionalism, and, which is most important, to retain power and  legitimize themselves.

On the assumption that the educational system helps the state to control its citizens[v], this analysis studies, analyzes, and compares how texts on Tamerlane (and the Timurid Empire), Manas, and on the 2200th Anniversary of Kyrgyz Statehood published in the high school history books contribute to the achievement of the set goals. Since secondary education is compulsory in the former Soviet Union, and school curriculum and reading materials are assigned and approved by the state[vi], the regimes, it is argued, use educational institutions as a channel to spread national ideologies and to create national identities in the respective countries.

This essay consists of three sections. The first addresses theories of nationalism and their perception of history. Of the three existent primordialism, modernism, and ethnosymbolism I would make use of the first two owing to their very connection to the topic of inquiry. The proper use of history and its (mis)use by historians for political purposes are also covered in this part of the thesis. In the second section I outline the hypothesis on the use of history by political regimes of the post-Soviet Central Asia. As was mentioned above, I assume that while appealing to history the Uzbek and Kyrgyz political regimes are pursuing their particular goals, one of which is regime legitimization. Division into the official logic of the myth and the hidden agenda parts is intended to help the reader grasp the idea of the thesis topic. The third chapter is dealing with the cases analysis of history textbooks recommended (read: required or imposed) by the educational ministries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for use in high school. In addition to the listed material the chapter covers analysis of events, such as celebrations, political statements, and official documents (upon availability) related to the topic. This part of the thesis also covers analytical materials on history, nationalism, and nation building on post-Soviet area published by Western and Central Asian scholars. In the third section a number of conclusions are drawn.

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Muzaffar Suleymanov is a native of Samrakand, the burial place of Tamerlane.