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Empire's Chessboard

Firat Bozcali
Date Published: 
October 1, 2009

Overlook Press, 2009

The London-based journalist Dilip Hiro has authored more than thirty books—a number about Iraq and Iran, many about West Asia more generally. With his latest, he explores a region he previously considered in <i>Between Marx and Muhammad</i> (1995). <i>Inside Central Asia</i> provides a political and cultural history of five former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with Iran and Turkey included as well.

The five former Soviet republics discussed here share somewhat similar political trajectories and have Muslim-majority populations. Throughout the book, Hiro elaborates on the impact of Soviet political culture on these states, with influence continuing after their independence in 1991. Since the Central Asian states condition each other’s parallel paths, providing complementary histories of the five countries together makes sense.

The author’s attention to Turkey and Iran is rooted in his intention to shed light on two political models that Central Asian states could follow—the Republic of Turkey seeming to provide a secularist model, and the Islamic Republic of Iran offering an Islamist one. After first summarizing the broad history of the region from ancient times through the 1950s, Hiro focuses a chapter on each of the seven countries.

His reading of modern Turkish history centers on a century-old struggle between two political forces: the top-down modernist and secularist Kemalism (named for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) that dominated the state from the 1920s to the 1990s, versus the more recently empowered Islamism. By situating Islamists as the leading populist/grassroots tradition, Hiro implies the weakness of political categories such as left and right in depicting Turkey’s political topography. His account completely neglects the rise and fall of the socialist tradition in Turkey during the 1970s and ‘80s, when Turkish-Islamic synthesis ideology (a mixture of nationalism and Islamism) was officially mobilized against the Turkish and Kurdish left.

Besides the historiographical shortcomings, Hiro’s account fails to detect the importance of a significant transformation within the Islamist tradition in Turkey: the rise of the neo[liberal]-Islamists. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), currently in power, presents itself as a conservative (Muslim) party that embraces liberalism (market economics and political democracy).

This “moderate” Islamism might be considered as an alternative to “radical” Islamism. We might see it promoted more as an attractive model to be embraced and exported by North American and European states in collaboration with governing classes in conflict areas (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.). It could be deployed as a technique to extend capitalist market integration, and to marginalize various sectors of “radical” Islamists that contest the reigning powers that be. The model that Turkey could provide for Central Asia (and beyond) might no longer be the secular one, but rather the neo[liberal]-Islamist one.

In his chapters on Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, Hiro identifies common trends. Most are dominated by pragmatic, secular despots who secured increased backing from the United States from 2001—with nationalists and Islamists as the main opposition groups. However, the detailed histories here also show how each country has its own sociopolitical dynamics, which lead to varying conditions and power configurations.

Islam Karimov’s iron-fisted rule (1989-present) of Uzbekistan gained regional power with U.S. “war on terror” backing. Saparmurat Niyazov was the despotic ruler of Turkmenistan (1985-2006) until his death. Tajikistan has been ruled by Emomalii Rahmon (1992-present). Kyrgyzstan was ruled by Askar Akayev (1990-2005) until he was overthrown in the U.S.-supported Tulip Revolution. Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan (1990-present).

Contending Islamisms

In his chapter on Iran, Hiro underlines the importance of different religious orders and sects within the Islamist political traditions. His account mainly covers the Islamic Republic of the past three decades, with regard to its potential as a model for the Central Asian states. By stressing the division between the Sunni and Shiite political Islamist traditions, though, Hiro shows how Iran’s capacity to export its political framework to Sunni-dominated countries is very limited.

Inside Central Asia provides a detailed political history of seven countries in very eloquent language. By providing cultural information about food, music and literature as well, Hiro goes beyond a simple chronicle of political events—though these aspects may sometimes recall the simplifications and cultural reductionism of travel guidebooks.

For political analysis and activism, there are two key points that should be drawn from Hiro’s book: First, he conveys the necessity to recognize political Islam as an important populist dynamic. Second, he demonstrates the existence of various and contending political forces within the larger umbrella that is called political Islam.
Hiro’s account could have elaborated more on the transformation in Turkey’s Islamist movement, with the rise of the neo[liberal]-Islamists as a newer model that claims to be compatible with the Western ideal of liberal democracy. In light of North American and European wars against “radical Islam,” this prototype could emerge and be implemented as preferred—by various sectors of ruling power attempting to govern and dominate, in Central Asia and beyond.

Firat Bozcali