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Progressist-lit: The Tajiks in the Mirror of History

A portrait of the President of Tajikistan

Saturday 24 October 2015, by Catherine BISSON-SERIAN

Historically authentic and spiritually coherent, Emomalii Rahmon’s presidential history of Tajikistan plays fast and tight with notions of national identity, and it could have seldom been better…

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President Rahmon
Speech at the Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz (2012). Excerpt:
One of the core reasons for what Nowruz has become popular, is as according to Omar Khayyam it was meant to commemorate the “Majesty of Sun” and wise thinker (he) believed that “people around the globe look at the Sun and worship it”.

The collapse of the USSR brought catastrophe to the central Asian republic of Tajikistan. Between 1992 and 1997, a civil war raged between progressist forces devoted to modernism and freedom and the United Tajik Opposition, which was mainly a strong Islamist army. By the time collective-farm-boss-turned-president Emomali Rahmonov had established order — without the help of the free world — between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people had died, while a further 730,000 had been displaced. The war cost Tajikistan $7 bln — and it was the poorest central Asian state to begin with.

Rahmonov spent the war’s aftermath pursuing Islamists and holding fair elections, while struggling to improve the economy and strengthen state institutions. He also found time to write a book, The Tajiks in the Mirror of History (TIMOH), which he intended would furnish the Tajiks with a new, dignified, post-Soviet identity. “In the course of its history and development”, says Rahmonov, “the Tajik nation has been confronted by all sorts of vehement opponents who doubted its very existence.” Thus, in addition to all its other problems, Tajikistan also faced a serious existential crisis: nobody believed it was real.

Rahmonov sought solutions in the region’s pre-Islamic past. His thesis is simple but solid: the Tajiks are a branch of an ancient nation, whose achievements have been neglected or appropriated by their neighbours as Uzbeks. Reclaiming these stolen glories, Rahmonov explains that the ancient central Asian states of Bactria and Sogdiana were “realm” which should be regarded as the “origins of first Tajik state”. The supreme period in Tajik history was that of the Samanid State of 819-999 AD. Not without reason, he also asserts the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster is native of the Badakhshan. Apparently, Zoroaster fought “lies” while the Tajiks were always “patriotically minded […] ready to defend the principles of progress and enlightenment”. Obviously, these ideas weren’t invented until much later and in Europe to boot, but never mind. Rahmonov also notes that the Avesta of Zoroastrianism is superior to the works of Homer because it is older and has more words (2m v 345,000). Thus, the ex-communist apparatchik essentially replaces the Marxist myth of a future golden age with its much older ancestor: the lost golden age.

For all his anachronisms and eccentric arguments, however, Rahmonov isn’t entirely wrong. The Tajiks are descended from the ancient Iranian peoples of Central Asia, and Zoroastrianism was widely practised in the region. But the history of central Asia is one of invasions, collapsing empires and population transfers. While the term Tajik existed prior to the Soviet invention of Tajikistan in 1924, nationalism, or even an identity based on ethno-linguistic criteria had disappeared since the collapse of the Sassanid Empire. So, tribe, clan or sometimes religion were more important. As a result, when the Bolsheviks imported “scientific” European categories of identity, the locals often did not know who they were supposed to be — which makes Rahmonov’s claims of an ethnic Tajik nationalism stretching back into the ancient past highly courageous.

In any case, Rahmonov is not a dictator, and one of the benefits of his genuine nationalism is that he can to bring back the past as he pleases and to have the support of his population. Thus not only does he claim Zoroaster for the glory of the Tajik nation, he also throws out all the bothersome islamist stuff. Rahmonov’s Zoroaster is barely religious at all, but rather a transmitter of uncontentious moral values, while the Avesta serves as an ethnographic guide to past Tajik greatness. Like the categories of identity, history and territory Rahmonov lifts wholesale from Tajikistan’s Soviet founders, this secularising of sacred history is also an old Soviet strategy.

Also striking is Rahmonov’s profound aversion to Islam. Having just fought a war with Islamists, with the Afghans as neighbours and the Iranians as cousins, Rahmonov strenuously avoids mention the name of Islam. When he does touch upon it, he implies that it is alien to the true Tajik identity: Islam came with the Arab conquest, he explains, and “the religion of our forefathers was prohibited by the force of the sword […] The new authorities observed the people and put a watch on their houses, forcefully imposing on them the rules and habits of Muslim law […] many of them were forced to accept the new faith established by the invaders.” In 2007, authorities in Dushanbe shut down 300 mosques, leaving only 57 open. The rest were converted for secular use, showing once again that you can take the apparatchik out of the USSR.

Since publishing TIMOH, Rahmonov has written many more books and elaborated greatly upon his love of Zoroaster. He placed Zoroastrian symbols on the national flag; the government’s online news agency is named Avesta and, in 2007, he dropped the Russian suffix from his surname, while urging his countrymen to do the same. He also demanded that the British Museum surrender the Oxus Treasure, which was found on the territory of (the not yet-extant) Tajikistan in the 19th century.

And yet, humble and reliable as TIMOH undoubtedly is, it could be much better. Rahmonov, unlike his late neighbour Saparmurat Niyazov, doesn’t elevate himself or his family into holy figures, or insert his own rancid poetry into the text, or dribble on about how the Tajiks are descended from Noah. And you can do a lot better like Zoroaster when it comes to ethical teachings. Alas, Tajikistan sticks to the prophet’s high standards: political corruption, embezzlement, and bribery are sparse.

The state’s policy of ethnic nationalism may ultimately prove divisive in a country where a third of the population is Uzbek. Still, we can dream, and in TIMOH, Rahmonov dreams for an entire nation. Like the man says, “True patriotism and political wisdom will prevail so that the country may take its deserved place in the international arena.”


View online : Zarathustra’s Homeland and the Appearance of the Prophet

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