Decline, revolution, and tragedy


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Ruling families in the late 19th century, it seemed, had a habit of building modern palaces at great cost. These were to replace their traditional castles, but they completed them just before they lost their crowns altogether. The “Summer Palace” of the last Emir of Bukhara is one such building.

Part Russian, part Central Asian

Part Russian, part Central Asian

While far more modest, it reminded me of the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. A few architectural details echo Bukharan buildings, but most are Russian. The last Emir was a close friend of the Czar, trained with him in the military academy in Moscow and fell in love with the Czar’s sister.

The decorations rotated with the seasons, even involving changing the wall panels in one major room. The fall panels remain today from when the Red Army arrived in September 1920. The Emir fled to Afghanistan.

Contrasting politically, though also evocative of the tragedies of the early 20th century in this region, we also visited the family home of the head of the first communist revolution in Bukhara, Faizullah Khojaev. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who felt his city was backward and needed become more egalitarian and modern. He became the head of the Bukharan People’s Republic, then joined the leadership of the Uzbek SSR. Eventually, though, Stalin had him killed in the purges in 1938.

The beauty and sacredness of popular religion


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The mausoleum of Bahauddin Naqshbandi outside of Bukhara is a gorgeous and peaceful spot, full but not crowded with families making pilgrimage. A visitor can engage in a series of spiritual practices. At the tomb itself, people found spots sitting on benches under the mulberry trees, holding their hands up in the cupped prayer position.

Praying at the tomb

Praying at the tomb of Bahauddin Naqshbandi

Visitors circumambulate a tree that tradition says bloomed from the walking stick of Naqshbandi. To cure back pain, one ducks under the low branches.

Sacred tree at Naqshband

Sacred tree

People drink water from a holy spring.

Sacred spring at Naqshband

Sacred spring

An imam chants the Qur’an before people share food they brought. On the day we were there, it was a few days before the baccalaureate exams, and the imam added an extra prayer for success for the students.

Praying with Imam at Naqshband

Praying with Imam

If one has a particularly large request, one can sacrifice an animal. When we were there, a sheep arrived on the scene while staff arranged seats for the ceremony. We did not stay for the main event.

Sacrificial lamb

Sacrificial lamb

People of all ages were there. Some focused on the religious practices, others enjoyed the shade and the park. We met a group of older women from Andijan, in the Fergana Valley. They approached us and asked to take a photo with us. One woman, smiling with a mouth full of gold teeth, told us she had trained to be a French teacher but there had been little call for it in her town so she taught Russian. They took our hats and wore them in silly positions for the photo. What made us so interesting that we deserved a photo – whether being specifically Americans or just Westerners in general – I did not discover.

They were smiling just before the photo, I promise!

They were smiling just before the photo, I promise!

The shine is unapologetically populist in its religious practice. There is not even a gesture, as far as I could tell, to the concerns Salafis and others have about folk Islam distracting from a focus on the unity of God.

Changes and combinations in Tashkent

A few observations about Tashkent from our day wandering the city:

There are a smattering of women dressed in brightly colored hijab, and a few older men wearing traditional caps. I was curious that the huge Jummah mosque was built in 2007-08 – I wonder what the story behind that is. There is a lively tradition of drinking – we went to a beer hall reminiscent of Eastern Europe, and apparently beer mixed with vodka is a popular drink. So the Islam at least of Tashkent seems to be a watered down (or ginned up?) version. Tashkent holds one of the oldest Qur’ans in the world, but alas for no clear reason the library holding it was closed today. I’ll have to satisfy myself with the images online.

The history of the statue in the main square is the history of the area in the 19th and 20th century. The first monument was to the Czarist governor general Von Kauffman. Then after the revolution came an image of a Red Pioneer, to be replaced by a hammer, sickle and cannon. A statue of Stalin rose in the 30s and fell in the 50s, to be replaced by a triptych of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Most recently after the fall of the Soviet Union Timur on his horse took the place of honor. For a dictatorship, there is absolutely no cult of personality – I have seen no picture of the president for life yet (though on our train ride to Bukhara, a poster had some saying attributed to him). Police presence appeared minimal, though once we saw several men in gray camouflage who our guide identified to us as from the ministry of the interior. Oddly, though, our bags were searched when we entered the subway. Apparently this is not always the case, but independence day is coming up…in a month!

The script is slowly changing. When the Russians took over from the Ottomans, they replaced the Arabic script with Cyrillic. Now the Cyrillic is slowly being replaced by the Latin script – we were told that school kids now cannot read the Cyrillic script well. The Uzbek currency is totally unwieldy – their largest bill is 1000 soum, which is worth at the moment about U.S. 25 cents. Thus, to pay for a delicious dinner for four people plus wine, $51, took more than 200 bills. We had stacks of bills in groups of 10 on the table counting out our payment! Several markets were very lively, though alas set in or around socialist 20th century buildings. Most of the areas we visited were fairly empty – probably most people were working, and it is quite warm during the summer.

Linguistic and monetary echoes of the Soviet Union

We exchanged money through an acquaintance. As he explained, 2550 soum to the dollar is the official rate. The safe rate (he goes to an apartment of a friend he trusts) is 3800 – $1. On the street you could get 4000 – $1, but it is not safe.

My mom after the exchange

My mom after the exchange

We had to give him new $100 and $20s. The $20s had to be crisp and not after 2003.

Also interesting – he speaks only Russian and English. He’s born and raised in Tashkent, and when he was in school (though he seems like he would have been in school after 1991) they were teaching in Russian. He knows enough Uzbek for the market. Now, he says, more Uzbekis know Uzbek, though everyone in the cities still knows Russian.

Tashkent – More Soviet than Silk Road (so far)

Last night, after arrival into a mid-size airport that functioned fairly well and that kind of a drive through empty streets where you try to get a sense of the city in a jet lagged blur as it zooms by, we got to bed around 4am.

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

I hit the ground running at 7am with a visit to the City Palace Hotel’s exercise area. I came down from my 11th floor wood paneled room. They had a serviceable room with two treadmills, some weights and a stationary bicycle. The steam room was small and beautifully tiled, and I would have tried to capture some of the sense of a hamam except that it was the hottest steam bath I had ever been in! A quick stop in the sauna and some laps in the pool completed my gym journey. Breakfast in the surprisingly cheerful and reasonably sized coffee shop. Overall, I get the sense that someone with moderate aesthetics, taking a signal more from a nice Hilton than from the empty and grand monstrosities of the old Soviet empire, built this hotel.

Most of the streets are very modern.

Broad avenues

Broad avenues

People that I see so far look generally white, along the same spectrum that white folks in the U.S. would look. They don’t appear central Asian – well some do a little bit – is this a city vs country thing? The good morning greeting is “Salaam aleikum.” Neither last night at the airport nor today at the hotel do I see anyone in any form of traditional dress. A quick walk next door to the Timur Museum did reveal two women in brightly colored hijab. The young men hanging around the lobby of our hotel are wearing football (soccer) polo shirts and either shorts or slacks.

A few traditionally dessed women walk in front of the Timur museum

A few traditionally dressed women walk in front of the Timur museum

The emotional roller coaster of the peaceful Syrian revolutionaries of 2011


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Today a MESA panel discussed how the people committed to the Syrian revolution of 2011 experienced and continue to experience their lives. The most powerful was a presentation by Professor Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University. In 2012 and 2013 she interviewed revolutionaries who had fled Syria to Jordan and Turkey. She speaks of four phases of fear:

  1. Fear as the coercive authority of the state: Before the revolution, “the walls have ears” and rumors of information about torture are everywhere.
  2. Fear as a barrier to be broken: During the protests, people muster a new ability to act through or despite fear. Some quotes: “Is that protester a man and I’m not a man?” “My generation could go out and protest, my parents experienced Hama 1982 [a massacre of protesters by the Hafez Assad regime].” “I engaged my humanity for the first time.” “It was better than my wedding day.”
  3. Fear as way of life: As the revolution devolves into a civil war, fear becomes the backdrop. People experience terror physically – breaking out in acne, having digestive problems. Horror becomes normalized – bodies buried in every public park, weekly routine planned around Friday massacres. From “Thank goodness the walls no longer have ears” to “Yeah, but now we don’t have walls.”
  4. Fear of the future: Now many of these young peaceful leaders are in exile. To some extent they have lost the sense of solidarity. They are closing in on themselves. They fear the radical Salafi trend: “All people could talk about in October 2013 was “Da’ash: ‘We did all these things for the revolution, and then Da’ash came and did all these things.’ The fear of the regime is gone, but now there is a fear of revolution itself.”

Emotion, experience and academic distance?


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Yesterday I attended the Middle East Studies Association meeting in which panelists and members discussed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, in front of a meeting tomorrow to consider the Association joining the movement somehow. Professor Noura Erekat of George Mason University spoke in favor and Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University spoke against BDS. Then various professors and graduate students in the audience advocated for or against the idea of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.

A few interesting points. Professor Erekat thinks a. Israel is treating Palestinians terribly (war on Gaza, settlements, ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the wall on West Bank land, etc.) b. all other options have failed and therefore c. MESA should support the BDS movement, even though it is only “a pathetic counterforce.” Professor Troen argues that a. Israeli Palestinians are well integrated into the Israeli educational system (1/3 Haifa U students are Palestinian, 22% of pre-med students are Palestinians, the most successful school is in the Arab triangle, there are many outreach programs for Palestinians) and Jews are native to the land, so this is not apartheid, b. academic organizations should not take stances on difficult political issues that are not apartheid and therefore c. MESA should not support the BDS movement.

Other speakers joined the debate. Several anti-BDS speakers argued hypocrisy, or in the words of one (Prof. Josh Teitelbaum) the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that we don’t discuss boycotting Libya, Iran, the corrupt PA, etc. Another argued that “BDS is an extension of warfare,” not a peaceful move. A conflicted Israeli professor argued that he does not want to be cut out of his “home” in MESA, but that “we need pressure from the outside. It is legitimate – I don’t see any internal force in my country that will change the situation.” Pro-BDS speakers, especially Professor Judith Tucker, noted that MESA can tailor its type of BDS and not isolate Israeli colleagues.

The room, I believe, held Israeli actions primarily responsible for the situation of the Palestinians, as indicated by applause when speakers pointed out Israeli injustice. Most of the discussion was polite. Several comments caused significant muttering disapproval. One was when Prof. Teitelbaum called BDS anti-Semitic, another when Prof. Troen’s responses to questions were heard as unrealistically portraying Palestinian Israelis as happy and successful. By far the most censure (perhaps disappointment?), however, was expressed against the pro-BDS Professor Lisa Hajjar when she described Prof. Troen as having limited intellectual ability. (Those words may not be exactly right, but they are close.) People were quite upset by that ad hominem attack, which she said that she “withdrew.”

When does it become incumbent on an organization of academics to take a political (ethical? moral?) stance? When is consensus a form of working together in unity, and when is it enforcing conformity?

So much for modernity


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Once again I find myself deeply thankful to Dr. Muqtedar Khan. I was his guest at the Jerrahi tekke, or Sufi Lodge, in Istanbul.ilminfazileti_1337523976184

The spaces are small but rich in history. The complex has about six rooms that I saw, with the main room having some attributes of a mosque. The focus is a beautifully tiled mihrab pointing the direction of Mecca. A balcony for women surrounds several sides, and the walls are completely covered in framed calligraphy – names of Allah, the Prophet, the Companions, and the founder and leading Shaykhs of the tekke. They did not allow photography, but after some searching I found this photo on a website featuring a list of tekkes in Istanbul.

We entered at about 7pm to find men sitting around in small groups, most wearing white caps. Women and kids were passing back and forth through to the balcony. There was quiet talking, and as Dr. Khan described it, fellowship. Some of the men are just members of the lodge, and some are darwishes – those who seek to follow this particular shaykh’s path to awareness of God. Over the next hour the rooms filled, and at about 8:30pm all aligned to say the Isha, or night prayer. After the prayer, people shifted a bit and the prayer leaders started to sing and chant. Occasionally there were full responses from all – mostly Amen, sometimes praises to God. Slowly the congregation took over from the prayer leaders with repetitive chanting. They began to bow slightly to one side and another. The chant was very simple – often just “Allah”.
Sometimes what is being chanted changed, and the volumes and speed rose or fell. Occasionally the prayer leaders sang a melody over the chant.

As the chants and swaying continued, I ceased registering time. At some point those less experienced shifted into the outer rooms, which had archway views into the main room. The men into main room circled and started a different chant, this with a strong breath component. The sound was “Hu” meaning, I believe, “Him” – God. The whole room breathed as one.

The circle started to rotate, with several men in the center moving counter to the main rotation. One wearing a tall light brown cap began to spin slowly, one hand up and one down. Again time was not registering. At some point the circle and the spinner slowed and stopped. The chant continued for some time, and it too came to an end. The sheik proceeded to a seat where he would deliver a sermon. We slipped out – 11:30pm.

The title of this entry, “so much for modernity”, is something Dr. Khan said to me. Consider so many people, spending a whole evening together, voluntarily, “unproductively” and with no technology. I am, generally, a big fan of modernity – especially the expanding circle of empathy, the chance for improved health, and the dissemination of knowledge. It is true, however, that we must continue to strive for genuine contact with one another and with enduring truths.


Where will the influential Muslim ideas come from? Mansoor Moaddel’s theoretical framework, and a prediction


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In his 2001 paper “Conditions for Ideological Production: The Origins of Islamic Modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran,” Mansoor Moaddel argues that Islamic modernism arose in the context of competing marketplaces of ideas and of a disruptive moment in history. He later expanded this into a 2005 book, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse.

In 19th century Egypt and India, social change led to environments in which many ideas competed and led to strong new worldviews. He contrasts these moments with 19th century Iran, in which social change was relatively small but there were still multiple discourses. Thus, he argues, Iran saw weak but still extant modernist views arise. Moaddel presents evidence to show that one needs new thinkers associated with the state in order to create enough space for the new ideologies to be produced.

Moaddel also seeks to show that while the social milieu needs to be right, the content of the ideas produced is formed in dialogue with other ideas, and not simply as a reaction to external forces.

I found his argument persuasive, though I might put it a somewhat different way. The economic, political and social environment asks the questions, and people use their cultural, religious and intellectual heritage as well as new ideas they encounter to offer answers. In the cases of Egypt, India and Iran in the 19th century, for example, a central question was “how do we respond to the material dominance of the West?” This would be one of Moaddel’s “episodes,” a moment when resources and social space produce a need for new ideologies. The answers are presented by thinkers such as those discussed by Moaddel. An example of a response to the question of Western material advances would be al-Afghani’s anti-imperialist and simultaneously modernist claims. He draws from his understanding of his own history, from Muslim religious thought, and from Enlightenment reasoning to weave together his answers. Moaddel captures this when he says, “the key factors in the actual production of discourse are the nature, the number, and the level of diversity of the targets the ideological producers face, which determine the theme and the content of their utterances.”

The statement that most raised my eyebrows was in Moaddel’s conclusion, when he said, “We contend that if we obtain an adequate picture of the role of the state in culture, the nature of the discursive field, and the kind of ideological targets that are present in this field, we may be able to overcome indeterminacy and predict the process of ideological production.” This seems incredibly ambitious – it feels to me like there are just too many variables. I partly withdraw my critique, however, upon coming upon a quote from sociology professor Beau Weston: “It is always true that ‘reality is more complex than your social theory’. And that critique is never helpful”. So to finish I will attempt at two related predictions based on a current situation.

Muslims across the world today are encountering one of Moaddel’s episodes. In my terminology, sociopolitical forces are asking them a question: “How should Muslim majority states govern themselves?” In Egypt today this question has major implications, satisfying one of the conditions for the production of new ideologies. With the military back in firm control, however, and acting forcefully to limit the dialogue, new ideologies will arise but will not obtain a sufficient foothold to become powerful. Within Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, however, there is both a historical episode and a pluralist discourse. Thus we are likely to see Muslims in the West producing new, highly influential ideologies.

Ibn Sina’s thoughts on the good ruler


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I am getting to know Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna in the West) political ideas through Erwin Rosenthal’s Political Thought in Medieval Islam. I need to read Ibn Sina himself, but in the meantime here is my first approximation of his concept of the preferred caliph.

To understanding medieval political philosophy, we must begin with the premises that God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Then we pursue the following line of reasoning: the Divine wants people to be happy, both in this life and the next. Humans can only pursue the good life in the context of a well-ordered state. Thus, we must identify what such a state looks like.

Humans have two routes to knowledge in this worldview: revelation and reason. Revelation, being a direct communication from divinity, must be all encompassing and thus superior. Medieval philosophers thus faced a problem: why reason at all, if one could simply rely on revelation alone? Some Muslim philosophers, as well as some Jewish and Christian ones, responded that there are different paths to God, and for most people obedience to revelation is sufficient. To some, however, God gave a nature to follow a more complex path. As Rosenthal notes, “The distinction between the elect metaphysicians and the masses maintains religious equality and a concern for the happiness of all in accordance with the intellectual capacity of each individual, despite its claim that only the philosopher can penetrate to the inner, hidden meaning of these concepts, whereas the masses must be content with a metaphorical explanation.” The philosophers used this characterization of revelation as using metaphors to create the room for their work. Logical reasoning is more challenging than following metaphor, and thus reserved for elite thinkers.

Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE) works in this tradition. Along with al-Kindi (d. c.873 CE), al-Farabi (d. 950 CE), ibn Rushd (d. 1198 CE), and others, he builds on Plato and Aristotle. Ibn Sina argues along with them that the leader, the caliph, must possess noble virtues. The core value is justice, which one realizes by pursuing the Golden Mean. The three other Platonic political virtues, wisdom, temperance and courage, devolve from justice according to Ibn Sina. In our discussion, Professor Khan noted that ibn Sina’s emphasis on justice made sense, since justice is even more strongly emphasized among Shi’ites than Sunnis, having suffered historical injustices.

One part of Rosenthal’s description of Ibn Sina’s argument I found challenging – when he describes how to handle undeserving rulers. It runs: The people must obey the caliph. If the ruler lacks the political virtues, however, the people must switch their loyalties to a challenger, if a worthy one is available. They must rebel against a tyrant. At the same time, the people should support a strong, impious caliph over a weak, pious caliph. Rosenthal sees these last two rules as inconsistent with each other. One could argue, however, that Ibn Sina is ranking caliphs from 1. pious and strong, to 2. impious and strong, to 3. pious and weak to 4. impious and weak. Within the second category, whether the caliph counts as a tyrant who needs to be deposed depends on how cruel he becomes. This advice would fit with the overall medieval philosophical understanding of the goal of a ruler: to provide a well-ordered state in which the populace can pursue happiness in this life and the next through submission to God. This goal is perhaps why Ibn Sina sees the less moral but capable ruler as preferable to the more moral but less capable ruler. At least under the former you have some chance of living an orderly life and focusing on the good life. Under a weak ruler, not matter how well intentioned, security will collapse and the probability of focusing on higher values will collapse with it.


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