This presentation argues that traditional networks of solidarity in Central Asia offer a fertile ground for the building of civil society and that without a partnership between these and “modern” notions and institutions of civic culture, the latter will merely be shallow imports.

The traditional networks in the societies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have deep roots; they are not necessarily “Islamic”. International organizations and interest groups wishing to contribute to civic culture in Central Asia would be making a mistake if they ignored existing networks, and tried to impose from scratch Western institutions of civil society.

The Soviet Aftermath: Wherefore Civic Culture?

The concept of civil society usually refers to networks of free citizens - such as professional associations, unions, political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - which create political space as a prerequisite for building democracy and the rule of law. The few local NGOs have often been established, and are always supported by, foreign NGOs or international agencies. They face acute difficulty in rooting themselves in the society.

A common view among foreign agencies engaged in building civil society in Central Asia is that the task has to be undertaken from scratch, because nothing exists that can be called a “civil society” after seven decades of Sovietism. Collectivisation, the assault against traditional society in the 1920s and 1930s and the political hegemony of the Communist Party are considered to have destroyed civil society in Central Asia; hence the policies today of the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Development Programme of implementing full privatisation by destroying the kolkhoze (collective farm) system.

But a closer look at the existing society shows that there are networks of people based on traditional patterns of solidarity groups (extended families, clans, awlad, qawm, mahalla) which work at three levels: organising solidarity among citizens (gap or circles to gather and distribute interest free loans), protecting the individual against the encroachments of an authoritarian if not despotic State and gearing up the individual with the State apparatus through patron-client networks. These networks have an anthropological basis: they are based on primary identity groups, whatever their sociological basis (clans, extended family, geographical origin, village, mahalla, religious groups etc.) They have not been destroyed by Sovietisation but in fact recast in the structures of the Soviet system.

For example, the inner administrative structure of the kolkhoze has reshaped and strengthened many of these traditional identity groups. The brigade and the uchatska (groupings of housing) duplicate the qawm and mahalla segmentations, and give them an almost administrative reality, which of course has never been expressed in official terms.

Traditional endogamy tended to strengthen this group identity - along with the fact that, in the Soviet system, work was allotted on the basis of such groupings.

Communist Party structures also often duplicated the anthropological segmentation into identity groups: the Communist Party’s local leaders came from the dominant group. Even in the religious field, solidarity networks played a role: religious alignments often duplicate identity groups (the Gharmis in Tajikistan).

Networks of sufi affiliation either did the same (for example when a clan or a tribe is collectively associated with a sufi clan or family), or contributed to creating a new and specific network, which could cross through political alignments.

But usually political alignments both inside the Soviet communist parties and after independence reflected loyalties to solidarity groups more so than ideological alignments. The building of a civil society in the modern sense means the replacement of these traditional networks by others based on individual and direct affiliations through a political or ideological commitment. To what extent could such affiliations contribute to fostering a political sphere that could be different from the traditional social fabric, without appearing as a mere import from abroad?

Islam and Tradition: Laying the Groundwork for Civil Society

This brings us to the role of Islamic movements which strive to bypass the traditional affiliations by providing a sense of Muslim “brotherhood” beyond social and ethnic identities. The Islamist movements which stemmed from the “Islamic Renaissance” parties are seeking to establish an “Islamic polity”. But despite their claim of being supranational, the Islamist movements have been shaped by national particularities.

Sooner or later, they tend to express domestic regionalist alignments and national interests, even under the guise of Islamist ideology. This is the case with the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP): it expresses a regionalist affiliation, that of the Gharmis, and it made a deal for a coalition government on the basis of a Tajik nationalist perspective.

To this extent, the Islamist parties do contribute to rooting a political scene in Central Asia, as they did in the Middle East. At a local level, and specifically in the Ferghana valley, many mosques were built by self-taught clerics, who also claimed to bypass solidarity groups and to establish some sort of community group - based on the sole fact of being a Muslim.

But this endeavour to create a new kind of grass roots community with social implications (solidarity) has been thwarted by state repression from 1995 onwards, except in Tajikistan. Modern political Islam has been unable to reshape traditional society. The same is true of more traditional forms of Islam, which express or adapt to the fabric of traditional society: local mosques based on mahalla identity as well as sufi networks that duplicate traditional solidarity groups or function as traditional networks of solidarity.

There has been a crisis of the sufi networks in the last period of the Soviet empire: many youth who used to come back to Islam through some kind of sufi pir, chose to join political Islamist movements in the late 1980s (like Turajanzade himself, but also Mullah Nuri). There is a generation gap in the sufi networks: the issue now is whether the sufi revival will attract the present new generation. We presently lack field data on this issue.

Where to from here?

It is difficult for international organisations and NGOs to identify the proper interlocutors to work with. But they must make the effort on the basis of specific local conditions, and not simply ignore traditional networks and social structures as somehow tainted by Soviet rule or some other legacy. In any case, legitimacy in building civil society will only come from such associations with well-grounded local sources.

This does not mean that traditional institutions are unchanging, or that they must be accepted precisely as they are.

Change is happening right across the new republics, based primarily on local needs that are economic and social. The key point to recognise is that given the sheer prevalence of traditional ways of thinking and organising in Central Asia, the starting point for endeavours to build civil society can only be among networks of solidarity and other forms of traditional society.

 “When our guest speaker and I were discussing the direction of today’s seminar, I was tempted to propose that we add the clause “Red, Green and Blue” to the title “Civic Identity in the New Central Asia”. Red, of course, for the legacy of Russian and Soviet dominance until 1991, which has marked the political and social landscape of Central Asia in ways that will unfold for many more years. Friedrich Engels claimed that, “for all its baseness and dirt, Russian domination is a civilising element in Central Asia”. ” “Judging by the evidence, most of us would agree that such an assessment requires a peculiar definition of the term “civilising” - one that is far removed from the needs of civil society. Totalitarian regimes are no friends of the kind of autonomous public sphere that is the basis of civic culture. Lenin himself put it squarely: “the Communist Party is the mind, honour and conscience of our era”.”

“As for the green in my proposed colour scheme, that seems to be all that the reds - especially - can see today: the colour of Islam. True, Islamic revivalism has been a feature of the new Central Asia, but the political slogans attached to this reclaiming of the region’s Muslim heritage tend to focus too easily on stereotypes of militancy, at the expense of the Islam of the sufis, the intellectuals, and for that matter, the religious and cultural heritage shared by Central Asians at large, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

“Indeed, if our green symbolism were more generous, it might even cover environmental consciousness - especially in a Central Asia whose eco-systems have been ravaged by the reckless mega-projects of the Soviet era. There are dozens of citizens’ interest-groups from Kazakhstan down to Turkmenistan dedicated to responding to this legacy - an activity which is of the essence of civil society activism.” “And finally, the colour blue in my hypothetical seminar-title: I am afraid this was inspired by the sheer weight of pessimism among expert observers over the prospects for civil society in Central Asia. It’s enough to give us the blues. We certainly got our share in the sobering analysis of Tajikistan’s troubled transition from civil war in the previous seminar.”

“Yet we need to look deeply and creatively at the socio-cultural landscape, at the trends and discourses that signal the commitment of the peoples of Central Asia’s emerging republics to create new identities, to strengthen bonds of community, and to claim wider spaces for personal freedom, to reinvent tradition. The overt political markers that one might look for in a full-blown democracy are not the only ones to look for in young, traditional states.”

“Whether it's development in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan or peace-making in Tajikistan, we know through the experience of the Aga Khan Development Network, for example, that there is more to it than signing trade deals or just getting people to lay down their arms. Building civil society is the essential challenge, and ultimately, this is a long-term challenge.”