With the increasingly globalised international system heading towards what looks like the elimination of nation-states are we heading for a new world which resembles the primeval soup in which nations could not be told apart?
This is the question behind Hugh Pope”s new book which is about the identity debate in almost a dozen countries where what he describes as "the Turkic people" form either a majority or a substantial minority. His answer is that globalisation, while effacing political and administrative frontiers among nations may paradoxically encourage a sense of cultural identification. And this, he further argues, is especially the case among the Turkic peoples.
But let us start by finding out what makes a people "Turkic".
The key element in that identity is not race or ethnicity. Ataturk”s attempts at inventing a racial origin for his people led him into a number of absurd, if not comical, conclusions. At one point he traced the origins of the Turkish people to Finland rather than Central Asia and Siberia. The book "White Lilies", which promoted that idea, became compulsory reading at Turkish government schools. The idea was that Turks were Europeans and thus progressive and modern rather than Asian and "backward".
Nevertheless, a majority of people who now live within the borders of the Turkish Republic and speak Turkish as their mother tongue are, as far as race is concerned, the descendants of the Greek and other Hellenised communities of Asia Minor who have been Turkicised during the past 10 centuries or so. What makes them Turkic, therefore, is not blood but culture and sentiment. They feel they are Turks, and so they are.
Not everyone who speaks a version of the half a dozen or so Turkic languages may describe himself as Turkic. But most do.
Pope estimates the number of Turkic-speakers at over 140 million, almost half of them in the Turkey itself. Turkic-speakers are also a majority in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan which have a combined population of 50 million. Turkic-speaking Azeris number around 15 million in Iran while the Uyghurs, another Turkic people who live in Xinjiang, or the Chinese Turkistan, number some 12 million. There are also Turkic minorities in Russia (including the Tatars, the Bashkirs, the Charkess-Qarachai, and the Kabardino-Balkars) who account for some 20 million people. Smaller Turkic minorities live in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.
The idea of pan-Turkism, based on the dream of creating a single state to unite all the Turkic-speakers from Central Asia to the Mediterranean, reached its peak in the first two decades of the last century. One of its greatest champions, a certain Anwar Pasha, even tried to carve himself a mini-empire in Central Asia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
It was pan-Turkism that inspired other nationalistic movements in the region starting with pan-Iranism in the 1930s and pa-Arabism in the 1960s.
The pan-Iranists preached the unification of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the Soviet Caucasus, plus the Bahrain archipelago in the Persian Gulf, in the name not of language but of Iranian blood and culture. The pan-Arabists dreamed of a single state spanning the vast region between the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in the name of the Arabic language.
Pan-Iranism died in the 1960s when the Shah finalised Iran”s borders with the Soviet Union and gave up the old Iranian claim on Bahrain. Pan-Arabism died with the demise of Gamal Abdul Nasser”s dictatorship after Egypt”s 1967 defeat by Israel.
Pan-Turkism, however, has managed, with many ups and downs, to survive and still constitutes a good part of the political discourse in Turkey where even Islamist and liberal ideological rivals pay lip service to it.
In the 1990s Pan-Turkism received an unexpected boost from the fall of the Soviet Empire. Turkey”s President Turgot Ozal was especially keen to fill in the void that was taking shape in Central Asia and the Caucasus. A pragmatist, Ozal knew that sentimental issues, while important, could not sustain a serious policy in the region. Accordingly, he mobilised whatever economic, trade and military resources that Turkey could put together for the purpose, and organised an "invasion" of the region by businessmen, engineers, and military advisors.
In both Central Asia and the Caucasus, Ozal had to compete against Russia, which still hoped to retain a dominant position, and Iran, which was entering the scene with more money and an Islamist discourse. But Ozal”s strategy ultimately failed not because of Russian or Iranian competition. The clincher in its defeat was the massive arrival of the Americans. Once the US was present with a high profile the newly independent republics preferred to deal with it rather than it junior local ally Turkey.
As Hugh Pope shows in his excellent study, the dollar proved stronger than emotional assertions about a common ancestry and a shared culture. In many cases the Turkish businessmen that Ozal had despatched to Central Asia ended up as middlemen for American corporations seeking a share of the regional market. Pope introduces one such businessman, identified only as Murad, who has made his fortune importing frozen chicken into landlocked Turkmenistan via Iran.
Pope, a British journalist and a fluent Turkish-speaker who has lived in Turkey for decades, knows the Turkic world like the back of his hand. His book is, for a good part, a travelogue, narrating his numerous ventures in the Turkic lands over the past 15 years.
But is language enough for shaping an identity?
Pope should have but does not pose the question. If language were enough as the basis of a common identity, the people of Bangladesh would not have separated themselves from their fellow Bengali speakers in Indian West Bengal.
It is also interesting to note that the world”s second largest English-speaking nation, after the United States, is the Philippines not the United Kingdom.
Pope cites several collective features, or identifiers, of which language is the most important. But the Turkic people he describes have other common features, including their belief in a common ancestry- they all regard Chengiz Khan as their distant ancestor. Another common feature is what Pope describes as "the military vocation" of the Turkic peoples.
This is borne out by history which shows how various Turkic peoples appeared on the scene as mercenaries for local Persian, Arab and Byzantine principalities and ended up by absorbing, and in some cases, Turkicising them.
In some cases, especially in North Africa and Egypt, however, the Turks were gradually absorbed and Arabised and are today identified only thanks to their Turkish-sounding family names.
Pope asserts that the Turkic peoples have a certain fascination for the military which has turned the army, especially in Turkey itself, into the custodian of the highest national interests. He also says that the Turkic peoples always look to a "strongman" to lead them, and thus have developed a penchant for authoritarian rule. Because of that, Pope argues, prospects for democratisation in the Turkic world remain dim. One could safely ignore such questionable generalisations. There is, in fact, no evidence that Turkic-speaking peoples would reject the chance to live in a democracy where their human rights are respected. The book, which will be on sale next month, was written before the pro-democracy uprising that ended the regime of President Askar Aqaev in Kyrgyzstan and before the current pro-reform revolt in neighbouring Uzbekistan.)
Pope also acknowledges Islam as one of the key features of the Turkic identity. With the exception of Azerbaijan, where 98 per cent of the Turkic-Azeri speakers are Shiites, almost all other Turkic peoples are Sunni Muslims with a strong Sufi tradition. In fact, one of the weaknesses of Pope”s otherwise valuable book is his failure to describe the role of the various Sufi fraternities, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Pope shows that despite the revival of Islam in former Soviet republics all the new regimes are prepared to work with the Western powers, especially by allowing access to the oil resources of the Caspian Basin. Moreover, the United States now maintains military bases in several of the Turkic states in addition to its massive presence in Turkey itself through the NATO alliance. The pragmatist policy of the ruling elites means that the Turkic states are performing better than their Iranian, Slav and Arab neighbours in a number of domains, especially economic development and the spread of education.
For this reviewer the most interesting part of Pope”s fairly long book is the narrative of his travels in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), a vast land controlled by China and largely closed to the outside world.
Pope estimates the number of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang at eight million, which is the official Chinese claim. But most Western specialists put the number at around 12 million. For the past five decades Beijing has pursued a policy of Sinification in Xinjiang by bringing in large numbers of Han Chinese so as to turn the native Muslims into a minority in their own land. Pope says that the Muslims now account for only half of the population in Xinjiang.
Pope shows that the Han settlers are given the most lucrative jobs in Xinjiang while the native Muslims are assigned to low-paid positions and rigorously kept out of "sensitive" fields such as the military and he police. Until the 11 September 2001 attacks against New York and Washington, the US, along with several oil-rich Arab states, had given moral and financial support to Uighur opposition parties. Since then, however, most of that support has stopped as the US has drawn closer to China and Russia in the name of a joint campaign against Islamist terrorism. As for the oil-rich states, they have recognised China as their biggest future market and, perhaps, even biggest protector, if and when the US loses interest in the region. This has persuaded the oil-rich states that backing the Uighurs is not worth the loss of Chinese goodwill.
Pope writes: " Islam is channelling the Uighurs” political frustration. A longing for international strength and legitimacy is the Main factor behind the Uighur embrace of Islam. It gives them a perhaps misleading sense of equality in numbers, since there are nearly as many Muslims in the world as Chinese. Islam is also a safer kind of dissent. Despite [periodic crackdowns on religious practices, including what a Human Rights Watch report in April called a ” highly intrusive religious control” Islam benefits from a minimum of toleration by the Chinese state. By contrast, Beijing bans every secular expression of a Uighur nationalist identity."
Pope says that the death in 1995 of Isa Alptekin, the secularist Uighur independence movement leader, marked the start of a long process that had led to the domination of the Uighur national scene by Islamist preachers and militants.
According to Pope some of the Islamist Uighur fighters joined the Taliban in Afghanistan where a few of them were captured by the Americans and taken to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Having attributed the growth of Islam among the Uighurs to purely political factors, Pope , nevertheless, goes on to contradict himself by showing that the Uighur attachment to Islam is not purely motivated by politics.
He writes: " In most houses, people rigorously observe Islam”s five daily prayers. In Uighur villages, mosques are usually the tallest and best built buildings for kilometres, their street fronts decked out in fancy tile work and a line of slender minarets. At one small bookshop in Kashgar”s old town, there were just a few dusty volumes of Uighur history. The fastest moving bestsellers turned out to be the Quran and teach-yourself Arabic books."
Pope further reports that many Uighur freedom fighters are expressing doubts about the wisdom of using an Islamist discourse in pursuit of political goals. This apparent change of heart has allowed Erkin, the late Alptekin”s eldest son, to move centre stage to lead the independence movement towards a secular discourse based on culture and identity rather than religion.
" I was telling them for years that while you might admire a suicide bomber, the rest of the world will see him as a terrorist," Erkin Alptekin told Pope. " Now they come and tell me: Erkin, you were right!"
No one knows where the Turkic world maybe heading. Turkey is trying to become part of the European Union while the Tatars and the Bashkir appear content to remain part of the Russian federation. The Central Asian republics may be entering a period of political instability that might ultimately lead to their democratisation. One thing is certain: the Turkic nations are to move up the news agenda and Pope”s book offers much insight into their little known world.