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Qishloq Ovozi

A photo of Central Asian scholar Edward Allworth during his time with the 101st Airborne in World War II.

The field of Central Asian Studies lost perhaps the last of its great masters when Dr. Edward A. Allworth died on October 20 at the age of 95.

He was already a legend in the field when I first met him in 1986. I had read some of his books (I'm still not sure how many he wrote) but each of his books could only show one part of Professor Allworth.

In person, he was a force.

Allworth started teaching at Columbia University in 1961 and though he is best known for his work in the field of Central Asian studies, he also wrote on the Crimean Tatars, Afghanistan, and was a leading authority on nationalities of the Soviet Union.

His knowledge of Central Asia was second to none, whether it was ancient or contemporary history, languages, or culture (and he was especially fond of the classical literature of the region). He seemed to know everything.

I said exactly that to him once and he laughed and said I was making him out to be more than he was. He was being way too modest there.

He taught me, and others, Uzbek and Uyghur, but he knew many more languages; not only Turkic languages, but Slavic and Germanic as well.

Edward Allworth was a distinguished gentleman, a scholar of "the old world," I used to think, someone who had read copiously and retained a huge amount of information. He spoke eloquently and his manner and behavior were at all times proper and impeccable. He always wore a suit and tie to class.

We could not have been more different I think, certainly when I started my course work with him, and I know I tried his patience more than once in my early years studying under him. (Ask me sometime about my reports for his classes on The Miracle Play of Husan and Husain and on Mahmud of Ghazna).

But he did not give up on me and gradually he opened Central Asia up to me and my fellow students. And more, he reveled in our successes. We were his children in a way, and when we did well it was clear that this gave him great satisfaction. When I returned from Central Asia in late 1993, after 21 months "in country," we spent hours together as I recounted my journeys and showed him photographs from all of the places I had been.

Hugely Respected

It was one thing, and quite natural, that I and his other students in Columbia's Middle East Languages and Cultures Department looked up to Professor Allworth in awe.

But it was not only his students. Professor Allworth was also a member of the Harriman Institute (at that time the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union). He did not drop by the Harriman Institute often, but when he did the professors made sure they came out of their offices to meet with him and it was clear from the way they looked at him and spoke to him that he was a hugely respected figure.

Edward Allworth in later life
Edward Allworth in later life

After I left school, I had the great fortune to meet some of his peers; other giants in the field of Central Asian Studies: Richard Frye of Harvard, Denis Sinor of Indiana University (and also once a lecturer at Cambridge), and Edmund Bosworth, who taught at St. Andrews, the University of Manchester, Princeton, and Exeter University.

At first, all of them took no more than a mild, but polite, interest in meeting me, but when I explained I studied under Professor Allworth, everything changed. They asked about him, told stories they knew about him, and made me promise to send their regards to him when I next spoke with him. They also made it clear that being a student of Edward Allworth meant I had a lot to live up to.

And amazingly, there seemed to always be another tale about his life I had not heard. We lived close to one another and sometimes rode the bus home together. One day, during one of those journeys, I said something about World War II and he told me he was with a unit that parachuted into Europe on D-Day.

"Wow, what was that like?" I asked.

In an almost monotone voice, Professor Allworth simply said, "We were all a little nervous."

He neglected to tell me he was with the 101st Airborne Division and that he and his "unit" fought many battles in northern Europe right up to the end of World War II.

A Lifetime Of Achievement

People who aren't interested in Central Asia have probably never heard of Edward Allworth. But for those who do follow the region, Edward Allworth is one of the greatest of names in the field.

I am not one of his best students. I would be fooling myself if I thought that. But just to be a student of Edward Allworth means to have a pedigree, and if that is my only distinction in the field, that's good enough for me.

I will never be the equal of my master. But he showed me what excellence in the field is, and that will always motivate me to be better.

I am going to the United States now for several events. The crowning moment of the trip was going to be, and still is, attending the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) conference at Princeton University where a lifetime achievement award will be bestowed on Edward Allworth for his work.

I, and others, had hoped to see him accept the award in person but his health had not been good lately, so we hoped to at least be able to bring the award to him.

That is no longer possible but I was comforted by the words Morgan Liu, one of the brightest of the current Central Asian scholars, who wrote: "CESS is what has emerged in part because of his [Allworth's] legacy."

For my part, I say: "Thank you, my master for giving me a gift that has served me so well. I will always be your student."

RIP Edward Allworth, December 1, 1920 -- October 20, 2016

In the worst-case scenarios some Central Asian governments grossly exaggerate or even invent groups, then imprison perceived opponents for membership.

The thing the governments in Central Asia fear the most is religion. Secular opposition there has been nearly eliminated and in its place religious opposition has appeared.

Only a very few people in Central Asia are given to joining Islamic extremist groups. But were one to judge from the actions of the region's governments and security forces, it would easy at times to get the impression there was an imminent threat to the state.

The era of the Internet and social networks has ushered in a new era of paranoia, not only in Central Asia, and the authorities in Central Asia are broadening their definitions of what an extremist group is and taking preemptive measures to cut off the perceived threats these often ill-defined groups allegedly represent.

To discuss religion and the Central Asian governments' increasingly restrictive attitude toward various groups, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel to discuss the campaign against suspect believers in the region.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From London, Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, joined the talk. Participating from Washington, D.C., was Dillorom Abdullaeva of Tashabbus, a group formed by young lawyers in Uzbekistan to help protect the rights of people there. And in case you didn't notice, we have Noah Tucker from Registan.net working with us at RFE/RL now, so he was in the studio in Prague with me for the discussion.

It was not long after independence in 1991 that the Central Asian leaders, all former Communist Party officials during the Soviet era, realized that although reembracing Islam would help their countries to reinforce distinctions between them and former colonial master Russia, these leaders themselves knew very little about the religion.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was confronted by a group of Muslims during a trip to Namangan in December 1991 and forced to sit and listen as the group's leaders lectured him about their ideas of good governance. Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992 and the core of the government's military opponents was the Islamic Renaissance Party. These then were the early examples for Central Asian governments and it sparked different reactions from the five states.

Corley said policies toward religion evolved to the point where "the Central Asian governments are more or less saying, religion is dangerous unless we the authorities have licensed it and registered it as being acceptable within very tightly restricted bounds, which the government has set."

Any group outside those bounds becomes suspect. While the constitutions of all five enshrine freedom of religion, in practice so-called "nontraditional faiths" face significant problems.

As Abdullaeva said, "There are many religious groups who are unofficially banned in Uzbekistan," and she added, "It is practice to be arbitrary and to keep fear in people who practice religion."

And Abdullaeva added that the state-approved version "of Sunni Islam...is kind of Soviet-style, I would say, closer to culture than religion."

The Central Asian governments seem to misinterpret the intentions of many groups or misidentify them entirely. "Wahhabis" were once the favorite targets of campaigns, even going back to the Soviet era, though most if not nearly all the people detained or imprisoned in Central Asia did not seem to be practicing the form of Wahhabism associated with Saudi Arabia, its birthplace.

"Salafis" have now become one the most suspected Islamic groups in Central Asia. Tucker explained, "You'd be very pressed to find anyone in a Central Asian government who could delineate to you the exact difference between a Wahhabi and a Salafi and [when] lawyers who present this evidence in trial, there's very little effort to make any kind of definition."

There is also very little effort made to elaborate how exactly these people represented a threat. Corley said, "The government[s] should look at people who are actually committing crimes of violence or inciting, or organizing the committing of crimes of violence and not target people solely because of their religious affiliation or their perceived religious affiliation."

Not Belonging To Nonexistent Group?

In the worst-case scenarios some Central Asian governments grossly exaggerate or even invent groups, then imprison perceived opponents for membership. Tucker noted how problematic this was for the accused. "They're [the government] saying you belong to a group that doesn't actually exist so it's very hard to prove they don't belong to something, if you can't say what the group is in the first place," he said.

Corley commented, "This is a very dangerous approach which does nothing to help the security of the country and does nothing to protect the human rights of the people of an individual country."

Corley provided the example of Bahrom Saparov, the leader of a group of Sunni Muslims in Turkmenistan's eastern town of Turkmenabat who apparently was preaching without official approval. "He is believed to have received a 15-year prison term, he's in the top security prison in Owadan Depe in the desert and very, very few prisoners ever come out of there alive, he's last known to have been seen in that prison in 2014."

And Tucker said that just recently in Uzbekistan, acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev "has ordered, particularly in border areas and within Tashkent, for the security services to do house-to-house searches of people who were previously convicted on religious charges."

Abdullaeva pointed out, "Religious extremists or acts of religious extremism are the result of the severe restrictions on freedom of religion in those countries."

Tucker suggested that "the governments would do their own citizens a favor in paying attention to public safety and the public good...by having definitions [of extremist groups] that actually work."

The Majlis discussed these topics in greater detail and ranged around Central Asia looking at other specific examples of state campaigns against religious groups. You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Religious Persecution In Central Asia
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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