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Using Philosophy To Bolster The Turkmen Regime

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Ever since a tribunal in ancient Athens sentenced Socrates to death by poison, philosophy and politics have usually been at odds. In Turkmenistan, however, philosophy is more than welcomed by the authorities -- so long as it's dead.

The country's tradition of leadership-cultism, beginning with Saparmurat Niyazov and continuing with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has long sought to co-opt philosophy. Niyazov's spiritual guide book, the "Ruhnama," is particularly notorious in this regard, but less well-known is the "Journal of Magtymguly Studies," a pseudo-academic journal from the late 1990s that was dedicated to the Enlightenment-era Turkmen thinker, Magtymguly Pyragy. Its president was Niyazov himself and its contributors included several established Western and Turkish scholars and even the British science fiction author Brian Aldiss.

Magtymguly, one of the Turkic language zone's first prominent thinkers to write in the vernacular, was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant. Although the one preferred lyrics and the other scientific prose, there's a lot of resonance between them. For example, Kant is most famous for distinguishing between “ends” and “means” and for developing the categorical imperative. If you've ever been in the throes of a heated ethical argument and found yourself possessed by talk of doing something “in principle” or “for its own sake,” it's Kant who's speaking through you.

Then again, it could also be Magtymguly:

“When Satan says, 'It's sweet, forget your soul!', God says 'Defy the Fiend, stay in control.' So, Magtymguly, seize the blazing coal: then go and do it, if pain you can bear!” he inwardly growls in one poem; “I'm tired of roaming the roadless hills, I forgot how to understand my heart. I lost my track and my hope, I'm too weak to seek the straight road,” he laments in another.

Both Magtymguly and Kant believed that the core of human existence is steadfastness to an inner universal and divine moral law -- as Kant puts it, “Two things awe me most, the starry skies above me and the moral law within me” -- over and against the contrary instincts of our bodies or the pressures of society.

They were also champions of individualism and democracy, Kant of the French Revolution and Magtymguly of social modernization in his tribal society. So, it's very surprising to read this claim by Berdi Sariyev of Ankara University: “In conclusion, we know that, according to the poems of his time, Magtymguly would accept the constitution,” referring to the constitution of post-independence Turkmenistan.

There's a wide gulf between the high ideals of the Turkmen Constitution, which evince numerous human rights and freedoms, and the government's actual repressive practice -- a philosopher might argue that the authorities have a peculiar interpretation of their own principles. So, Sariyev's assertion seems careful to hint at legitimacy for one of the world's dictatorships without outright granting it; the journal is littered with such kinds of double entendres.

Not to be outdone by his predecessor, earlier this month Berdymukhammedov established a new "Journal of World Literature" intended to “perpetuate the names of outstanding thinkers, who told about the spiritual world outlook of our people and their heroic past to the world and enhancing their fame are the priorities in our country” as well as to introduce its Turkmen readership to the intellectual traditions of other nations. Accordingly, its scope of thinkers is ambitious, stretching from Jalaladin Rumi to Alexander Pushkin.

Yet, one immediately worries about the interpretations the new journal shall promote. If philosophy is ultimately about unfettered debate -- “thought for its own sake,” as it were -- then these journals are an exercise in sophistry: all these philosophers have long passed on and any scholarly research done on them must pass ideological muster with the Turkmen authorities.

Thus, unlike Socrates, whose acquiescence could only be gained by execution, the Magtymgulies of Turkmenistan cannot stand up for what they truly believe. Instead, their voices are converted into tools of the regime. As Kant would say, that reduces philosophy to a means and undermines the very definition of speculative inquiry -- a truly sinister new depth of Niyazov's totalitarian legacy.

-- Christopher Schwartz with contributions by neweurasia's Annasoltan and Magtymguly.

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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