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Are Uzbek Schools Reviving A Soviet Term To Avoid Islamic Ones?

In many Uzbek schools and colleges, the honorific "Aka" for males or "Opa" for women -- denoting respect for elders but literally meaning "Uncle" and "Aunt" -- are tacked onto teachers' first names. (file photo)

An Uzbek university is said to have forbidden students from using a widespread term to address teachers and professors in favor of Russian-style patronymics reminiscent of Soviet days.

It's still unclear whether this week's purported order to avoid "Ustoz" (Teacher) came from Uzbekistan's Education Ministry or otherwise "on high," as students and educators at Kokand State Pedagogical Institute insisted to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

The university rector's office insisted it issued no such ban.

A reversion to teachers' first names followed by patronymics (ending in "-ich" for men and "-ovna" for women) would be especially puzzling in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov's administration has spent the two decades since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. trying to scrub society of its most Russified elements.

So why would those same officials reverse course, even on such a minor point?

One educator suggested to RFE/RL that the rationale for reintroducing the onetime protocol might be to encourage students to remember their professors' names rather than defer to the anonymity of a title.

Another aim might simply be to standardize university mores across the country. After Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, students took to addressing their teachers in a variety of ways, although the most popular was almost certainly "Ustoz."

In many Uzbek schools, the honorific "Aka" for males or "Opa" for women -- denoting respect for elders but literally meaning "Uncle" and "Aunt" -- were tacked onto teachers' first names.

Some of the most popular forms of addressing teachers across Central Asia's most populous country, however, have been Arabic words or other terms with their roots in religion, specifically Islam. The words "Mualim" for males and "Mualima" for females are such examples, meaning "teacher" -- traditionally in religious schools but used more generically in Soviet times. The same applies to "Domla" for male teachers, a term for a person who reads prayers during marriages or other important ceremonies.

Ubiquitous Arabic

So are Uzbek authorities trying to rid their schools of terminology directly or indirectly linked to Islam?

The official Soviet doctrine of atheism and secularism was rigorously preached across the former U.S.S.R., so the current Uzbek regime might see a return to Soviet protocol as a path to secularize Uzbek youth.

It might sound ridiculous to some.

But beyond Uzbekistan's own highly publicized campaign against Islamist extremists like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Central Asia is rife with efforts to counter the influence of Islamic ideologues: shaving beards and closing down Islam-inspired political parties in Tajikistan, suspending students in hijabs in Kyrgyzstan, and confiscating talismans and harassing Muslim students' families in Turkmenistan.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Central Asians are believed to be fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, and a significant number of them are thought to hail from Uzbekistan.

But eliminating the Arabic language's presence in Central Asia would be a virtually impossible task, given its prevalence.

And what's next for Uzbek schools? Commonly used words for book ("kitab") and even school ("maktab") in Uzbekistan derive from Arabic. Are officials going to ban the use of the word "talaba," a ubiquitous word in Uzbekistan (and elsewhere in Central Asia) for "student" that gained international notoriety with the rise of the radical fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan?

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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