On the lost enlightenment in Central Asia. About why it is worth remembering the past achievements, developing trade in the region. On wealth and culture Fred Starr in conversation with Behzod.
B. Hoshimov: How did you study the region? How did you start studying?
F. Starr: … after the collapse of the USSR I realized there were new countries that we had to know about. And we didn’t know about them. The reason we didn’t know is, frankly, books, for example, published in Uzbekistan didn’t get to the United States, didn’t get abroad. Only the books that Moscow wanted got abroad. This was true in other fields too. I realized after the collapse of the USSR we needed really learn about a lot of regions and new countries that we hadn’t studied closely. That’s when I decided to establish Central Asian Caucasus Institute here in Washington and that was 25 years ago and it is thriving today. Because of my Turkish background I was able fairly easily to read my way into Uzbek. I traveled everywhere and then I got involved in planning some universities in the region. And I serve as a Trustee in two of them today. But in that process I had to go everywhere.
B. Hoshimov: Just mechanically, how do you think about learning a new culture or new studies? How do you do that? What’s your algorithm? Let’s say I am a student and I want to study Central Asia. How would you tell me to study?
F. Starr: I would say, first of all, go there! Unless you have a very specific concrete knowledge of the place… And not just a capital- travel around. Take your time. Take month. You know I have travelled all over Central Asia and Afghanistan too. You must be there – that’s first.
Second – you must have access to languages. I studied Uzbek very hard. Unless I have had fairly generous amount of Uzbek vodka today… I don’t speak publicly… I’m afraid I am allowed to decay of it. But I did study it hard. Languages are important. I had Russian, my wife is German. So I had an access to information from a lot of different sources, but the main thing is – there are 2 things: language and being there.
… getting a tacktal sense of the geography is very important. It’s very important to understand… for example, take Samarkand- we think where tourists go boom. There they are: Bibikhanum…but they don’t realize that it was a whole big oasis. There were many towns within this oasis. There were walls around this oasis. This was a microcivilization right there and the same is true for Bukhara, Merv or Balkh or wherever. Just to appreciate, these were complex centuries with all kinds of industries and activities…just to see that on the ground today and to appreciate – it is not just a little city you are talking about.
B. Hoshimov: You always think about events in terms of ‘what was the reason behind them’ but not necessarily person behind. Determinists ask first question “Why Central Asia?”
What was special about?
F. Starr: I take a very economist approach to this issue. First of all these were rich and successful because of trade and manufacturing. These were not passive traders. They were actually producing huge amounts of goods that were being exported in every direction. We forget that. They invented this tarde network. It wasn’t done by Chinese, Europeans or Arabs, so the Indians.
B. Hoshimov: But again “Why?”
F. Starr: Because location is really important. The Arabs did not do this because they had their breed flower. It wasn’t …It didn’t attend the high level. That was achieved in central Asia. It wasn’t sustained. Why? I think that interaction between open minded contact with the world and economic contact is very important. For example, you know Central Asia – deep underneath the soil is the layer of Zoroastrianism which was invented there, which was created there. It is a kind of an archetype religion. Then Buddhism and the Greek gods and Judaism and Christianity and flavors of Islam. Thus was a very rich complex plays, and very complexities all these threats feeding in stimulated the mind. That is something that is as important as economics.
B. Hoshimov: How much in equation was importance of Arabs conquest of Central Asia?
F. Starr: Let me take it from the other side. The Arabs destroyed much culture in CA. Khorezm, for example, had its own language, its own literature, its own books – gone.
This is true also for zoroastrianism. Everything is gone. I think what they did bring was a common language, which is very important- playing the role of Latin in the west. That was very important. But I think you underestimate how much there was before. If I were to write the criticism of my book- I would say you should have started much earlier and explained the riches intellectually and culturally and economically pre- this golden age.
B. Hoshimov: Most of whatever happened in golden age was not due to conquest of Arabs and Islam, but it was before that.
F. Starr: Because of the rich heritage.
B. Hoshimov: If that’s true-why it didn’t happen before Arabs conquest. Why Central Asia had their Golden Age from the 3d century to the 6th. But it happened right after the caliphate…
F. Starr: Again I have to remind that all the great writers of Central Asia – none of them are known to us except through 10% of what they wrote – the rest is gone, lost. Before this Golden age, that I wrote, they were also important writers and we don’t know them. Their Works have disappeared. I told you on a few that we know that we have fragments of… but the lost, cultural destruction that have occurred was very important. This did not come out of a barren soil. This came out of rich and deep culture which my friend Mr. Rtveladze devoted his life to studying premuslim era. What happened in pre-muslim era , this was open-minded and tolerant people and there were, as you say, very paise, people who were less paise, there were people who were completely secular, there were people who were antireligion. They all were there. They were all interacting and different religions were still there. Don’t forget.
B. Hoshimov: I agree with you in terms of that them being tolerant about religions. What I was trying to get you at was like to repel with those two questions. First is that they were flourishing because they were a part of this larger empire, was it because …
F.Starr: No, I think that larger empire was flourishing because of them and don’t forget they took over.
B. Hoshimov: Can you explain to me this thing: Central Asia was a part of the Abbasids. I would assume, again as an economist not as a historian, that because they were a part of the Ambassid Empire and because trade routes were protected by the government. And therefore being part of that bigger economy those people could scale their businesses and their goods were sold in Damascus and Baghdad. If it wasn’t for and Arab Conquest…the question is why it didn’t happen before Arab conquest? My opinion was maybe because they were a part of larger empire.
F. Starr: Let me agree with you partly that certainly this was a factor. This was the fact that they were so close to India, so close and accessible to China. Look on the map – India, Lahore- great capital, is a really culturally almost a part of Central Asia. Your Point is right. The Abbasids did help, but who protected those trade routes. It was the Turkik gays in the countryside and those were done because they had a reciprocal arrangement not with Baghdad but with these great urban centers. They were mutually dependant. The Turkik nomads were manufacturing and they were producing all kinds of goods, they were producing masses of goods which they sold in the great urban centers. The urban centers found the market among nomads and the Turks. So this didn’t require and it didn’t ever get trade support from Baghdad, from the Abbasids. Even the currency. When Abbasids produced their currency, locals in Central Asia produced their own or they changed it, so that their stamp was on it.
What I am suggesting here is that Baghdad itself… which was designed and constructed largely by people in Central Asia… and then was the Abbasid rule was totally dependent on Central Asian Turks, entire military was… They were completely… And how many of these great intellectual figures we would always you know “Oh Farabi, Al Khorezmi”…and all these people. Well of course they may have been in Baghdad for a while. They were all spreading Central Asian culture, just as later they spread it to China, and certainly spread it to India. There are still to this day Ibn Sina hospitals in India, that depend on its tradition of medicine…so what I am suggesting is a dynamic element. In Eurasia at that period of time for several hundreds of years came from this very fertile, intellectually and economically fertile region of Central Asia. What we think of that the west wasn’t.
B. Hoshimov: I want to hear your short version of “Why the decline happened?”
F. Starr: The economic decline actually was slower and unquestionably the hit from the Mongols affected that, although to an amazing degree they did recover economically. But not in the same degree, dinamism. I would say that the decline first of all … we don’t need to explain it, because they were intellectually highly productive for hundreds and hundreds of years. Nothing lasts forever. Let’s not start blaming them. But I think that biggest reason was that the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims created an environment of intellectual combat. And this kind of abstract thinking which produces such phenomenal results in Central Asia came under attack.
F. Starr: I of course speak of specific writers and thinkers. I think that the bigger part is the conflict of Sunni and Shia which was reflected then to a conflict between Sunni Baghdad and Shia Cairo and these two competing caliphates.
B. Hoshimov: Khorosan was homogeneously Sunni, right?
F. Starr: Yes. But the conflict… On a Sunni side they were saying this speculative staff is irrelevant and not germane to the most important issues of life. Their argument was very fundamentals one namely the all life questions can be solved, resolved by tax from Holy Koran and from the Khadis.
B. Hoshimov: Let’s talk more on modern Russia. You have this report on Putin’s Grand Strategy in Central Asia and Eurasia, Eurasian Union. Right now people in Uzbekistan talk about this quiet seriously. They are basically discussing that. In your report, that you wrote, I think, with your Institute, you basically are not very positive about that. Can you elaborate?
F. Starr: Well. Look. If the idea is to create a real trade zone like the EU, it’s failed, because trade within the region reached the peak in 2012 and it’s never come back to it. It is just the Eurasian Economic Union looks to, I think, any fear minded observer as a kind of Trojan horse for the Russian to export its goods to protect the market.
B. Hoshimov: So it’s like USSR 2.0?
F. Starr: Well. Statistically that is what it will be so far. Maybe there will be a change. Maybe in policy of Putin will be different. But so far it has been Russia exporting goods to the small countries. How could it be otherwise, when you have so called economic union that is totally dominated not only in size but in power by one member?