Post-Socialism & Islam in Tajikistan


A review of Re‐producing Social Relations; Political and Economic Change and Islam in Post‐Soviet Tajik Ishkashim, by Aliaa Remtilla

Aliaa Remtilla’s fascinating dissertation “Re‐producing social relations; Political and economic change and Islam in post‐Soviet Tajik Ishkashim” focuses on what it means to be “post-socialist” for residents of the remote Ishkashim district in Tajikistan’s Mountainous Badakhshan region. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Tajikistan, conducted between 2008 and 2009, Remtilla investigates the impact that the legacy of the Soviet “allocative state” has upon contemporary expectations of state resource allocation. Given the weakness of the Tajik state in this respect, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community in Ishkashim, the Aga Khan, with his Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has somewhat filled this gap by providing material and spiritual support to the local population. Both the Soviet Union and the imam “are spoken of as sohebs [leaders], both can be framed as actors in what I [Remtilla] have called an “economy of grace”” (p. 168).

In Chapter 1, Remtilla problematizes the term “post-socialism,” stressing that it should be understood as an “analytical and not a temporal indicator” (p. 12). When Tajikistan gained independence in 1991 social relations did not change overnight. Instead modes of social organization derived from state socialism persisted. In this sense, “post” denotes “the ongoing legacies of a discrete historical period” (p. 12). Ishakshimis continue to identify with the Soviet past. Remtilla’s approach to socialism draws on Katherine Verdery’s description of socialist states as “allocative centres” (K. Verdery, What was socialism, and what comes next? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). In a socialist system the state is the main employer and is responsible for allocating resources to citizens. As such, the aim of the state is not to maximize profit, but to increase the dependency of citizens on the allocative center. Soviet rule manifested itself in Ishkashim in this way.

In Chapter 2, “Home(s): Methods and Methodologies,” Remtilla’s highly personalized narrative explains the way in which the “field” became “home” through immersion and familiarization in the house of her host mother Shirinbek. Her account shows how no matter how well you plan your field work, it will likely take you in a direction you had not imagined. A chance meeting with Olim, an Ishkashimi, in Moscow led Remtilla to change her research focus from Darvaz, a Sunni district in Badakhshan, to Ismaili Ishkashim. Chapter 3 provides a historical overview of Bukharan, Russian and Soviet rule over the region. Through the life-stories of those living in Ishkashim, Remtilla highlights the nostalgia for the Soviet Union so often found amongst older generations in Tajikistan.

In Chapter 4 Remtilla explores the meaning of the term post-socialism for the local population, concluding that many Ishkashimis still consider themselves to operate a “socialist” system. As Olim states, “We’re not post-socialist. We may be post-Soviet, but we’re still socialist.” The Aga Khan acts as the soheb (head), redistributing wealth and creating opportunities for local communities.  Instead of focusing purely on the pursuit of profit, Ishkashimis are driven by what Remtilla terms “mutuality.” As such Remtilla takes issue with the “transitologists’ assumed teleology that postsocialisms an in-between period of suspension and chaos at the end of which people will finally find themselves in a capitalist system” (p. 170).

In Chapter 5, Remtilla explores how many Ishkashimis view capitalistic self-interest as immoral. Instead they privilege doing favours and reproducing social relations. Her hosts, for example, set up a pharmacy in their home, but charged such low prices that profits were not made. For Ishkashimis “’good’ is defined not by rational self-interest but by an activity that benefits others (in addition to oneself) and in doing so builds social relationships” (p. 95). Indeed the Tajik state is viewed with suspicion for this very reason. It is dominated by Kulobis, who the local population see as acting out of self-interest. In contrast the Aga Khan is viewed as benevolent. He protects local Ismailis both spiritually and materially. Whereas the imam is infallible, his network is not. What exists in Badakhshan is an “economy of grace.” Here Remtilla draws upon Augustus Pitt-Rivers’ theorization of “the concept “grace” as a gift of excess that the receiver is never expected to (be able to) return” (p.20). The Aga Khan has replaced the Soviet state as a distributor of grace.

Tajikistan is the most migration dependent country in the world. According to World Bank figures released in November 2013, forty eight per cent of the Tajik economy derives from remittances sent by migrants working abroad. In Chapter 6, Remtilla examines the ways in which remittance flows allow the communities in rural Ishkashim to maintain a degree of “normalcy” (p. 126). She distinguishes two meanings of the term home. First, khona, denoting both the physical property one calls home and one’s family. Second, watan, meaning homeland; for Ishkashimis this means their home region. This is where they were born and where they will be buried. These spaces are stable, unchanging and secure. The case of Jelondi, an Ishkashimi man who migrated to Russia in 2005, illustrates how social relations become transnational. Jelondi redistributed the money he earned in St Petersburg to his kin in Ishkashim.  Although many of the women left in Tajikistan feel abandoned, Remtilla draws out a common theme in conversations with Tajik migrants; many of them enjoy the ozodi (freedom) of life in Russia, far from the prying eyes of neighbours. One way in which those left behind can feel closer to those who have migrated is through wedding videos. In Remtilla’s words, “watching wedding videos makes migrants feel less alone, and comforts both those at home and those away with the knowledge that they are remembering kin who are spatially distant and, given that others will be watching wedding videos as well, they are also less likely to be forgotten” (p.124). As such migration transforms the Ishkashimi community into a transnational one.

The Panj river separates ethnic Pamiris in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In Chapter 7, Remtilla examines how this border affects the everyday lives of those living in Ishkashim. Although the Afghan side of the border remains poorer, the locals are still confused as to why new hospitals are being built in Afghan Badakhshan, but not on the Tajik side. The answer is simple; the Tajik government does not permit the Aga Khan to build them. As Remtilla observes, “Improvement in the quality of life in Afghanistan threatens Tajik Ishkashimis’ own sense of modernity, oftentimes defined in opposition to their crossborder kin’s perceived backwardness” (p. 133). Indeed, the Tajik Self is defined in opposition to the “primitive” Afghan Other. Despite sharing a historical affinity, the two groups lead different ways of life now. As one Ishkashimi stated:

Mo ham khun, hum din, hum zabon hastim lekin shariyot digar shodast
(We have the same blood, the same religion and the same language but our way of life (shariyot) has become different) (p.134).

Although many Tajiks crossed the border during the civil war, often illegally, despite the opening of a bridge in 2006, border crossings remain relatively infrequent. As Remtilla states, “My ethnography demonstrates that these attempts to foster cross-border connections through official border crossings and cross-border bazaars do not succeed in encouraging Tajik and Afghan Ishkashimis to develop reciprocal relationships with one another” (p.137). Despite it being common for Tajiks to stress their genealogical connections with Afghans, as well as their common soheb, social relations remain underdeveloped.

The Aga Khan acts as economic patron for the region, but he is also revered as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. In the final chapter Remtilla, utilizing an ethnographic analysis of the Imam’s visit (darbar) to Badakhshan in 2008, explores how Ishkashimis relate to the Aga Khan on the spiritual level and how religion impacts upon their daily lives. For Ismailis, the Aga Khan is both zahiri (visible, apparent, temporal, transient, exoteric) and a batini (interior, hidden, spiritual, eternal, esoteric). During the Soviet Union the ties between the Tajik Ismailis and the wider Ismaili community were severed. As such, many had never seen a picture of the imam, who first visited the country in 1995. The experience of being in the presence of the imam during one of his visits (didar) is the pinnacle of Ismaili spirituality. Given the scarcity of such visits, many families venerate images of the imam which can be found in each Pamiri house and some recite the name of Allah (zikr). Not all Ishkashimis pray, many men drink vodka. For Ishkashimis, the meaning of what it means to be “good” remains subjective and open to interpretation. Therefore there is no prescriptive list of religious duties that each community member must perform in order to be a “good” Muslim. As Remtilla observes, “Ishkashimis consider those who pray to be performing a good act but those who do not pray are not categorically judged as bad Ismailis for this decision” (p. 159). This maintenance of Muslim identity without reference to orthopraxy can be seen across Central Asia (A. Khalid, Islam After Communism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Referring to the main argument of the dissertation, this means that “incorporating certain capitalist values – if they are ones the Imam advocates – can help them to be good in a new socio-economic context” (p. 165).

In the concluding chapter Remtilla draws out some of the differences between the Soviet and post-Soviet periods in the region. First, the imam does not provide as many resources for the local population as the Soviet state once did. Second, whereas all cross-border contact with Afghanistan was forbidden during the Soviet period, the Aga Khan now promotes such ties. Finally, whilst the Soviet system dominated the public sphere, the imam pervades both the public and private affairs of the local community. For locals, the revitalization of links between the community and imam constitute the main benefit of the collapse of the Soviet system. Despite the collapse of the Soviet economic system and promotion of capitalist practices, many locals maintain the principle of “mutuality,” using profits for the benefit of their extended families. Indeed, Ishkashimis do not view themselves as transitioning to capitalism, but instead are seeking to achieve an system of distribution that
“looks very much like what they had before” (p. 170).

In her closing remarks Remtilla mentions the difficulty of maintaining a distance from her research “subjects.” Such objectification, a requirement for more positivist forms of social scientific thinking, is not a necessary condition for good research. Remtilla hopes that she has “managed to retain glimpses of the warmth and love that inspired them” (p. 171). In reading her evocative account of life in Ishkashim, I am struck by the obvious love and affinity that she feels for her second family.

The final section of the dissertation consists of appendices. The first appendix covers the period of national delimitation between 1924 and 1932. The second appendix offers a chronological account of the civil war. Finally, Remtilla provides a useful diagram of the AKDN’s structure.

The dissertation is accompanied by an excellent film, “The Other Side,” which focuses on the life in Ishkashim and Shirinbek’s visit to Afghanistan to see his family. Her video brings to life the barrier that the border presents; to travel metres away from Avj, they have to travel 30km to pass the border crossing and then drive back to the village on the Afghan side. Despite many cultural similarities and the development of Afghan Badakshan with the support of the AKDN, differences remain. Shirinbek is interested to see women in burqas, people milling flour and blacksmiths in Afghanistan. He visits a clinic built by the AKDN, noting that the facilities are better than those in Tajikistan. Remtilla captures enlightening conversations with Afghan women, who are rather vocal in the opposition to patriarchy (32:30). For Afghan women, Tajikistan is a bastion of gender equality.

Remtilla’s dissertation makes contributions to numerous academic fields. First, she breaks new ground in unveiling the dynamics of (post)socialism in Tajikistan. Rather than desiring a free market, locals remain (post)socialist in so-far as they value social relations over profit. Second, her study of Ismaili religious practices in Ishkashim supports much of the literature on post-Soviet Islam in arguing that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not integral to being a “Muslim” in Central Asia (see A. Khalid, “A Secular Islam: Nation, State, and Religion in Uzbekistan” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 35, 2003, 573-98; M. de Louw, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia. London: Routledge, 2007; J. Rasanagayam, Islam in Uzbekistan: The Morality of Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Remtilla adds to this literature with an ethnographic analysis of Ishkashimis attitudes towards religion during a visit of the Aga Khan to the region. Third, her dissertation makes contributions to a burgeoning ethnographic approach to the state in Central Asia (see M. Reeves, J. Beyer and J. Rasanagayam (eds.), Ethnographies of the State in Central Asia: Performing Politics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013). Her analysis shows how Tajiks persevere and maintain a degree of normalcy in the face of “state weakness.” Instead of relying on the state as they did during Soviet times, now this normality is maintained through labor migration, kinship networks and the support of the Aga Khan. Fourth, Remtilla’s research contributes to the study of borders that can be found in the discipline of “critical geopolitics.” Her chapter on the Afghan-Tajik border indicates that although building bridges may help to (re)develop cross-border ties, cultural and economic differences limit the “success” of such projects. Despite sharing a language and certain cultural practices, the recent history of Afghan and Tajik Badakhshan has set the two populations apart. Despite being socially constructed, the border is a lived reality for people in the region. Lastly, Remtilla’s research demonstrates how socialist principles and Islamic norms can be combined in what she terms an “economy of grace.” The imam’s gracing of the region differs from the Soviet system in that it has a specifically religious dynamic.

Edward J. Lemon
Department of Politics
University of Exeter

Primary Sources
Ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2009 in Avj, Ishkashim
Documentary filmmaking
In-depth account of the imam’s visit
Ethnographic reflection on the impact of migration and the border on the local community

Dissertation Information
University of Manchester. 2012. 195pp. Primary Advisor: Soumhya S. Venkatesan

Image: Photograph by Author.