Central Asia: Foundations of Change

By Nalle, David | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Central Asia: Foundations of Change


Nalle, David, The Middle East Journal


Central Asia: Foundations of Change, by Robert D. McChesney. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1997. xix + 147 pages. Notes to p. 178. Gloss. to p. 182. Bibl. to p. 194. Index to p. 204. $35. Reviewed by David Nalle

In the past decade, the people of Central Asia have experienced a profound disruption in the way their political, economic and social lives are organized. This thoughtful and authoritative book seeks to go beyond the information provided by media reportage to identify "the embedded institutions, the structures to which people refer when seeking order amidst the apparent disorder around them" (p. 11). These are the "foundations of change" of the book's title which, the author says, may be reflected in today's events but must be sought and defined in the "long-term [of] the past five centuries" (p. 8).

Robert McChesney is a professor in the Department of Middle East Studies at New York University. Much of his research and writing has focused on the early modern history of Central Asia and is characterized by his assiduous use of original, and sometimes esoteric, sources. This meticulous research was particularly notable in his classic earlier work, Waqf in Central Asia. ' To discuss today's Central Asia in the light of what he sees as its enduring structures and institutions, McChesney chooses for analysis "four general themes-geographical/spatial; economic; social; and political" (p. 12).

In Chapter One, "A Region in Transition: Central Asia Imagined," the author briefly discusses the roles of religion and ethnicity according to the perception of the inhabitants of Central Asia. Another section, titled "Central Asia as Metaphor," considers the outside world's image of Central Asia as consisting mainly of the Silk Road and the playing field of the Great Game. A stunning National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite image of Central Asia, from the Caspian Sea to the Taklamakan Desert, illustrates a catalogue of the physical features of "Central Asia Imagined Geographically." This section closes with a foreboding of conflict over the distribution of the area's generous but carelessly used supply of mountain-fed water "now that there is no longer a single central authority setting policy on water use" (p. 37).

After expressing reservations about the view commonly put forth, that the early 16th century ushered in a period of decadence and decline in Central Asia, Chapter Two then deals with "Economic Fundamentals." McChesney establishes that private ownership of land, carefully documented and recorded, had long been the norm in the area, until the imposition of Soviet rule in the 1920s. This leads him to an intriguing conclusion:

Whether the post-Soviet Central Asian states seek answers in their history to analogous problems faced today or not, the past nonetheless provides a rich store of experience. Legal institutions and mechanisms concerning property-holding and property rights and an old and venerable system of judicial administration could provide solutions for some of today's problems. What makes the administration of Shari'a law attractive today, of course, is the fact that it is Islamic, the one ideology with ancient roots and long-standing loyalties common to all of Central Asia. As such, it has the potential to carry with it the moral authority necessary to engender legal consensus about, and submission to, a rule of law without which economic activity remains the prisoner of arbitrariness (p. 68).

Chapter Three turns to "Society and Community" and focuses in particular on shrines and dynastic families in Central Asia. This is a field in which McChesney's research has been preeminent, and the discussion here is especially rewarding. …

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