Mars, Marx, and Martyrs: the terraforming of Central Asia
Cross-regional and Blogosphere, Culture and History3 Comments
Editor’s note: To commemorate the coming new year, neweurasia is looking heavenward to gaze into Central Asia’s past, present, and future. H.B. Paksoy (D. Phil., Oxford University) and neweurasia’s Schwartz take an interesting spin on the question, using the theoretical terraforming of Mars as a metaphor to understand Central Asian identity. This post is based partly upon Paksoy’s academic article, “Governance on Mars”, available here.
The colonization of Mars is not only the stuff of science fiction. It’s actually a useful thought experiment to interpret the histories of several regions on Earth that have suffered colonialism. When applied to Central Asia, the terraforming of Mars is actually quite illuminating.
We are immediately inundated with questions when we consider Mars as an extension of Earth:
- What will be the identity of the Martian colonists: will they be identified with the political-economic or ethnic terminology current at the time, e.g., proletariat, bourgeoisie, American, Chinese, etc.?
- What will be the primary objective of this Martian identity: will the colonists be representing the nation states whence they came, or looking after the interests of private agencies and corporations?
- Is it possible to consider Mars without a distinct identity, independent of the myriad of identities brought to the planet’s surface from Earth? If not, is it possible to create a mosaic identity, or will it be one started with a clean slate?
- Who will benefit from the natural wealth of Mars: those who paid for the cost of reaching Mars or all of humanity? After all, one way or another, all of humanity will cumulative participate in creating the capital that paid for terraforming.
- Will Martian “ownership” be modeled after the Antarctic treaties, as a kind of trust, and if so, who will enforce the treaties? Will it instead be divided up along national or corporate lines?
- Because sustaining the colonists will be initially very expensive, should the authorities allow free births, and if not, will new colonists be imported Mamluk-style? Indeed, could terraforming witness the return of indentured servitude or penal labor?
- What precisely will be the relationship between Earthlings and Martians: master and servant, employer and employee, enlightener and enlightened? This question is the most importance considering all the investment of Earth into terraforming.
So, let’s answer this point by point, now turning to Central Asia:
Central Asia has been repeatedly seen by large imperial societies as an extension of themselves. This is a pattern beginning with Macedonians and running through the Persians and Arabs, and most recently, the British and Russians, and to some extent, the Americans and Chinese.
Every wave of imperialization and colonization has involved the concomitant re-identification, sometimes by force, of the indigenous population — the barbaros, the kaffirun and mushrikun, the Mohammedans and heathens, the enemies of the people, the strategic human assets and the wàirén. Every wave has also brought re-ideologization and re-ethnicization, perhaps most famously the construction of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh.
The process of re-identification has always been as an extension of the force behind it, whether it be borderless, universalist Caliphate or, more recently, the state-controlled energy corporations of China. Inevitably, the language of every wave has necessitated the objectification of Central Asians, either as the recipients of urban civilization, industry, and ideological enlightenment, as in the Tsarist and Soviet empires, or as tools in the war against terror or sources of wealth, as in the new American and Chinese empires.
Indeed, this raises the question of whether it’s even possible to have a Central Asian identity without these foreign constructions. The answer is, inevitably, yes and no, for the simple fact that in order to identify something as indigenous one must also identify that which is not. For this reason I think Central Asia would be on stronger ground were it be re-construed as a mosaic identity.
But of course a mosaic identity is precisely against the interests of the imperializing/colonizing forces. They may tolerate integration of themselves into the larger fabric, but only so far; ultimately, they want dominance, not so much for glory’s sake, but to secure their perceived interests in the region. Indeed, they see themselves as “too invested” in Central Asia just to “let” the region define itself, as in the case of the British and Tsarist/Soviet empires, not to mention Russia today.
So, “ownership” of Central Asia has been a very difficult and multifaceted affair. As often as not, the imperial/colonizing forces have employed an “Antarctica” solution, as in the case of the Arabs and Chinese after the Battle of Talas, and the British and Russians with Afghanistan. It’s interesting to note that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan today are attempting to engineer such a solution for their own autonomy.
Yet, clearly there is also a sense, if not of ownership per se, but of spheres of influence in the region, especially from Russia, which views Central Asia quite literally as its “near abroad”, and also Iran and Turkey, who evince a sense of kindred with the peoples of the region. America and China have, in my opinion, so far followed a strategy that is essentially laissez faire, a kind of Open Door policy: so long as Central Asia is open to them, and so long as they can stomach working with the governments in the region, they will tolerate such influences from the surrounding powers.
The whole topic of population control in Central Asia — let’s call it the Mamluk Question — is an important and interesting one. Patricia Crone and others have done some great work examining the history of Turkic slave soldiers from the region and their impact upon Islam, but the demographic impact on the region of what can only be described as the mass exportation of Central Asia’s young men over the course of centuries remains mostly unexplored.
But the Mamluk Question goes both ways: the Tsarist and Soviet empires actually exported human resources into the region, sometimes in the form of slave penal labor, other times as missionaries (Christian and Communist), scientists, and modernizers. Indeed, we can accredit to these mass exportations in reverse many of the modern Central Asian metropolises.
This leads us to the final question, namely, what has been and ultimately will be the relationship between the imperializers/colonizers and Central Asians? Fundamentally, it has always been about enlightener and enlightened: the region is seen as a recipient of wisdom, whether it be the culture of the Macedonians and Persians, the religion of the Arabs, the ideology and technology of the Soviets, or the commerce of the Americans and Chinese. But this view overlooks the amazing way in which the region absorbs, transmogrifies, and ultimately re-exports these ideas back.
Central Asia, at the minimum, the mirror of the world, at the maximum, the great Other and history’s greatest furnace of ideas. Just as in terraforming Mars physically Earth would be, in turn, terraformed psychologically, to conquer Central Asia is, ultimately, to be conquered by it.