Till Mostowlansky is an anthropologist and works on various topics such as mobility, humanity, development, materiality and Islam. He is a research fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia. So far he has taught at the University of Bern and the University of Hong Kong. His latest monograph Azan on the moon: the entanglement of modernity along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017) is based on a long fieldwork along the Pamir Highway in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan. The book offers a bottom-up perspective on the controversial concept of modernity in the region and intertwines this discussion with analyzes of ethnicity, periphery, religion and statehood. Till is also working on a number of collaborative research projects on topics such as Muslim humanitarianism and the anthropology of infrastructure in Inner Asia.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and where do you see the most pressing debates in your field?
There are different types of scholars. Some can tell you in one sentence what their discipline, area of expertise, and specific research interests are. Others have to come up with this stuff over time and will likely tell you a different story each time you ask them. I belong to the latter category, and this has to do with my interest in the world as a whole, in every detail of human activity, and in the broader social contexts in which they take place. What I’m looking for are thought-provoking and productive entry points. For example, religion was one such entry point in my early research. In my most recent book, it was a road and the kinds of mobility and immobility it creates. In my current research, it is the moral sense of “doing good” and its historical genealogy of charity, development, and humanity. In many ways, these entry points in anthropology are evergreen, but of course for me they are time-bound. I was a student during September 11th and the War on Terrorism. I was writing my PhD thesis as the study of materiality, technology and ecology became more widespread in the social sciences, and my ongoing project coincided with attempts to improve research, humanity and development.
Going forward, I don’t see how a social scientist can deal with the impact of the global ecological crisis, the climate emergency, and increasing inequality and dispossession exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. I think no matter what we study, future debates will necessarily lead back to these fundamental problems and how we can deal with one another, with other species, and the environment in less violent and destructive ways. I moved to Australia from Hong Kong a few years ago. It was a departure from a political crisis deeply rooted in colonialism and feelings of dispossession. In Australia I learned that such abusive relationships are much more connected to the environment than I ever thought. Ghassan Hage describes this quite forcefully in his book Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Reflecting on the consequences of Hage’s argument that both racism and environmental degradation are based on the violent “domestication” of the other seems to me to be a project that urgently requires investigation on a global scale.
Much of your work takes mountainous borders and border areas in Central Asia as a starting point. What do such areas teach us about the modern state?
In theory, such border areas teach us nothing about the state that other places cannot. I think it’s important to mention this as mountain borders are easily exoticized and border areas can sometimes become a fetish. In terms of practical practice, however, the places I have explored in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan offer some advantages. If we do not see the state as an abstract, distant formation, but rather as something that is carried out discursively and materially by everyone involved, then these border areas offer voices from the margins. These margins are not purely territorial. They are also economical, political and cultural. In other words, my research is less concerned with geographic location than with people’s ability to think and desire a state other than their position of marginality. For example, one can also find such vocal dissatisfaction in deprived areas in major cities around the world.
To what extent are places like Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan and the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan connected or separated? How are interstate borders and globalization processes important in people’s everyday lives in these highlands?
In terms of nation-state borders, these places are actually quite disjointed. This is the result of a long history of political separation, from colonialism to the Cold War to contemporary nation-states trying to forcibly integrate these border areas in often violent ways. However, the underlying ethnic, linguistic and religious ties between all parts of this border quadrangle between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan are quite strong. Very few people actually move between them and there are many stereotypes about each other, but there are organizations that actively try to create meeting places. Organizations led by Ismaili Muslims, such as the Aga Khan Development Network, play an important role in this regard. On the one hand, attempts are being made to increase mobility at the local level by supporting infrastructure and the economy, for example through roads, bridges, frontier markets, tourism and professional exchanges. On the other hand, there are also “third spaces” in which interactions between people from these border areas take place. For example, through scholarship programs that take people from different parts of these border areas to educational centers like London, where they can earn and pursue funded university degrees. These connections are fragile but persist. With the exception of Xinjiang in China. The situation there has deteriorated so much that separation and militarization are overwhelming. It shows how targeted and ruthless nation-state politics can undermine centuries-old transnational ties, at least in the short term.
The central concept of your ethnographic book Azan on the moon: the entanglement of modernity along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan is “modern”. What does the expression “entanglement of modernity” mean in concrete terms and how does the book question a simple dichotomy between modernity and marginality?
Specifically, I claim that although there were “large” projects of the modern age that were offered by actors of the Soviet governments to development organizations, the people along the Pamir Highway established modernity in their daily lives. Often they do not correspond to the ideologies of how modernity should look. Instead, they interweave elements of different historical and ideological origins and use them to develop their own feeling for what it means to be modern. For example, Soviet ideas of secular modernity are actually very popular in the Pamirs. A strong paternalistic state that supplies its citizens with goods, values and visions for the future has its attraction. However, many of the people I spoke to saw a deficiency in the “secular” part of this discussion. In their opinion, socialism should have been enriched, perhaps even “perfected”, with Islamic ethics. Debates about modernity in the Pamirs also have some unexpected spatial consequences. Many approaches of modernity have placed links to centers of economic and political power in the foreground. Modernity in the Pamirs is on the political and economic fringes, however, and people use modernity in its broadest sense to differentiate themselves from less modern places like Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, in their opinion. The previous Soviet attention to this geopolitically important border region has just as much to do with it. The second half of the 20th century in the Pamirs was defined by the so-called “Moscow Supply”, which included privileged material support, but also political and aesthetic connections to the center of the Soviet Union. The loss of many of these privileges in independent Tajikistan led to ideas about the inability of the new state to deliver to NGOs and expectations of modernity that could never be met.
in the Azan on the moon They also deal with ethnic, regional, and religious identities and relationships along the highway. How have these identities and relationships been influenced by changes in the motorway communities themselves and by developments beyond them?
These are ever-changing relationships, and in my book I do not claim to have definite answers to this question. In the case of Afghanistan, the long history of stigma and demonization played a role during the war. There have been various Soviet attempts to differentiate precisely because of the historically close relationship between people on both sides of the border. Regarding the violence in Kyrgyzstan, particularly the clashes in Osh in June 2010, at this particular time it was suddenly very desirable to be high up in the mountains, away from the problems. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, people have left the city again and sought refuge in the Pamirs to escape the crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Viewed from the eastern parts of the Pamirs, Osh is the closest city and remains important for trade and personal relationships. Kyrgyz people from the eastern Pamirs in particular travel back and forth regularly, although the idea of Osh as a big city is both promising and unsettling.
In your analysis of Ismaili Pamiris, their religious institutions and their place in the modern state of Tajikistan, you use Stef Jansens (2015) Distinction between statehood and statecraft. How is that helpful?
Jansen’s distinction is useful as it refines our view of the various functions of a state. Often times, academic studies of the state are actually contributions to what people symbolically recognize as states. According to Jansen, this is mainly about what the state is, what it claims to be and what it should be. The recognition of statehood is of course very important in many cases. However, considering the role of the transnational institutions established by Ismailis, the focus on statehood is not overly productive. Ismailis have a history of statehood in the sense of having a constitution, a flag and a system of government, but their role in Tajikistan is that of an NGO. But how can we grasp the enormous amount of infrastructure they have built, all social services and their large-scale urban planning efforts? In these contexts, the Ismaili institutions employ statecraft or the practical functions of a state. This is what the state does, claims to do, or is expected to do. The Tajik government appears to have an ambivalent attitude towards Ismaili statecraft. The funds are welcome and ensure investment in a region that is full of discontent. However, official statements also suggest that the government is skeptical of the social and political capital that the Ismaili institutions amass through their activities.
As part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Kulma Street, opened in 2004, served as a new trade route between China and Tajikistan. How has this infrastructural connection changed the lives of the people in the eastern Pamirs?
For Tajikistan in general, this trade route is crucial to secure the import of Chinese goods. One might think that this would create a lot of job opportunities along the way. Unfortunately this is not the case. In general, the closer a person lives to the border with China, the less that person benefits from this trade route. Transport companies are largely in the hands of the Tajik President in the capital, Dushanbe. And if there are people in the Pamirs who benefit, then they are in the administrative center of the region, Khorog, and not on the road to China. It’s actually quite depressing to see trucks carrying Chinese goods speed through high mountain settlements, creating a minimal number of low-paying jobs. As in many other places in the world, it is not the infrastructure that automatically creates prosperity for everyone. It is the responsibility of the political actors to control these infrastructures in such a way that participation and equity are guaranteed. This is clearly not the case in Tajikistan and is one of the reasons Tajik officials appear in the Panama newspapers rather than receiving awards for equitable economic development. On a larger scale, and perhaps with a view to other Central Asian states and Pakistan, this type of cronyism poses a major problem for the Belt and Road Initiative’s credibility.
How are the developments in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, populated not only by Uyghurs, but also by Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Pamiris, on the other side of the international borders in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan?
Now, people in these places have become so disconnected that little is known about what is going on across borders. Some of the people I spoke to in the border region – in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are very well informed through international news. Others remain incredulous and prefer to turn to conspiracy theories that blame Western propaganda. I have also met some people who are well informed about oppression and violence, but still support authoritarian action. In Pakistan, one of my interlocutors from the border region with China told me that he was of the opinion that the Chinese had treated their Uighur population wisely. He told me that Uighurs are Muslims after all and that there is no other way to discipline Muslims than through punishment. The man I spoke to is of course a Muslim himself. Before the riots in Xinjiang in 2009, the situation was very different. Indeed, there was a time when people exchanged letters with relatives across the border. That time is definitely over and it seems that the current sense of separation is only going to increase.
What is the most important advice you can give young political and anthropologists?
I’m not that far advanced myself, and I’m not sure I want to pester someone with unsolicited advice who is unlikely to age well. I would prefer to express a wish in a collective sense. If there’s only one thing I wish we could do better as social scientists, it is less thinking about career moves, résumés and sales pitches, and more about how we can be relevant in our world today and tomorrow. I don’t mean relevant in a monetized sense. I mean politically relevant, passionate and present somewhere in public debates, in people’s conversations at dinner, in parliament or on the street.
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