Morgan Liu: On “Uzbekness” and Social Justice

Morgan Y. Liu is a cultural anthropologist studying Muslims in the former Soviet Union, Islamic ideas of social justice, and the impact of oil extraction on Central Asian societies.

He is primarily concerned with how Central Asians make sense of and act on their society’s structural problems. This includes looking at the burgeoning interconnections within “Eurasia” (especially between Central Asia, Turkey, Russia, and China) through an ethnographic lens.

His 2012 book, Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh, explores how ethnic Uzbeks in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan think about political authority and post-Soviet transformation. Research was conducted using vernacular language interviews and ethnographic fieldwork of urban social life from 1993 to 2011. The book won the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s 2014 award for Best Book on Central Eurasia in the Social Sciences published in 2012 or 2013.

Morgan’s research has highlighted the importance of social justice as a framework for understanding contemporary Central Asian societies. His academic work is characterized by an interdisciplinary approach that draws not only from anthropology, but also from history, political science, and sociology.


Morgan Y. Liu

Associate Professor in Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University, U.S.A.

He did a postdoc at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, and holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Morgan is a Blog Editor for, a scholarly exchange platform for the latest research on “Central Eurasia,” which includes parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Russia, China, and Central Asia.

In Under Solomon’s Throne, you show that “Uzbekness” is not an essential and stable form of identity but rather a form of imaginary—continuously and regularly constructed, structured and reimagined ideas, assumptions, attitudes, and conceptions. You also convincingly showed that in the context of the mahalla or post-Soviet urban space, such categories or binary oppositions as “Islamic” and “liberal” are relative and imprecise.

Would you agree that in the context of the labor migration of Central Asian citizens to Russia, as well as the Syrian war and the participation of citizens of the Central Asian republics in terrorist operations, the essentialization of Central Asian subjects has again increased? What other evolutions has Uzbekistan undergone since you wrote the book?

When I write, I don’t like to take an essential view of identity. I’m not actually singling out Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan or Osh specifically. It’s something I believe is true for everybody. No matter who you are, all identities depend on context. It depends on the situation and even on the moment. We all have multiple ways of identifying with other things. And at any given moment, we emphasize different things, different aspects of that. So it’s never a fixed thing for me.

And so, what I was trying to do in the book was look at different ways that Uzbeks there experience what it means to be Uzbek—what are different ways to be Uzbek?—and how that’s tied to the city itself, to the very spaces of the city. Looking at different kinds of spaces, they would bring out different aspects of why they felt Osh was home. So it turns out that there is no single answer to that. There are different kinds of answers. In that sense, that’s my way of showing that identities are not essential. They are always processes.

But you’re absolutely right, so much has changed. I conducted most of my field work before 2010. And in Osh, things changed tremendously in 2010. Then across Central Asia, the great shift is that migration has been picking up since the early 2000s, and it has affected every family. There is no family that does not have at least some members who spend most of the year in Russia or somewhere else. And that has changed the very nature of neighborhoods (mahallas). Before the massive labor migration, there was a problem of crowding in the neighborhoods. The problem was that when Uzbeks have many children, you have to find homes for all of them, and there’s only so much space in Osh. But that is not such a problem now, which is kind of interesting. They solved the crowding problem by creating a different problem, which is not having enough people at home. There are so many people gone now. The fact that no one is around affects everything: schools, family life, religious practice.

One of the things I was interested in was that there used to be many Islamic study groups in many Uzbek neighborhoods in Osh. People who met every week or every other week to study Islam—the basics of Islam. They can’t do that anymore. It’s more difficult to meet because people are gone. People are busy working abroad. And this has brought changes for religion. There have also changes about who gets married when. You get married only when you have enough money. Once you’re married, you’re gone again. And so change is tremendous.

There’s a new generation of Uzbeks in Osh. Their world is much bigger. At the very least they have seen something else in the world.

So how does this affect identity, or—as I prefer to say—identifications? I think there’s a new generation of Uzbeks in Osh. Their world is much bigger. At the very least they have seen something else in the world. And some of those traditions rooted in neighborhood and place depended on having lots of close community, people who you saw all the time. That’s no longer possible. I think people’s identifications are now broader and more flexible as a result of these changes.

Do you see any explanation for the increased activity of Uzbeks from Osh specifically in global jihads?

That’s a good question. I actually did not do direct research on that. But of course, a lot of people were talking about it. In general, this much I can say, actual participation in extremist groups was rather low. I don’t have any actual data on that, so I cannot tell for sure; I didn’t do a survey and say, “Okay, raise your hand if you’ve been a part of a jihadist movement.” But from what I can tell, not many people were actually involved in such activities. There were people who were sympathetic to some of the aims of Islamist groups, but probably not the violence. Very few people were in favor of the violence and killing. But I think many agreed with at least the social justice aims of some of the groups. The desire to build a more equitable society to look out for the needs of those who were very poor, and to have businesses and people—officials—respond to the needs of ordinary people. I think those are areas in which many people felt some sympathy for some of these groups. Of course, there are many different groups, and they have different aims. But in general, these groups claim that we need more Islam in society to make a better society. That general claim was attractive to some people.

We know that one of your latest projects is dedicated to studying how people in Uzbekistan and in Kyrgyzstan understand or imagine justice. Could you tell us more about this project?

I remember a good quotation. I interviewed one Kyrgyz man in Osh. And he said that the people have many concerns: how to feed their families, about jobs, about dealing with innumerable challenges in life. But this man said that the number one issue, above all else, is “justice.” In other words, that struggling for one’s living is difficult enough. But if you have a sense that you are struggling and the entire system is not helping you, you will ultimately be frustrated by the way everything in society is organized. That makes justice the most important concern for many people.

That got me interested in just what people mean when they talk about “justice.” I don’t want a mere definition of the word. I’m looking for what people actually associate with the term. That is, “When you say you want more justice in society, tell me concretely—tell me practically—what changes in the way we go to school? The way we buy our meat from the bazaar? The way we go to the doctor or travel overseas or conduct business?” How does justice affect all those very practical things?

What people mean when they talk about “justice”? I don’t want a mere definition of the word. I’m looking for what people actually associate with the term.

These are the sorts of questions I would like to understand. Related to that is: what do people believe would bring about or create a better society? Will it take more than people simply being more honest? I think that’s a difficult question because you can say that a just society is more than having lots of honest people.

Let’s say there is a certain official who takes bribes. Why does he take bribes? Well, maybe it’s not because he’s an evil person. Maybe it’s because if he doesn’t take bribes, he can’t feed his family. Or because he is in an official position, his relatives always come to him to supply their needs. Maybe he has a niece getting married, and the official’s brother expects him to chip in for the wedding. And so in order for that official to be a responsible person in his community, among his relatives, he has to have the money to meet his responsibilities to his friends and family. He can’t do that unless he takes bribes. That produces these very, very difficult questions. How can he be a moral person? Does he refuse to take bribes or does he refuse his brother and family?

As such, the issue is more than just a single person acting morally. The whole system has to change. The whole structure of payment and how everything works has to change. Well, how do you change that? These are the sorts of things I want to ask people about, so that I can see how they are thinking about these very difficult questions.

When they imagine justice, do you think they imagine mostly Islamic justice? Traditional justice? Western justice? Or do they mix everything?

There are many people who immediately think about Islam when they think about a system that would be more just. But there are also other models of justice. I think what is exciting about Central Asia right now is that it is exposed to ideas from around the world. And it has had time to take global ideas and think about what it would mean to make those ideas its own, whether Kazakh, Kyrgyz or Tajik, and what it would mean to improve society. You have many ideas coming from the outside, but you also have integration with native culture.

So these are the sorts of things I want to look at. If it’s Islamic ideas, which ones and how do they think these ideas will actually improve society? If it’s another kind of idea, how is it being integrated? Maybe there will even be a combination of certain Islamic ideas with management best practices from business school. There are many different sources of ideas of how to make a better society. And I want to see how they are coming together in Central Asia today.

What do you see as the main trends transforming Islam—its meaning or practices—in Central Asia in the forthcoming years?

This is a big question. As the younger generation of Central Asians, brought up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and educated in Islam from sources across the Muslim world, mature and become leaders in their communities and in politics, there will be a profound shift in the meanings and understandings of Islam. There will be less of the Soviet Muslim attitude that Islam is essentially heritage and morality (wonderfully studied in Adeeb Khalid’s Islam After Communism), and more of a sense of Islam as cultivation of ideal human beings according to a divine model. The shift toward what has been called “piety Islam” (see Saba Mahmood’s book on Egyptian women, Politics of Piety) is happening worldwide. But the question is: how is it happening today in Central Asia in ways that are specifically Central Asian, or even more local? That is what we need to keep tracking.

Could you comment on the recent evolution of research of Central Asia? Do you see some main patterns of research?

I’ve pondered that question. I consider an important aspect of recent research on Central Asia to be the conceptual maturation of Central Asian studies. My own contribution, I hope, has been the use of mixed methods in anthropology and history that attends to both place and time, and applying phenomenological geography and sensorial anthropology to interpret how body and space are involved in the production of social hierarchy and political imaginaries. I find that the field still needs to enhance its capacities to participate in the advancement of scholarly problems and concepts more broadly

Yet a recent flurry of exciting ethnographic monographs—by Mateusz Laszczkowski, Judith Beyer, David Montgomery, Till Mostowlansky, Eva-Marie Dubuisson, Nick Megoran, Julie McBrien, Aksana Ismailbekova, Jéanne Feaux de la Croix, and a very new edited volume by Mateusz Laszczkowski and Madeleine Reeves, among other noteworthy authors—variously explore the meaning-producing articulations of materiality, environment, embodiment, discourse, tradition, piety, and power. These books promise to provoke sophisticated questions in the region and beyond. I think scholarship on Central Asia is beginning to reach a new maturity, which it will attain as our colleagues outside the region cite us more and more.

See also: Best Books on Central Asia in 2017

All photos by
Oliver Foerstner, Shutterstock

Videos by Erden Zikibay

Osh, Kyrgyzstan – October 05, 2014: The mosque with the Sulayman Too Mountain in the background

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