Novruz and Nation Building in Tajikistan

While lavish festivities have not been rare in post-independence Tajikistan, the week-long celebration of Novruz this year, from March 21-25, surpassed most previous events in scale and grandeur. Parades, concerts, sports events, and fairs were held across the country, both in towns and villages, leaving few neighborhoods uninvolved. Tajiks were given a week-long vacation to participate in these events, which culminated in a massive theatrical performance in Dushanbe on March 25. The performance involved some 5,000 students and about 500 professional actors and actresses, and was attended by Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani leaders. The extensive celebrations were used by the authorities to foster a sense of national pride and cohesion, and to emphasize the Tajiks’ Persian roots.

Novruz – which is also transliterated as Navrouz or Nawruz – is a festival marking the beginning of spring and a new year in Persian tradition. The festival is believed to be rooted in the tradition of Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion that originated in ancient Persia approximately 3,500 years ago and was its official religion until about 650 CE. Although the Arab conquest put an end to most Zoroastrian cultural practices, Novruz was so deeply rooted in the consciousness of various communities comprising ancient Persia that they continued celebrating it even after embracing Islam. Nowadays, the holiday is celebrated in Iran, most of Central Asia, parts of the Caucasus, Mongolia, and among Kurdish communities in the Middle East.

Following the creation of the Tajik Soviet republic in the 1920s, Bolsheviks sought to “construct” a secular national identity for the new political unit. Although Soviet republics were encouraged to reassert their “national character,” the leadership in Moscow and the indigenous elites carefully selected and reshaped the constituent elements of the new national cultures. The guiding principle of the Soviet nationality policy was to make sure that while union republics became “national in form” they also remained “socialist in content.” Therefore, Novruz – which was mistakenly believed to be an Islamic holiday – was banned in Soviet Tajikistan as an “alien” practice until the late 1960s. Despite the ban, many Tajik families continued celebrating the holiday clandestinely at home.

The five-year civil war that followed the country’s independence demonstrated the weakness of Tajik national identity, particularly vis-à-vis regional loyalties. Hence, the principal task facing the country’s political leadership since the late 1990s has been the forging of a strong national identity that would be capable of subduing the alternative loyalties of various sub-groups. Building on the Soviet tradition, the new Tajik nationalist leaders and historians made use of myths and symbols from the Persian past, stylizing them in the process and purging of religious content.

The designation of Novruz as an official holiday and its active promotion by the political leadership in Tajikistan should be understood in this context. President Emomali Rahmon and a team of his ideologues have framed Novruz as an indigenous Tajik holiday. Massive state-managed celebrations of the festival – hosted in a different region each year and attended by the country’s political, academic, and cultural elites – have been designed to emphasize unity and cultural sameness. In his annual address to the country’s scholarly and artistic community on March 20, Rahmon claimed that the “glorious ancestors” of the Tajik people celebrated Novruz as far back as three millennia ago, comparing the holiday to “a sacred book, serving as an embodiment of [the Tajik people’s] thinking, philosophical outlook, traditions, dreams and inspiration, historical thought, moral foundation, and worldview”. The representation of Novruz as an “indigenous” Tajik holiday rooted in the Persian past resonates well in the country because it assigns to ethnic Tajiks a special “civilizational role” in the now predominantly Turkic Central Asian region.

By pointing to the ancient character of the festival and its resilience in the face of major cultural transformations, Tajikistan’s leaders claim that the Tajik people have withstood all attempts at their cultural assimilation and retained the critical elements of their indigenous identity. In an interview to Euronews on March 30, Rahmon suggested that Soviet leaders as well as Islamic rulers before them tried to root out the practice of Novruz. Yet, according to Rahmon, the holiday persisted because it has been “in the hearts” of the Tajik people.

The convenience of Novruz to Tajikistan’s nation-building effort also stems from the pre-Islamic roots and the now secular character of the holiday. Although the political leadership in Tajikistan has been eager to emphasize its “Muslim” identity, the role of Islam in the country is restricted to the realm of personal and family affairs. A public holiday status has been given to two major Islamic holidays, Id al-Fitr and Idi Qurbon, but celebration of these holidays beyond the confines of family or mosque is disallowed. The new secular national holidays – the Independence Day and Constitution Day – have remained largely unpopular. Novruz, in contrast, is popular with the majority of people living in Tajikistan, presenting itself as a convenient secular event that can be used for the purpose of nation building.

Tajikistan’s eagerness to emphasize its Persian roots has important geopolitical motives as well. Iran has become the country’s major investor (for more on this, read here and here), and Tajik leaders have been willing to stress cultural bonds to encourage Iran to invest even more. Yet, the increasing importance of Novruz in Tajikistan has to be understood primarily in the context of the state-driven nation-building project.

(By Alexander Sodiqov, published originally on the CACI Analyst, April 4, 2012)


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Filed under Nation Building, Tajikistan

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