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Afghanistan and Central Asia Research Information

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Narrative Biography


Career Highlights

Two facts have shaped my career as a "native" anthropologist. My personal conviction, formed in the mid-1960's as a college student in Afghanistan, that anthropology was a discipline relevant to the future development of countries such as my own homeland. Sociocultural anthropology in particular, I believed, offered analysis of, and remedies for, contemporary social problems such as grinding poverty, injustice, inequality, socioeconomic and technological under-development so pervasive in post-colonial so called modern nation-states.

A second set of events, utterly beyond my control and entirely external to anthropology, tested my understanding of the purpose and relevancy of anthropology -- i.e., the Soviet inspired military coup and the subsequent establishment of a Communist government in Kabul (1978), the rise of popular Islamist resistance, a jihad, the direct Soviet military intervention, the perpetuation of an intense armed struggle and a devastating civil war in Afghanistan, my homeland and a place of  choice for doing ethnographic research.

My initial ethnographic field research (1972-1974) was a study of the cultural ecological adaptation of a small Turkic-speaking Kirghiz pastoral nomadic/mobile herding group and their sedentary neighbors, the Wakhi, in northeastern Badakhshan, Afghanistan, the province of my birth and early education. I collected ecological, economic, demographic, social organizational and historical data pertaining not only to the Kirghiz and Wakhi adaptation to high altitude and severe climatic conditions, but also to the constraints of politically induced social and economic realities of closed border conditions imposed by Communist China and former Soviet Union in the region.

During the past century of wars (colonial, anti-colonial, nationalist, revolutionary, interventionist, and war on terrorism) producing economic devastation, ethnocide, genocide, and massive displacement of peoples as internal and external refugees--all in the name of freedom and liberty--it seems that anthropology and anthropologist have historically managed for the most part to ignore these painful and pervasive sociopolitical issues of our time. Hence, Afghanistan was lost to anthropology after April, 1978, because it was no longer safe for traditional ethnographic research. However, unlike most of my non-Afghan colleagues, I could not in good conscience abandon researching my homeland. Morally, emotionally and intellectually I could not ignore the war in Afghanistan. My commitment to studying the conflict had an urgency I had not felt about my earlier research among the Kirghiz and Wakhis.

My new interest in what came to be termed by journalists and politicians during the 1980s “low-intensity” wars and their human consequences was a problem generally avoided by anthropology and anthropologists. It directly raised the prickly question about what practical relevance did the kind of anthropology I had learned and practiced have when addressing the situation facing the Kirghiz, Wakhi and the rest of the peoples of Afghanistan. Why was the future of these communities and the nation not a subject of anthropological inquiry? Why had I and other researchers only tried to deal with the present in terms of the past without considering the thoughts and imaginations of these peoples about their own future? What was my moral responsibility as an individual, a native, and a professionally trained anthropologist toward the communities I had studied?

I continued my long-term research on the Kirghiz (who fled to northern Pakistan and were later resettled as refugees in eastern Turkey), not simply as exotic tribal ethnographic specimens, but as an historically, socially and culturally constituted community long embedded within the body politics of the Afghan nation-state, and currently gripped by a complex, national and international ideological-political-military conflict of major local, national, and global proportions.

My central research inquiries since the early 1980's have been directed toward an understanding of the impact of Islam upon the social imagination of the peoples of Afghanistan concerning their future, and the impact of such images of the future upon their present actions and activities. Some of the issues addressed include problems of state-building, nationalism, and social fragmentation in multi-ethnic nation-states such as Afghanistan; the political economy of international assistance to modern states and the politicization of ethnic identities; the role of Central Asian vernacular didactic literature in the social production of local knowledge and practices of Islam, and in contemporary educational and Islamist political movements; and the conception, nature and styles of traditional local leadership in Central Asia based on analyzing the life histories of Kirghiz khans and other Central Asian leaders. More recently, I have also examined the reasons for the failure of Afghan Mujahideen groups to form a viable government following their stunning military victory against former Soviet military occupation forces of the 1980s. The political failure of Afghan Mujahideen resulted in devastating inter-ethnic wars (1990s), culminating to the Rise of Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist rule and the current US & NATO led international war on terrorism in Afghanistan without an end in sight.

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the emergent opportunities for research in the newly independent nations of Muslim Central Asia, I have conducted fieldwork in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The impact of Soviet rule upon traditional Muslim Central Asian societies and cultures in general, and its effects upon the structure and functions of Uzbek oyila (family/household) constitute a major focus of my current and future research. More specifically, I am examining how former Soviet Central Asian Uzbeks have experienced and managed their lives and careers as individual members of Uzbek Muslim families within the broader context of Soviet colonial rule, and the particular demands of the dominant Soviet "political culture of scientific atheism." So far, I have attempted to address these issues through detailed investigation and reconstruction of the social history of about thirty carefully selected Uzbek oyila in both rural and urban areas (1994). In addition, I have also studied Islamic movements in post-Soviet Central Asia and how the anti-Islamic policies of newly independent regimes in the region have contributed to the rise of Muslim militancy in the region.

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M. Nazif Shahrani is a Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.

He can be reached at