What do Azerbaijani Turks think about Tengrism

Between Ottomanism, Lenin and Turan-Why the Turkic peoples of Central Asia are “Turkish in a different way”

by Matthias Wolf

Again and again people have a preference for systems and classifications of all kinds. Dostoevsky already stated this in his "Notes from the Cellar Hole", where a retired official told himself about the ups and downs of his life and the difficulties of man on earth find, debated at length with himself. It is precisely these systems and attempts at arranging things that make it easier for us to learn (and keep) something or to describe something in a structured manner. Classifications are always helpful and necessary, especially in science. Nobody would question them, precisely because they simplify the sometimes confusing field of phenomena, terms and methods to such an extent that access to the most diverse areas of knowledge is made possible. It is the same with peoples, languages ​​and cultures that have meanwhile been researched so well that systems could be created that allow an arrangement in different categories (outside the geographical location). Nevertheless, one has to admit on closer inspection that these systems for ethnological or linguistic work are only a makeshift that cannot reflect all the dimensions of a certain ethnic group or their way of life in every detail. Of course, this is not always the point and purpose of such a system, since science must always proceed selectively if it wants to concentrate on the essentials. It becomes difficult, however, when categorizations lead to false conclusions being drawn or generalizations being made that are not true or, as in the area of ​​intercultural research, may create a breeding ground for prejudices.

In the case of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, who now live with and next to one another in independent states, this is very similar. Because the name "Turkpeoples “leads many people to equate them with those Turks who are today in the field of Turkey Life. But this comparison is flawed or even inappropriate in many places if you consider that the lifestyle in the respective countries, the political system and thus also the social norms in the two cultural areas differ significantly from one another. The following essay represents an attempt to give an overview of different Turkic peoples and to work out similarities and differences in approach. The main aim of these considerations should also be to investigate why the Turkic peoples or their states considered here are not necessarily comparable with today's Turkey.

a) Turkey - From the Ottoman Empire to Kemalism - and back again?

If one wants to understand what actually distinguishes the Turkic peoples of Central Asia from the Turks in Turkey, one must first characterize this former country in terms of its cultural heritage, its political and social contexts and its image of itself and others. Because this is the only way to get an idea of ​​what is actually meant when one speaks of Turkey as a country, as a settlement area or as a political system. Only then is it possible to apply the knowledge gained from this to the other Turkic states and their inhabitants and to relate the results to one another. This ultimately results in a comparison that makes both similarities and differences clear.

Turkey itself has only existed as a republic (Türk Cumhuriyeti) within its current borders since 1923. Before that, this area was part of the Ottoman Empire, an empire that stretched from the Balkans to North Africa and was home to different peoples, languages ​​and cultures. The official language, Ottoman, was only partially comparable with today's standard Turkish (Öz Türkçesi). On the one hand, because it was written in Arabic characters instead of Latin letters, on the other hand, because of the much more archaic vocabulary from Arabic and Persian lexemes, which are no longer used or only used in very special contexts.
The clergy, like religion (namely, Sunni Islam) also had political power.
Sharia prevailed, which legitimized the state on the basis of religion. This state of culture lasted until 1923, more precisely until Mustafa Kemal Paşa (Ataturk) came to power. His policy brought numerous innovations that noticeably shook the everyday life of the inhabitants of the multi-ethnic state.

Initially, the Arabic character system was replaced by the Latin alphabet. This measure may seem logical, especially since from a linguistic point of view it helped to depict the Turkish sounds more clearly and appropriately than Arabic characters would have done. The literacy of the entire population was simplified and a school system based on French standards, which was equally accessible to boys and girls, could be implemented. In spite of all this, one thing must not be forgotten: The conversion of the alphabet represented a break with the Muslim-Arab world, to which the multi-ethnic state "Ottoman Empire" had belonged for centuries. The view of the citizens of the young "Republic of Turkey" also changed significantly.
Because, as already mentioned, the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic state with different ethnicities, languages ​​and religions. Although there was an official Ottoman language, it was by no means understood by all of the empire's inhabitants. Languages ​​like Persian, Armenian or Kurdish were common means of communication. Ottoman was spoken almost exclusively by the upper class or used in official documents.
As a result, all citizens, regardless of their status (“citizens of the empire”), continued to be regarded as Armenians, Kurds, Lazen or Turks. However, this did not say anything about their legal status. This was determined by religion or regulated by laws that were issued on the basis of the Koran. Although there were often separate jurisdictions for Christians and Jews (this was also a premise of Koranic law), the religion with the highest prestige (and thus also with the most privileges) was Islam. Jews and Christians had to pay a protection tax (dhimmi tax) and were therefore considered to be protected, who consequently were dependent on the rulers of the Muslim faith.

With the establishment of the republic in 1923, this type of legal norm changed fundamentally. People who from then on lived in what is now Turkey, were no longer Kurds, Armenians or Lazens, but were made “Turks” (in the sense of Turkish citizens) by decree. Religion now played a subordinate role. All the more so since it was no longer the main authority for the creation and publication of laws. The Sharia was replaced by a French-inspired civil law and a criminal law based on Italian principles. Marriage law was reformed and divorces (especially for women) simplified. As an expression of the new republican (and European-influenced) consciousness, the fez (a conical headgear) was declared and banned as a symbol of exaggerated piety. The same was true of the cloak and harem pants. These typically oriental garments were replaced by tailcoats, suits and top hats.

The curiosity here is that the justification for this change in style was a distancing from the previous religious character of the state, but it would only be half the truth to claim that this was the first and only attempt at modernization. The proponents of the Fez (Young Turks) had previously banned the turban from public life. The reason for this was that it was "too Arabic" and had nothing to do with Turkish citizenship. The fez was later used for a very long time as headgear in the educated classes of the empire and in the civil service. It can even be assumed that the fez, due to its conical shape, was based on the European cylinder. In a sense, it was supposed to represent a kind of oriental counterpart to the same and thus allow European elegance to flow into the Ottoman style of clothing. Whether this was successful at the time remains to be discussed. What is certain, however, is that Ataturk himself wore tails and top hats on many official occasions and can also be seen in some pictures with a cylindrical, fur-covered headgear, as is still found today among many peoples of the Caucasus (e.g. Chechens or Azerbaijanis). But this also shows that Ataturk was committed to a different tradition of Turkishism than the Ottoman legacy at the time.

Today, however, one has to ask what traces of Ataturk remained in the Turkey of a Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although this president had himself photographed in 2013 for the 90th anniversary of the republic together with a framed picture of the "father of the Turks", his policy was later carried by completely different traits, which were more towards a revival of the Ottoman heritage than to remember a continuity of Kemalist ideas and values.
For example, highlighting Islamic virtue (especially among women) was pretty high on the agenda. This can also be seen in the appearance of Emine Erdoğan in public. The wife of the head of state hardly smiles in front of the audience, wears long, decent clothes and of course the hicab (headscarf) as an expression of deep piety. The same was true of Sare Davutoğlu, the wife of Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former chairman of the AKP (2014-2016). Although she shows her followers a radiant smile and thus a certain closeness to the people, the distribution of roles in the public appears to be clearly defined. Men rule and women underline their strength and inviolability.

One can therefore come to the conclusion that much of what was once shown in terms of modernity in Turkish films of the 1970s and 1980s is now clearly being called into question. For while working women, for example, showed an upward trend in the period from 1960 to 1980, this number has been falling again since the 1990s. The turn to Islam may have something to do with it, especially since President Erdoğan often relied on this card in his political speeches. But the disastrous economic situation in which his predecessors left Turkey behind was also to blame. It was precisely these economic problems that often resulted in working women staying at home, as otherwise childcare would no longer have been guaranteed. However, we also find similar problems in the western world, so that one cannot simply judge Turkey's policy here as “retrograde”. Rather, one must start from the intention of "straightening out" failed attempts at modernization. Because there is one thing that Erdoğan's policy has certainly brought about for Turkey: stability. However, it should always be borne in mind that the price for this, as well as for an emerging economy, is a highly questionable course of nationalism, religious trimmings and various threats towards the West. It remains to be seen whether one day more secularism or pro-European currents such as the times of a Nazim Hikmet or an Aziz Nesin will prevail. For this, such progressive ideas would first have to find more support from the population. But currently, both the political and the cultural development of Turkey is rather difficult to predict.

b) Azerbaijan, the flame of progress in the hands of the people

While mostly conservative ideas were able to prevail in the Republic of Turkey and people were rather skeptical about innovations, the situation in neighboring Azerbaijan was quite different. Because here, in addition to the actual history of statehood, other cultural and political influences also play a role that did not exist in Turkey (even after Ataturk). The statehood of Azerbaijan began with the formation of Khanates, a form of rule that comes close to that of a principality, but was also found temporarily in Europe (e.g. in Bulgaria). The most famous of these khanates was "Ganja", named after the city of the same name, which later also became the capital of the country in the years 1918-1920 (during the first independent republic). Before that, however, during the conquest by the Arabs in the eleventh century, there was another central figure who was to shape the national consciousness of the Azerbaijanis and the view of their own development. We are talking about Babǝk, a freedom fighter who fought for the freedom of Azerbaijan on the side of the insurgents during the battles against the Arab invaders. However, he lost this fight, so that in the end the Azerbaijanis accepted Islam and still maintain it as part of their cultural heritage to this day. This conversion, however, happened extremely reluctantly, especially at the beginning of the Arab foreign rule. It is not for nothing that Azerbaijan is called the “Land of Fire”. Centuries earlier, people had already settled in what is now Azerbaijan. Due to the Persian influence in the south, they were followers of the Zoroastrian cult, which attached particular importance to fire as an element. The oil deposits in the ground and gas leaks, which sometimes ignited, led to explosions, which at the time were interpreted as an expression of divine power. Such an idea was of course alien to the Arab conquerors, who had said goodbye to the worship of natural forces as early as the seventh century and turned to the new religion of the book (Islam). After the Arab came the Persian contact, that of the Azerbaijanis, unlike other Turkic peoples, Muslims Shiite Made its mark and also had a considerable influence on the language. Because unlike in Turkey-Turkish, which had been constantly "cleared" of Arabic and Persian words since 1923, Azerbaijani took a different development. Archaisms, especially from Persian, have been preserved. Persian sentence structures, which are sometimes reminiscent of European instead of Turkish (Persian belongs to the Indo-European language family), remained common, especially when used orally.

The writing system also initially remained an Arabic-Persian. It was not until the mid-1920s, as in many other countries, that it was replaced by a Cyrillic alphabet with special characters that were supposed to represent the language-specific sounds. At the same time, especially around Baku, numerous Russianisms found their way into the language, which led to the establishment of a “northern standard” for Azerbaijani. Because in the south of the country and in Iran, where over 30 million Azerbaijanis also live, the language was and is (until today) more influenced by Persian. This also applies to the writing system. Unfortunately, however, Tehran's language policy can be described as so rigid that the Iranian Azebaijani are even forbidden from officially using their mother tongue in everyday life (e.g. at universities or in public offices). In today's Republic of Azerbaijan (independent since 1991), functional bilingualism prevails. However, this is by no means limited to certain occupational and educational branches. Because the Soviet structures in the country were never completely abandoned, even after 1991. There are also Russian-speaking schools, a “Slavic University” and a Russian-speaking sector in the economy that also works closely with companies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. In addition, there are also many people in Azerbaijan who speak Russian as their mother tongue and still feel that they are Azerbaijanis. Their cultural background can be quite different.

For example, there is a large Russian Orthodox community in the country, which is not viewed as a relic from the times of the Tsars, but as an integral part of society. The same applies to the country's Jewish citizens, who are often also Russian-speaking, but sometimes see this as a cultural differentiator. Most of them do not speak Azerbaijani fluently. Sometimes the position arises that Azerbaijani is, due to its Turkish and Persian-based vocabulary, the language of Muslims rather than members of the Jewish community. Conversely, one can speak of a relaxed relationship between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Islam lived in Azerbaijan is characterized by a multitude of customs that originate from pre-Islamic times or the Soviet period.These include, for example, the Novruz Festival (a kind of Persian New Year) or the Yolka Festival (Russian New Year). Western customs, such as Christmas (mostly referred to as "Christmas"), have meanwhile been integrated into everyday culture.
On this point, Azerbaijan shows itself to be much more tolerant than Turkey, for example, where in the 2010s the idea was increasingly voiced to abolish Christmas markets in the west of the country that had previously been initiated for Western tourists or for newly immigrated residents (mostly of German origin) . However, numerous city councils and mayors protested against such measures, because the markets made many Turkish cities a point of attraction for European tourists and thus brought money into the municipal coffers. In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, it is customary to congratulate all members of non-Muslim groups on their festivals (also officially). This shows how much mutual respect for different cultures has become a norm here. Another and very topical example are official memorial events for fallen soldiers. Especially during and after the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, there were repeated expressions of condolences from official sources. It did not matter whether the fallen comrade-in-arms was Muslim, Christian or Jew, Azerbaijani or Russian. The only thing that counted was the feeling of belonging and the connection to the homeland, which a Talyshe (Persian) can defend just as well and bravely in the eyes of many Azerbaijanis as a Russian or Turko-Azerbaijani. Tolerance, solidarity and openness to new ideas and influences are therefore not solgans in Azerbaijan, but rather a historically grown reality in their interplay. However, the latter also allows traditional things, if they have proven themselves, to be preserved in the sense of healthy conservatism.

c) Uzbekistan and the Uighur regions - shared language, shared suffering

The relationship between these two Turkic peoples can be best demonstrated by their respective languages. In both cases it is the Turkic languages ​​of the Uighur branch. This is characterized, among other things, by a less pronounced vowel harmony and stronger nasalization of consonantic syllables in the area of ​​grammatical morphemes. But not only linguistic, but also socio-cultural similarities in the respective spheres of life paint a significantly different picture of these two ethnic groups than would be the case with Turks or Azerbaijanis.
On the one hand, this is due to the already completed process of national self-discovery among Turks and Azerbaijani. Because these two peoples have already built their respective nation-states with functioning structures and have achieved a specific meaning at world level. In the case of Uzbeks and Uyghurs, this is only partially the case. Because at the state level, only Uzbekistan actually has an area that it can claim and manage as a state. This is not the case in the case of the Uyghurs, as they are represented in large numbers in China, but only have an autonomous status there, the actual implementation of which is highly questionable.

The same applies to the Uzbeks in Afghanistan, who have been oppressed by the Taliban movement since the 1980s, so that there can be no talk of a cultural life in the Uzbek diaspora (at least in this country). It is precisely this state of a status that has yet to be fought for and the associated finding of a national identity outside the motherland that is strong enough to withstand such oppression that Uyghurs in China and Uzbeks in Afghanistan share extensively with each other. In Uzbekistan itself, too, there are various phenomena that suggest that the country (even after its independence) has not yet reached a state of political, economic and territorial stability. These include the border conflict with Tajikistan, the dispute over the prestige of two lingua franca in the country (Uzbek and Russian), the slow to hesitant opening to Europe and the growing conservatism in relation to popular beliefs and gender roles in society. The real tragedy is that both Uzbeks and Uyghurs have a culture that goes back centuries, if not millennia, that deserves more attention in any form from the western media.
These include, for example, cities such as Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara or Shahrisabz, which nowadays receive some attention in the course of the cultivation of tourism along the Silk Road, but are essentially reduced in their importance to beautiful buildings, tea rooms and cotton fields.

However, this hardly takes into account the cultural heritage of Uzbekistan, since the importance of the cities mentioned for the short phase of the “Islamic Enlightenment” was greater the shorter this period lasted. Moreover, here too one cannot avoid uncovering a contradiction which, from a historical point of view, is noticeable in two ways.
The “Islamic Enlightenment” mainly took place in what is now Uzbekistan. Even during the times of the USSR, many larger cities in Uzbekistan were ultra-modern and provided immense input for the Soviet cultural scene. This was especially true for music, dance and theater, especially since a faculty of the state university in Tashkent that still exists today trains students in these cultural branches. At the societal level, however, a rather regressive tendency must be observed. The turn to folk traditions, religion (sometimes also to Islamic fanaticism) and traditional role models has increased rapidly, especially in the first years after independence.
However, as in Turkey in the 1990s, this development can be partly explained by economic cuts and a drop in living standards. The geography of the country also plays a role. Because while Turkey and Azerbaijan are relatively densely populated and criss-crossed by many urban areas, Uzbekistan, with around 33 million inhabitants on an area around three-quarters the size of Europe, is relatively sparsely populated and predominantly rural. This leads to the fact that many young Uzbeks leave their homeland, which ranges from rural exodus from the village to the city to emigration.

Many young people work in Russia as guest workers (usb. musofir) on construction sites or fields.
The working conditions are often poor and not infrequently organized by the respective employers in an illegal way. But putting a stop to this politically is hardly possible, since the new government in Uzbekistan is still far too short in office to be able to quickly remedy undesirable developments from over two decades (1991-2015). Politically, this was difficult insofar as a successor had to be found after the death of President Islom Karimov in 2016. On September 8th, 2016 Shavkat Mirzyoyev took over the official business and since then has tried to lead the country into a more liberal economic order, which should make it possible to promote more entrepreneurship and thus also to create jobs in the country. It cannot be determined with certainty whether this has been successful so far.

So it can be said about the Uighur regions of China and Uzbekistan alike that in both cases they are filled by peoples with a highly interesting culture and a large store of historical treasures and knowledge from earlier times. This knowledge is sometimes closed to the western media and European citizens.
The reason for this can be the media reporting in Europe about the areas mentioned, as well as the adverse conditions in the respective countries to use this cultural knowledge or its historical basis profitably. How exactly both ethnic groups or statehoods will develop in the near future is difficult to estimate.

However, it remains to be stated that here, too, a direct comparison with Turkey, which also shows social contradictions in many respects, is only possible to a limited extent. In this respect, one could say that the Uighur regions must first free themselves from the grip of an authoritarian and sometimes cruel China in order to be able to continue writing their own history. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is on the right track when it comes to opening up to the outside world. Domestically and economically, however, there is still a lot of room for change. But with a relatively young population, which often even has foreign know-how and intercultural competence, there will certainly be nothing in the way of a healthy connection between tradition and progress in the near future.

d) Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan - between "Kipchak", "Kumis" and "Kara Jorgo"

Finally, in this overview, I would like to turn to two Turkic peoples whose description in various respects actually summarizes everything that has been said before. Because here, too, the naming of the two ethnic groups follows the same principle as in the previous section on Uzbeks and Uyghurs, since "kipchak" is the name of a branch of Turkic peoples or their languages. Kazakh and Kyrgyz belong to this branch and are therefore very closely related to each other. In contrast to languages ​​such as today's Turkey-Turkish or Azerbaijani, the influence of Persian and Arabic is much less pronounced.

Rather, there are many lexemes in the vocabulary of these two languages ​​that have to be viewed as “typically Turkish”, as there is no reference to Arabic or Persian. Of course, there are such words of the latter origin in both Kazakh and Kyrgyzstan, but they are far less numerous.
It is the same with the report on religion. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz both were in fact supporters of shamanism and tengrism before Islamization. This old Turkish form of pantheism had nothing in common with the later emerging book religions of Judaism or Christianity, and certainly nothing in common with Islam. Nevertheless, it must be stated that precisely these book religions later, during the time of the Russian Empire, played an essential role in the consolidation of society. This was also the case after the dissolution of the USSR, mainly because Kazakhstan, like Azerbaijan, had been a multi-ethnic state for centuries.

In the case of Kyrgyzstan, this can be said to the extent that the founding myth of this country is based on 40 tribes (qɪrx = forty), which were later combined into one nation, i.e. today's Kyrgyz. If one starts from the characteristics of the original (not imported) cultural property, the cultures of both countries have a lot in common. Both peoples lived nomadically in their origins and always got their food from what nature gave them. For example, "Kumis", a drink made from fermented donkey milk, is represented in both cultures. Other dishes on the menu of various households (such as Bliny, Pelmeni, Lapsha) come from Russian cuisine, but are still often prepared on various occasions. The “Kara Jorgo”, a folk dance, can also be found in both countries. This is danced by both men and women and performed at events. This is worth mentioning because, similar to Azerbaijan, the role of women experienced an emancipation very early on. However, the latter is not, as one might assume due to the long-lasting Russian influences, to be traced back to the theory of ideas of the Soviet Union or a European image of women, but rather to a traditional Turkish point of view. A woman had to be versatile if she wanted to master life in the steppe or mountain regions of Central Asia as the mother and protector of the yurt (Turkish living tent). However, for the sake of fairness, it must also be mentioned that, especially in rural areas, a traditional distribution of roles is being maintained again. After all, it is due not least to the standard of living and education of a family how much traditional life and thus a world with irrefutable rules are turned towards. However, this does not mean that educated families are not still practicing Islamic or pre-Islamic rites and customs. However, it can be observed that this depends on the one hand on the social environment (town and country), the ethnicity (Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian) and also the working environment (national / Russian-speaking sector).

Belonging to a language group often also determines what kind of education a Kazakh or Kyrgyz citizen receives and the extent to which he or she binds to or decouples from a traditional way of life.
The latter is mainly due to living and working abroad (especially in Europe and Russia), where some young people either rediscover what has been forgotten and remember their own cultural markers, or turn away from the rules and norms they once learned and become one adopts a new, mostly western lifestyle geared towards efficiency and success. The fact that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are both secularly and secularly governed helps here. Even if there are isolated people with a less cosmopolitan attitude, it has to be stated that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are significantly less inclined to religiously motivated traditionalism than is currently the case in many regions of Turkey, the Uighur regions of China or Uzbekistan. Of course, exceptions always confirm the rule here too. Because there were also volunteers from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who fought for IS in Syria or who helped the Taliban in Afghanistan to commit their atrocities. Often, however, such biographies are the result of a professional or family failure in one's own country or an expression of the idea of ​​national liberation from foreign rule. In this respect, it is less the cultural spirit of the actual home countries of these people than the idea of ​​supporting others in the fight against foreign rule or an existing political system.

However, this does not change the fact that these two countries and their peoples have also found a way to efficiently combine tradition and progressiveness since their independence from Russia in 1991.


The essential commonalities of all the Turkic peoples and their states considered here lie in the relationship of their languages ​​and a culturality that is based on an acquired Islam long after the actual formation of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia. This religion then linked to earlier rites and cults, which in turn consisted of the worship of natural deities or shamanic practices. Songs and dances as an expression of cultural productivity can also show similarities in some cases, as can be clearly seen in the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Differences can be found in relation to the individual states, their origins and later political traditions. This is where the main difference lies, which is the reason why Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the Uighur regions can only be compared to a limited extent with today's Turkey.
Because while the latter emerged from a large empire that had ruled for over 600 years and has cultivated parts of this heritage to this day, the other Turkic states are much more progressive and more conciliatory in terms of contact with continental European culture. In my opinion, this can be explained by the Russian influence during the tsarist rule and the Soviet era, but also by the fact that religion and customs were always part of social life, but never the main authority for legislation or dogmatic action.
The idea of ​​a civil society, especially after independence, continued to be the driving force behind a progressive course. The view of one's own origins also leaves room in the countries of Central Asia for historical considerations regarding the time when Azerbaijanis were still fire worshipers, Uzbeks still performed shamanic rituals and Kazakhs rode as nomads in the steppe towards the sun.
Today's Turkey (unfortunately) hides this part of the history of its own origins. The Ottoman heritage and its religious components play a very important role, so that although the inhabitants of today's Turkey are no longer called "Ottomans" but "Turks", the meaning of this designation (Turk = "rider") does not matter can be read more from cultural practice. In my opinion, it is therefore good that Turkey is trying to intensify and cultivate cultural exchange with its Turkish-speaking neighbors. But these countries will certainly be careful to make a significant difference: “Turkish influence: Yes, please! Ottoman dominance: No, thank you! ”The latter stands in contradiction to the freedom of heart and thought that the ancestors of these peoples in the vastness of the Central Asian steppe loved too much to ever give it up.