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XII ESCAS Biennial Conference, University of Cambridge

28 september 2011, 17:31
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The European Society for Central Asian Studies successfully held its biennial conference in Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, UK, on September 20-22, 2011. This was its twelfth conference, since the first one organized back in 1991. The choice of subject for the conference – Central Asia: A Maturing Field – reflects appreciation to the qualitative changes in the academic vision of various aspects of post-soviet development of the Central Asian region.

The Conference was hosted by the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, Cambridge Kazakhstan Center and the UK Committee for Central and Inner Asia. Speaking on behalf of British establishment, Chairman of the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Central Asia Lord V. Waverley congratulated chairman of the forum Cambridge Professor Siddharth Saxena and his colleagues, including Chokan Laumulin from Kazakhstan, on the massive successes of the conference and the Central Asian Forum in strengthening the role and significance of this region in the international arena.

The fact that a conference on their home region is held in the famous Cambridge University, known for its centuries-long traditions of knowledge transfer and science development, was of great significance in itself for the scholars from Central Asia. In spite of its educational remoteness from Europe post-soviet Central Asia is looking to Western Europe for norms and models and strives to bolster academic mobility of its professors and students.

ESCAS conference

During the conference presentations and discussions were simultaneously held in 8 sections of the Churchill College. The presented reports were divided into the following categories:

1) Economy, geopolitics and international relations,

2) Historiography,

3) Literature and language,

4) Source studies,

5) Ethic, religious identity,

6) Cultural anthropology,

7) Art, architecture, culture,

8) Education reforms,

9) Media coverage of the region,

10) Security.

European scholars who took part in the conference represented schools of the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Estonia. The conference also gathered researchers from Russia, India, Turkey, Japan, Afghanistan, the United States and Australia.   

What made this conference so special was that besides European scholars it attracted a substantial number of researchers from the region in focus: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This created an opportunity for the European colleagues to enter into life discussions with the insiders of their research subject matter. This prompted an exchanged of opinions among scholars with different original positions and perspectives.

ESCAS conference participants

Many of the reports left a lasting impression of epistemological barriers between the Western and Central Asian mentalities being overcome in many areas, in particular in historiography and literary studies. During the soviet era vision of these areas of knowledge was scrupulously controlled by the official soviet ideology that diluted the essence and sprit of any research. In the two decades of post-soviet maturing in a liberal environment the Central Asian region has developed a generation of researchers and analysts capable of independent comparison and multifaceted critical analysis.

Another progress area that the conference revealed was the mastering of the international English language by Central Asian academic community: most of the reports were made in English.

The opening speech of the legendary British orientalist Professor Edmund Bosworth on creative biographies of European scholars who pioneered Central Asian studies was a special event at the conference. According to Central Asian participants, the acquaintance with Edmund Bosworth alone would have been enough to justify their traveling to the UK.

The conference once again demonstrated that Central Asia is gaining foothold in spite of the many challenges it faces, and has become an economically and geopolitically important region of the world. Many of the keynote speakers pointed out the western public opinion and media are often biased in their judgments of events in the Central Asian region and are overly prone to viewing only it in the light of radical Islamization and occupation of Afghanistan. Liverpool University Professor Alexander Morrison quoted one of his colleague’s refusal to comment on the Central Asian region in the light of 9/11 events 10 years ago, because a dozen of terrorists from the Middle East and the U.S. 9/11 tragedy were not related to Central Asia region.

However regional security in Central Asia still remains a widely discussed issue that raises a lot of concerns. 2010 event in Kyrgyzstan and their consequences for the country and the region in the whole were discussed at the conference. The participants agreed that the less interference from the outside the region gets and the better the economic situation in the Fergana valley is, the more successfully the peace and reconciliation processes are going to be.     

The twelfth biennial conference in Churchill College was an excellent platform for establishment of new professional contacts between European and Central Asian universities for further joint research projects, teaching experience exchange and student exchange. It has a lot become a milestone in the establishment of Central Asian region at the international arena.    

 

Dr Zifa Auezova, ESCAS President

 

 

Background:

 

In 1985 a group of scholars from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Great Britain and Denmark working within Central Asian Studies decided to establish an informal cooperation with the purpose of promoting joint research and interdisciplinary studies among European scholars on Central Asia. The Utrecht University, Department of Oriental Languages and Cultures, took the initiative to organize the first and founding conference of ESCAS, inviting also scholars from Central Asia.

The immediate purpose of the conference was to define the geographic area of Central Asia which would be dealt with. It was agreed to include the Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well as adjacent areas of Mongolia, Northern Iran, Northern Afghanistan and Northwestern China. A primary reason for establishing ESCAS was to give Central Asian Studies the status of a separate research field in its own right, independent of Soviet and Eastern European studies, to establish research links with disciplines working within the same historical and cultural continuum in adjacent areas, and to create opportunities for direct cooperation between scholars of the former Soviet Central Asia and scholars in adjacent areas.

It was agreed to hold conferences in order to maintain and develop European research cooperation and an exchange of information.


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