“In the humanities, the book is kind of our unit of making a statement to the world,” said Morgan Liu, an associate professor in Ohio State’s Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures.
A culmination of more than 16 years of work, Liu’s latest book is a pretty big statement.
“Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh,” which was awarded the Central Eurasian Studies Society Book of the Year Award for 2014, focuses on Osh, Kyrgyzstan — a central Asian city that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union.
“It reflects the work I did in this really interesting 20-year period from 1990 to 2010, so that 20-year period is just when the Soviet Union was about to collapse until these riots in 2010,” Liu said. “I was capturing that first two decades of possibility … That was a time when people believed that there was a lot of possibility for the future.”
Before 1991, the Soviet Union had limited the flow of travelers into and out of the country, and Liu was one of the first few American students to travel to Kyrgyzstan and conduct research after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Liu was not always a cultural anthropologist. Originally from New York City, Liu completed his undergraduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I worked as an engineer for five years after that, and then I went to the University of Michigan for anthropology,” Liu said. After finishing his postdoctoral work at Harvard University, Liu’s broad range of interests eventually led him to OSU — the same college his grandparents attended in the 1920s.
Liu began the comprehensive research for this book in the early 1990s and he completed extensive ethnographic fieldwork by traveling frequently to Osh. He spent time “hanging out in places, watching people do their everyday life, going to weddings, or visiting universities or cotton fields — whatever it took.”
“I try to figure out how real people think, what they do, and what they say — I would call anthropology the study of societies on the ground,” Liu said. He found that the Soviet dissolution had divided Kyrgyzstan by a number of rising opinions about how to handle their newfound freedoms: Some turned to Western ideas of democracy while others looked for stability through Islam.
“People became religious for all kinds of reasons,” Liu said. “Part of it was some of them just really wanted to understand the religion of their ancestors … for others it was about morality … for others it was peer pressure because others around them were religious.”
Liu also uncovered ethnic divisions that were brought into the limelight during this time between the Kyrgyz (the majority) and ethnic Uzbeks. These ethnic tensions were the main cause of a series of riots in 2010.
“Entire parts of the cities were burned,” Liu said. “This was a major conflict for the region.”
For ethnic Uzbeks, their previous affluence led them to be persecuted and the conflicts became a particularly crushing blow.
“There’s a lot of despair there,” Liu said. “All of the leaders of the Uzbek community were imprisoned or exiled so there’s no one left to mobilize or bring the community together and allow it to do things. So they sort of feel like orphans.”
In spite of these tensions and violence, Liu remains optimistic.
“I guess my optimism comes from spending time with the people,” Liu said. “The sense of community there is very strong.”
For the Uzbek people, the real issue is now justice. “‘We’re able to endure great hardships as a people,’ they would say, ‘but what’s hard to endure is an unjust situation,’” Liu said in respect to the Uzbeks in Osh.
Liu said the book has led to new opportunities for him.
“I have the freedom to think more broadly about bigger issues,” Liu said. He was granted tenure at OSUafter its publication and said there’s now “a real shift in responsibilities” now that Liu has been granted tenure.
But this does not mean that Liu plans to relax or set aside his curiosity. He plans to continue investigating the intersection of communism and Islam in the world at large.
“I feel a sense of responsibility with all of that,” Liu said. “I sort of feel like — what should I be doing with this kind of investment put on me?
“All academics have this kind of responsibility to the world in some way,” Liu said. “We each do it in very different ways, but I feel that academic knowledge is not just so we can write books or articles. Those are good, but ultimately I want to take the next step in saying ‘how do we apply this to the world?’ That’s what I feel it means to be a professor at Ohio State.”