Fatima Mukaddirova, then 62, mother of the Muslim prisoner Muzaffar Avazov, boiled to death in 2002, a week before her arrest at the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, October 2003. Photo by Uznews.net
Registan now has a new thesis in its curious game of mounting arguments that ultimately concede the status quo for the regimes of Central Asia, and ensuring withering scorn for their critics. (I’m torn between calling Registan “Spars & Swipes,” for its numerous nasty attacks on human rights activists and others who disagree with them, or simply “The Small Game”.)
Sarah Kendzior has a piece titled “The Reverse Orientalism of the Arab Spring”. Basically, her thesis, drawing from Edward Said (and thereby obliquely invoking the old “Zionism=Racism” canard), says that if we claim that the Arab Spring is coming to Central Asia, we’re racists and imperialists. By invoking such “reverse orientalism,” we’re claiming Central Asia is “a region deemed meaningful only by virtue of its similarity to the Arab world,” says Kendzior — and thereby both obscuring and instrumentalizing it for geostrategic aims.
Sarah coins an interesting term: Central Asia is “the other’s other,” i.e. the exotic East even for Russia, itself the exotic East by contrast to the West. Of course, nowadays, the exoticism has warn off. Central Asia may be remote, but for 20 years, everybody from oil company executives to human rights fact-finders to journalists to backpackers have been going there and even have permanent offices. It isn’t quite as unknown as some might hope it will remain so they can go on justifying their roles as sherpas and academic interpreters for the uninitiated. In a world where analysts in Bishkek can tweet and Livestream their comments and conferences, it’s rapidly becoming a world where Western gurus are losing power.
Sure, the ubiquitous Arab Spring invocations (well, from some but not all wire service and mainstream dailies) get annoying. They do lump together countries with very different histories and experiences. Not to mention that the Arab Spring isn’t what it cracked up to be, either — the military keeps killing more people in Egypt; profound challenges always expected from the Muslim Brotherhood are now coming to pass and the fate of liberals and secularists is not certain.
But Kendzior seems just plain mad that her region isn’t a special snowflake, and hates it to be trivialized or instrumentalized — hence, the over-dramatic reach for Said:
“The worst aspect of this essentializing stuff,” wrote Said, “is that human suffering in all its density and pain is spirited away.” Predicting a “Kazakh Spring” after an incident like the shootings in Zhanaozen trivializes both the struggles of Arab dissidents and the pain of Kazakhs who endured a serious, but unrelated, tragedy. Similarly, not every move a Central Asian dictator makes is in reaction to uprisings in the Middle East. Censorship and repression have a long history in Central Asia – yet they fail to merit media attention unless they are linked to a more popular plight.
There wasn’t any Arab Spring yet in June 2010 (the Tunisian demonstration happened in December 2010), but the media covered the inter-ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan on their own terms. The media couldn’t cover as well the crushing of labour unrest in a closed area in Kazakhstan, but the shooting of workers isn’t trivialized by questions about Egypt-like upheavals; if anything the social struggle becomes more dignified and taken seriously. Would anyone argue that if it weren’t for Osh — and the Arab Spring — very different but not entirely different phenomena — that Nazarbayev would have fired his own son-in-law and dispensed cash to victims’ families?
Kendzior believes there’s an inherent racism and ignorance involved in making Central Asia “the Arab Spring’s doppelganger.” Just because these countries have dictators and lots of Muslims in them doesn’t mean they’ll go anything like the routes of Egypt or Tunia or Yemen or Syria, dramatically good or bad, she says:
Never mind that comparatively little has “spread” from the Arab world to Central Asia in recent years (hyberbolic claims of Hizb-ut Tahrir domination notwithstanding), or that Central Asians sometimes take a dim view of these revolutions, or that the Soviet legacy shapes Central Asian politics far more than anything taking place abroad. Instead, Central Asia is often presented as a Middle East in training: they are Muslims, they have oil, they have dictators, so their policies and protests must have the Arab Spring as their guiding impulse.
Well, I’m glad that we agree the Soviet legacy shapes Central Asian politics “far more than anything taking place abroad,” but gosh, part of that Soviet legacy is the crushing of the popular front in January 1990 in Azerbaijan and the shooting of demonstrators at the TV tower in Lithuania and ultimately the failed August coup. It’s almost as if there’s a taboo being established here. We must never say the Arab Spring has any effect on Central Asia — whatever the obvious parallels between entrenched dictators and people whose religious aspirations have been suppressed. If we say anything like the unrest of the Arab Spring is coming, we are either hopelessly naive or provocateurs. The net effect of this position, however, is that an entrenched think-tank class ensures that these regimes never have to face the implications of an Arab Spring — and the extremist religious movements don’t have to face scrutiny, either.
While I recognize this is the scholarly status quo, I have to point out the troubling aspects of closing off debate about this region in this fashion.
First, there’s a certain straw man argument here — there aren’t hordes of analysts or journalists saying that anything remotely like the Arab Spring has come to Central Asian nations or will come tomorrow. Even opposition groups that might occasionally exploit the opportunity to make comparisons have been measured in their comments. Human rights activists interviewed by uznews.net have tended to say that there aren’t conditions for any such upheavals, although one provincial activist said there was. When I’ve pressed Registan to come up with the links to these supposed academics or think-tankers out there really mounting a serious claim about Arab Spring like potentials, all I get is a tweet Blake Hounsell once might have made, or a New York Times article in which the author rightly said that Nazarbayev regime must have been mindful of the Arab Spring potential.
Second, the thesis of “reverse orientalism” essentially eclipses any commentary about the challenge the regimes themselves are clearly facing, and pre-empts any admission that it *is* really a challenge to them, regardless of whether mass unrest is actually possible.
While you would be hard put to find actual social movements able to put thousands of people into public squares because they managed to glimpse a video of Tahrir Square on Youtube before it was blocked, what you can point to are the moves of these regimes to pre-empt a Spring. All of the Central Asian regimes have cracked down on mobile phones and the Internet and in Tashkent’s case, created a simulation of Facebook to try to siphon social chatters off to their own realm and away from more free settings. They most definitely are doing this not merely as a continuation of their Soviet pattern, but in reaction to these media burgeoning. So this is one of those examples of reflexivity – the regimes’ perceptions of a threat not even there makes them crack down nervously; that crackdown then helps ensure the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The dismissal of the Arab Spring potential belongs to the same school as the dismissal of the Islamist threat, which is in part motivated by a political battle with conservatives. Yes, the “it can’t happen here” is backed by obvious facts (low Internet penetration), but it doesn’t factor in reflexivity sufficiently. While Hizb-ut-Tahir and similar unauthorized Muslim groups don’t seem to have any massive support in Uzbekistan, what they do have is anywhere from 5000-8000 religious prisoners in the Uzbek gulag — and their tens of thousands of relatives — who may not have started out even knowing what HuT even was when they went to an innocuous prayer meeting at a neighbour’s home, but who, after years of torture and finding solidarity with fellow inmates, or after years of seeing their loved ones harmed, sure may be members now — and angry members.
Just like everybody wants to free Guantanamo prisoners but nobody wants to take them in their country and human rights groups don’t want to contemplate the ramifications of problems like Gita-gate, so nobody wants to contemplate the far larger problem of what it would mean to release more than 5,000 traumatized religious believers into the wild. Oh, I know, ask Egypt. A key way the Mubarak regime ensured that Muslim Brotherhood gained a foothold was by torturing its prisoners — they emerged never believing in any Western — or Eastern — notion of human rights ever again.
But what happens when you mount academic theses that unrest can “never happen here” or that Islamic fundamentalism “can’t happen” is that you are unprepared with policies when it does. If you’ve assured the world that there is no Hizb-ut-Tahrir problem whatsoever, forgetting even that there might be if the prison policy changes (and it must if we are to insist on our human rights ideals) — then when a country *does* grow more religious, even shy of the extremities of HuT, decision-makers are unprepared. If you’ve spent years telling everyone that Islamic fundamentalism in Tajikistan isn’t really a problem any more and the civil war is over and the threat is exaggerated, then you have no framework to understand that pretty much all significant dissent in Tajikistan seems to take the form of Muslim activism, and then policy-makers may view what is normal and natural for a country as suddenly a threat. The very analysis that seeks to minimize unrest or religious revival in opposition to mythical promoters of these concepts then winds up fueling the hysteria they claimed to see in the first place.