Thursday, January 11, 2007

the politics of Islamphobia in Uzbekistan

There has been much discussion of resurrecting Uzbek fundamentalism in the last couple of years. A number of seemingly minor incidences, mysterious murders of three Uzbek officials in Namangan, unsolved Tashkent bombings and attempts of IMU guerrillas to infiltrate Ferghana Valley, revealed that we are living in a world of “virtual reality”, in which information has no identifiable location and boundary. There has been well over tens of thousands of articles, reports, analysis, and policy recommendations surrounding these three events. To use Habermas’ oft-quoted phrase “the cognitive interests” in producing knowledge cannot be isolated from the power that surrounds the knowledge construction process. Neither “innocent” reports that is disseminated “without comment”, nor the sophisticated scholarly pieces is an exception. However diverse the motivation behind “watching”, “commenting”, “judging” or “acting upon” an issue may be, knowledge eventually serves certain interests. Information flows from Moscow, Tashkent, Dushanbe and everywhere else; yet we are destined to live with mostly unconfirmed, speculative and politically charged knowledge.
Russian and “modernist” local experts used to see Islam as a political ideology of the traditional societies to be eradicated from the collective consciousness of the Central Asians. According to this version of Islamic resurgence in Uzbekistan, the serpent has been nurtured in the deep communal structures of Soviet Central Asia only to raise its ugly head when opportunity arises. This legacy of Soviet Union is still alive in the post-Soviet space and consequently shapes thinking and acting towards religion.
Another interpretation explains rise of Islam in Uzbekistan as a function of authoritarianism and ravages of economic transitions. It is argued, for example, that radical Islam in Uzbekistan is a byproduct of government repression. The reasoning goes, had the government not been repressive, political Islam would not have a constituency in the republic or had the Uzbek government not banned secular political parties, IMU would not have been on the political scene. A second version of this explanation associates the appeal of Islam with transitional economic and social crises. Accordingly, poverty, social dislocation and alienation are the main causes of rise of Islam in the region. Consequently, political liberalization and economic reforms should take care of the problem.
No doubt, at the root of Islamic awakening lie a number of interrelated factors. Yet, identities of the people, either secular or religious, cannot be relegated to the category of social pathology. Islam, far from being remnant of the past, or a function of government oppression or a product of socioeconomic dislocations, is an integral part of Uzbek identity. For Uzbeks, independence promised a “return to Islam”, not merely restoration of their secular historical, cultural or literary heritage, but also rehabilitation of their religion. What is generally called extremist, fundamentalist movements have indeed been moving into a public sphere where secular socialist or nationalist ideologies have failed to fulfill what they promised to deliver. In Central Asia, this should not be a surprise because socialist ideology used to define itself in opposition to Islam and its demise has opened a wide public space for political Islamic movements. Irrespective of the scale of repression or socioeconomic dislocations there will be different colors of Islam represented in the Uzbek society.
However, the prospect for the success of armed radical movements in Central Asia is disproportionately exaggerated. Independence has proved that there is a wide discrepancy between most Uzbeks’ perception of “Islam” and the agenda of the radical Islamists. Some of the much-publicized “fundamentalist” movements, like Hizb-ut Tahrir, seem to have confined themselves to a peaceful agenda with ambiguous long-term goals. Moreover after ten years of independence, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the only known armed group, involves no more than a couple of thousand armed men. Yet, thanks to Russian “experts” and their students in Central Asia, international community has been on alert for a fundamentalist takeover since independence.
What is certain is that the discourse of fundamentalist threat, a post-cold war international scapegoat, evokes strong sentiments in the international community. The usage of “fundamentalism” in the title of academic or journalistic products is a good marketing strategy appealing to the deep-lying often-unconscious imaginations of threat and insecurity on the side of the readers. Uzbek and Russian experts, who instigate a disproportionate number of “news” circulating throughout the globe, know that the discourse of fundamentalist enigma will fall on over-receptive ears in the western world. Yet, in many of the instances “the hard data” presented as the evidence for the “rise of fundamentalism” are no more than dubious trials of people who caught with leaflets or the increase in mosque attendance in Uzbekistan. A number of unrelated, even opposing, vested interests have created a new enigma in the region that does not deserve the current level of exaggeration and emergency.
Far from being a social pathology, Islam is an indivisible component of Uzbek national identity. For Uzbeks, independence and national unity are inconceivable without Islam. Consequently in the future, Islamization of the public sphere, either by legal or illegal means, should be expected to continue. That trend is hardly correlated with the ravages of transitions or government repression. By granting legal public representation to an independent moderate Islamic party, Uzbek government will be in a better position to accommodate rising tide of Islam in the country. Denial of a public sphere to such a powerful social force is very likely to drag Uzbek government into an abyss.
Aside from rising appeal of Islam in society, potential impact of armed fundamentalist movements, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is much exaggerated by the international community. Russian and Uzbek governments have undeniable interests in evoking a sense of dire emergency in the western world. Thanks to international over-sensitivity to radical Islam, Uzbeks are already demonized and becoming the new international scapegoat in the region. That is very likely to play on the hands of radicals.
June, 2001

Niyazov and Us

One last time, mass media all around the world has been busy talking about “the bizarre personality cult” he created around himself. Keywords peppered all over the reports are “Ruhnama,” “dictator,” “authoritarian” “absolute” “eccentric” “colorful,” “iron-fisted” “power vacuum,” “void,” “destabilization,” “concerns” “uncertainty,” “turmoil,” “conflict,” “crossroads,” “power struggle,” “energy rich,” “gas supply,” “oil game,” etc. One paper even called Turkmenistan “Absurdistan.” When it comes to Central Asia, a handy package of terms; “ethnic conflict,” “instability,” “volatility,” “uncertainty,” “security,” “emergency,” “urgency,” “crisis” “extremism,” “radicalism,” has been hardly out of favor.
We are continually reminded that Turkmenistan is “important” because of “vast” gas reserves underneath it; because of “geopolitics;” because of its proximity to this or that country.
Western news outlets preferred to organize the subject around the good ol’ “democracy axis” which helps them comprehend their relationship with the rest of the world. If not oil and gas, democracy is a quite functional word to make things understandable to the consumers.
Russian-speaking media, meanwhile, presented an image of the land of “orientals,” an image quite easy to invoke in the minds of Russians since the old Soviet days. Russian “experts” rushed to the microphones to utter the four-letter magic word to explain away why Niyazov died and what is going to happen next. Since “radical Islam,” was irrelevant to the issue at hand, “clan” is generously used to sort things out. As an “oriental leader” could not die from natural causes, the discussion, from its inception, revolved around “who” or which “clan” killed Niyazov.
More important topic in the news reports has been who is going to replace Niyazov. Experts, catering to policy-making circles, found an opportunity to prove their use-value by predicting who is next. Yet, the first day, there were only two obscure names up for grabs; Ovezgeldi Ataev and Kurbankulu Berdimuhammedov. Worse, their favorite search engine returned only a couple of hits on these names in Russian language. In the “land of Turkmenbashi” every other name had to remain in shadows. Fortunately, the second-day Russian-speaking world helped the English-speaking world enrich their vocabulary with few other names; Akmurad Rejebov, Murad Niyazov, Irina Niyazova, Rashid Meredov, and their “clan” ties, on which English-speaking world prefers to make casual “non-binding” remarks, were put in circulation. By the way, the second-day, the English-speaking world borrowed a dubious claim from a Russian site that Berdimuhammedov is an illegitimate son of Niyazov. So, for now, these names together with the almighty keyword “clan” should be enough to explain what is going to happen in Turkmenistan for the next few days.
Aleksei Malashenko, my all-time favorite Russian “expert,” summarizes what we know and how we think about Turkmenistan;
“All key players have rushed to Turkmenistan now, all of them involved in the inevitable tug-of-war. Russia's worst problem is that it lacks the people in Turkmenistan it could rely on. As a matter of fact, the Turkmenbashi weeded out the political terrain so thoroughly that there are no prominent figures there at all nowadays. I do not think that someone, a leader all Turkmen clans will decide to back and follow, will appear. There is no opposition in the country either. If the transition period becomes extended, the Islamic factor may emerge all its ugliness - something like Turkmen Talibs.”
So, we are all “concerned” that Turkmenistan will “disintegrate” as a result of “clan wars” and “Turkmen Talibs” will come to power.