Knight-Ridder Phones It In & The Consequences of Ideas

by Nathan Hamm on 4/19/2004

Ideas count for something. They have funny ways of coming to life. Unfortunately, the press isn’t doing much of a service by filling our heads with simplistic ideas and dumbed-down versions of the truth.

It’s not often that I’ll trash a news story I include in a WoC briefing, but the a line or two of the story mentioned in this post is worth it.

One guess about what’s wrong with this:

Central Asian militants return home to fight: UZBEK, TAJIK, CHINESE JOINED BY FRESH RECRUITS

Give up? They even capitalized it for you?

The only reason I can come up with for mentioning Chinese militants is that you think your readers are too dumb to know what an Uighur is. But then again, is “Uzbek” a well-known nationality? It’s getting better, but a lot of people I know asked me why I was joining the Peace Corps to go to East Pakistan (just click the link if you need to know).

With such sloppiness, how am I really supposed to believe this?

Islamist groups from Central Asia took heavy losses while fighting alongside the Taliban, but the remnants of those mini-armies have proved remarkably resilient in recent months and now appear to be regrouping with new recruits, new strategies and old terror money.

No longer secure in Afghanistan, hundreds of Uzbek, Tajik and Chinese militants have recently returned home. Analysts believe they are retrenching at their former camps and hide-outs, mostly in the rugged and unpoliced mountains of Tajikistan.

God, it could be true, but who knows? Especially when the following is presented as fact.

These fighters are being joined by waves of new recruits, most of whom were moderate Muslims until becoming radicalized by harsh religious crackdowns in Uzbekistan and China.

I’m tempted to fly into an Angry Dad rage and say, “That’s opinion, not news!” However, let me step back for a while.

I have a friend who’s mildly annoyed with me right now. They (gender-indeterminate third person…) say I’m too angry and negative and that I should just ignore things I don’t like. I am struck by the curse of knowledge though, and cast forth from the garden of monastic retreat from life. What I know that I think they don’t (or at least don’t care about) is that ideas have consequences. I care what you think because it can fuck up my life. This is true of essentially every politcal and warblogger out there. Left, right, and middle, we are all concerned that the unwashed hordes will pull us off track.

Before I go down “kumbaya, peace-parade, free to be you and me” path, let me get down to matters of practicality. I care about what people think and think they know because it informs their analysis and strategizing.

Personally, I think the assumption that poverty and repression necessarily leads to Islamic terror is cheap, dollar-store (that cliche needs an inflation adjustment) analysis. Repeated enough times in the above fashion, people begin to believe it’s true. Then, the same jackasses come up with a cute slogan and have a protest that makes my work environment even more annoying. You can hear this process in action listening to O’Reilly or Limbaugh (and I’m assuming Air America as well).

There is absolutely nothing in Uzbek culture that would make Wahabbi inspired terrorism my number one option for opposition to the government, even in the current environment. Uzbek Islam isn’t like that. I know this, and I think the press is doing a great disservice by suggesting it’s only natural, and hey, maybe even representative, of the way Uzbeks feel.

10 people with the will to use themselves as bombs are louder than the millions who whisper their frustration and despair behind closed doors. 400 people committed to murder with the goal of building a Turkic Taliban can bully the tens of millions who just want a chance to build a prosperous future. (All of this is why I don’t believe there’s any kind of “popular insurgency” in Iraq.)

People are upset in Uzbekistan. They are desperate. They know who is to blame. They are looking for answers. Unfortunately, there’s only one ideology available that seems powerful.

In the same way that Bolshevism was an answer to some of the least likely people in the Russian Empire, similarly Janus-faced scumbags are providing an answer that promises a golden future built on a society committed to form over substance.

As depressing as it is to hear of terrorism rearing its head in Uzbekistan again, I take heart in the fact that, as much as things have gotten worse the past few years, no one answered the call to rise up. They stayed at home out of fear, but not out of fear of their government. Sure, they know what would happen to them, but they also know what happened to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

When we were evacuated from Uzbekistan, our local friends were really afraid that our flight was a sign of something bad to come. They told us that no one wanted to live under mullahs, but they knew that people in the villages were poor enough to fight for a pittance.

What the journalists aren’t telling you is that. People are more afraid of the terrorists who want to “liberate” them than they are of their oppressive government.

I try not to read too much into things, but I sometimes think that the persistent rumor that Karimov is gravely ill (some even say he’s died and a body double has taken his place while elites duke it out behind the scenes) is a hope that it’ll all be over soon. “He’ll die soon, and then we can get on with things.” Those are the Uzbeks I know–the quiet ones who ask, “How long until we’re as wealthy as your country?”

Most Uzbeks, the ones biding their time, know the answer to their problems is a healthy mix of democracy and economic opportunity. Because they’re biding their time, they’re not going to stick their necks out giving fiery interviews to naive journalists looking for a revolution to cover.

But back to the consequences of ideas. I’m no fool. Islam and the sword (unless of course you’re an HT activist) are the answers. The Golden Age of the Caliphate is something to look back to; to reclaim.

There needs to be space for a credible alternative to grow and become powerful.

Unfortunately, our own paucity of ideas are leading to bad consequences. I don’t think there’s as much to be scared of in Central Asia as the press would like to convey. I feel like the constant drumbeat of suggestion that there are hordes of terrorists waiting to descend from the hills leads to the advocacy of an atrociously simplistic policy that relies first upon our use of force until every last bad guy is gone. If you read my archives, you’ll probably see that I’m not the type to shy away from the use of force. I do feel it’s much more appropriate when it’s coupled with strategies that will build democracy.

However, force shouldn’t even really be an issue in Uzbekistan. The country has a ridiculous number of police and soldiers. Force isn’t what it’s lacking. Democracy is.

I think that too many people have this idea that Uzbekistan is like other things they know–Iraq and Afghanistan being the most common countries it is compared to. Iraq? Don’t get me started. Afghanistan? It may border Uzbekistan, but they’re on different planets. The consequence of these and other ideas is some pretty bad policy.

The only people that I’ve seen put out policy ideas based on the idea that Uzbekistan is its own situation are Chris Seiple and the International Crisis Group. Both advocate a pretty similar course of action.

Create a democratic alternative. That should be the heart of our Central Asia policy–democracy and economic opportunity before military support. No pussyfooting around or weak-kneed idealism, but a steely-eyed commitment to linking military aid to the amount of reform. People like Karimov can either end up going out like Shevardnadze or like Ceaucescu. That should quietly be made clear behind closed doors, but it should be crystal.

If you were to ask me what Islamic countries could be credibly democratic in ten years, I’d have to say: Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and maybe Tajikistan. I honestly think the only one of those where it could happen without the help of Europe and the US is Iran.

I’m all for hunting down terrorists. Every terrorist that shuffles off this mortal having failed in his or her goals is a small victory. But, how long do we want to keep fighting? 15 years? 25? How about 50? I’m not even joking about thinking that’s the kind of state of low-level war we’re looking at.

We need to get real about that and start thinking about what kind of what we can do to lay the groundwork for a fourth wave of democratization that will wash over the Muslim world. I’m more than a little biased, but I submit that Uzbekistan would be a good place for us to start pushing very hard.


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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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