Finding it Harder

by Nathan Hamm on 7/25/2004 · 1 comment

I’m continually finding it harder to like Stephen Schwartz.

If I had to guess, I would say that he and I are probably in near-total agreement on what US-Uzbek relations should be, but I have a hard time with how he justifies his decisions. I don’t want to go so far as to say that he is intentionally misrepresenting Uzbekistan. In other words, I’m not going to call him a liar, but I can’t help but feel he’s taking advantage of his audience’s lack of knowledge of the subject.

Schwartz isn’t obligated to let readers know that he’s a Sufi, but it certainly explains some of his tendencies, including his borderline apologies for the Karimov government. In case you missed it, check out this post from May that discusses the Uzbek government’s strategy of selling its commitment to Sufism to placate Westerners. Schwartz’s name comes up.

In a nutshell, Schwartz advocates what he calls a Northern Strategy–support for the forms of Islam practiced by “northern” Islamic cultures. While I don’t think it’s good policy for the United States to publicly support any particular form of a religion, he does good to bring up that there’s a lot of diversity to Islamic practice. Helping tolerant Islamic societies to thrive and offer an alternative is a pretty good idea.

Anyway, Schwartz’s latest is, as usual, a mixed bag. He makes some great points (such as, Why, of all the autocratic states to choose from in the Muslim world, is the US so damned quick to look to the Saudis?), but he has to go and lead with some dubious positives about Uzbekistan. I’ll give him the points on geography, but I have a harder time with the rest.

the martial habits of the Uzbeks, who are also known as tough fighters in neighboring Afghanistan;

“Tough” isn’t the right word. In all the Afghanistan reading I’ve been doing lately, there are repeated brief mentions of the extreme brutality of Uzbeks. Josiah Harlan found little to like about them (he had a profound dislike of slavers) but their melons. For kicks, they led Jason Elliot to believe they were going to execute him. It looks more like fear than respect. Then there’s the whole other point that Uzbekistan’s Uzbeks are a bit different than those of Afghanistan. We’ll leave that aside though.

a revived cultural relationship with Turkey, the modernizing powerhouse of the Islamic world (Turkish and Uzbek are mutually intelligible languages);

Every Uzbek I’ve ever heard talk about it said they couldn’t understand Turkish without studying it. But anyway, relations between the two are pretty good, but the way I understand it, Karimov is a little wary of letting the Turkish government do too much in Uzbekistan because he finds Turks to be too religious. The school I taught at had been a Turkish Lyceum, all of which, if I remember correctly, were closed largely because they taught classes on Islam.

a local tradition of tolerant Hanafi Islam, based on the most pluralistic form of sharia, and a strong Sufi, or spiritual Muslim influence;

I think it’s way too easy to overstate this. While Uzbekistan has a rich, Islamic past, it never struck me as being a particularly religious society. Unless Schwartz’s wish is for Bukhara to again become one of the most important centers of Islamic learning, I personally find its secularism to be a more compelling (and reflective of reality) selling point.

a long, fruitful relationship between local Muslims and the Jewish community, known as Bukharians. The Bukharian Jews, who speak Farsi, have lived in the ancient town of Bukhara for 2,500 years — longer than the Turkic-speaking Uzbeks, who are relative newcomers. Uzbekistan has diplomatic relations with Israel,

Great, they have relations with Israel. However, from what I’ve read, the arrival of the Uzbeks in Bukhara marks the beginning of trying times.

In the beginning of the 16th century Central Asia was invaded and conquered by nomadic Uzbek tribes who established strict observance of Islam and Central Asia fell into Dark Age of religious fundamentalism. At the same time the Silk Road lost its importance and soon was lost in sand. Trade had declined and science was forgotten. All this had negative impact on development in Central Asia for the next 300 years.

The events had impacted Bukharian Jews as well. Confined to their own city-quarters they were denied basic rights and many were forced to convert to Islam. Bukharian Jews who continued to practice Judaism in secret became known as “chala”. Neither Jews nor Moslems married the “converts” and their lives were often hard. By the middle of the 18th century Bukharian-Jewish communities were in a very bad shape and their existence was threatened.

It was bad enough that Russians were viewed as liberators.

Eight Bukharian Jews took part in a ceremony of official annexation of Tashkent to Russia. Seeing the Russians as their liberators from the tyranny of emir the Bukharian Jews in many ways helped the Russians to advance. When a Russian garrison in Samarkand was surrounded (1868) many Jews joined the Russians and supplied them with food and water. After his defeat the emir was forced to pay a huge indemnity to the victors, and the small community of Bukharian Jews paid a very large percent of it.

That site does have a bit of an axe to grind, but… It can’t be all that great now either if there are more Bukharan Jews in the US than Uzbekistan. Maybe it’s just that they have the opportunity to leave, but again, I think Schwartz might be stretching things (especially considering this type of behavior).

Schwartz recycles Uzbekistan’s suspicion of all independent Muslims by suggesting them all to be funded by the Saudis and pushing Wahabbism.

He also claims that Christian churches worship freely. Baptists seem to be under fire [Note: I don’t agree with Forum 18’s characterization that Uzbekistan is trying to “stop Christianity”]. Other Protestants have run into trouble and Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing persecution. The Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Navoi, despite being a registered religious community, was constantly harassed when I lived there.

As I wrote all of that, I felt like I was nitpicking, but Schwartz gets under my skin for a reason. I agree with much of where Schwartz ends up in his arguments. I don’t think it serves anyone well though to base it on a shaky foundation (that I think is informed by Schwartz’s religious biases and his tendency to see Wahabbis at every turn) when engagement can be advocated even when facing up to what Uzbekistan is really like.


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– 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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{ 1 comment }

praktike July 26, 2004 at 10:45 am

Schwartz is very suspicious, to my mind.

Oh, and did you know that Hedieh Mirahmadi is a member of this weirdo CPD incarnation?

Mirahmadi is another Karimov apologist, peddling the notion that Sufi Islam is the answer to all our problems. I find this whole notion a bit strange — kind of like saying in 1933 that a revitalization of animism would be an antidote to Japanese militarism.

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