News vs. Rumor in Kazakhstan

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 7/12/2009 · 2 comments

I think this is almost a personal peeve more than a post, but I think it is something that others interested in Central Asia might get something from.

This past weekend I have been in Shymkent and Sayram in the south of Kazakhstan, with temperatures well past 35, up to 40 degrees Celsius, which is enough to remind anyone how close the desert is.  I attended my former host sister’s wedding, and it was, of course, a grand celebration.

After delivering my toast and wishes to the bride and groom, in which I wished them happiness and equality, to much cheering from the women of the family, the emcee took over and stated how nice that a Michael was visiting an Uzbek wedding, for I was already surely half Muslim.  And that, isn’t it great, Michael Jackson became a Muslim, like Barack Obama and Mike Tyson.  I was the only one who laughed at that…

My host family [and most everyone in the town of Sayram] are Uzbeks, a minority in Kazakhstan.  Locally, of course, they are almost a plurality, as statistics for South Kazakhstan Oblast have the Uzbeks outnumbering even the Russians, and only marginally behind the Kazakhs.  Demographics being a pseudo-study of the future, their birthrate and increasing lifespan would give them a possibility of majority status.  However, that is unlikely, as more and more Uzbeks are claiming Kazakh as their nationality in internal passports, thanks to Kazakh names and fluent knowledge of the Kazakh language [compare this with Kazakhs in the northern oblasts of Kazakhstan, where Kazakhs of mixed blood will do the opposite and claim Russian nationality].

Over the past weeks since Michael Jackson’s death, there have been various reports from the newspapers and television news, either sourced from Russian media or Turkish media.  One can almost tell where each bullet point comes from.  Example: Michael Jackson succumbed to infection from the “mikrob” problem of plastic surgery – clearly a Russian perspective.  Example: Michael Jackson secretly became a Muslim and actually received a Muslim burial – clearly a more Islamic source.

There are tabloids in the US, but I think only the most misguided accept them as fact.  In Kazakhstan, journalism is not one of the businesses being reinvented a la Global Capitalism.  It would seem that the Bolashak program [the presidential fund to send promising Kazakhstani students abroad to study] has no quota for journalism or similar studies.  Public administration and similar focuses are the most common, and certainly much needed in Kazakhstan, as well.  I think it is needless to say that Soviet-era leaders, not just Nazarbaev, have little to gain from increasing the amount of Western-style journalists in Kazakhstan.

Journalism is actually capable of informing and educating people, in the right hands.  Trust, however, is not something so easy to attain – sources should be cited, authors should not be forced to hide their identity, and interviews and articles need not be used as evidence against the same in court.  Let’s take, for example, this tabloid line:

Beleaguered pop star has converted to Islam and changed his name to Mikaeel, it has been claimed today.

I think any student of journalism would know not to trust this sentence, and even others like myself, without formal journalistic training, know that the passive voice is ALWAYS a bad sign.  “…it has been claimed today.”  How convenient for the story, but who claimed it?  Religious conversion is a serious thing, and one would imagine Michael himself would not hide the truth.  Similar tabloid stories tell us that Obama is a secretly practicing Muslim, and even that Michael Jackson was killed for becoming a Muslim – similar to previous stories that Princess Diana converted and was then killed for it.

This kind of malarkey is so much sensationalism, and it is rarely questioned by the people who read it here in southern Kazakhstan.  It must be true – it just makes sense!  Our religion is one that the world is fighting against, and even when the famous people we know and love convert, the world stops at nothing to prevent the spread of Islam.  It’s all very dramatic, and yet so unrealistic.  There is no proof, nor is proof asked for.  Like P T Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, and most people are willing to be fooled.

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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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ChrisM July 12, 2009 at 11:01 am

Another part of the problem is the (mostly, though sadly not entirely) older generation’s often unquestioning acceptance to believe what the state-run TV channels broadcast.
As an example, sat down watching a news report, a Babushka will tut at the right time, and say how it is a shame that Mr. X has ruined something for Kazakhstan, without stopping for one moment to think that Mr. X was being lauded as a saviour just a few months previously, on the same channel.
Mention to Babushka that there was a 65 year old tight rope walker performing in the park for Astana Day (post coming soon on my blog [/plug]), and her immediate reaction was ‘oh they are just exaggerating, you can’t believe a word they say!’.
Checking out MJ’s wiki page, or more specifically the discussion tab, is a good way to catch up his Islam non/conversion.

Jam July 14, 2009 at 7:30 am

Just of the note:
I wish people living somewhere in the rural areas of America also had the perspective and stretch of thought like you. Without thinking that long-bearded Muslim/Arabs want to take away their freedom, religion and way of life.
Religiously supporting political leaders in fighting the barbarians abroad and ready to give the homeland security all what it might ask for – including the much secured freedoms.
It is where I agree with P T Barnum.

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