The Three Worlds of “Muslim Uzbekistan”

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by Noah Tucker on 9/5/2009 · 6 comments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on women being banned from attending mosques in Bukhara that attracted a large number of comments. Most of the them, somewhat to my surprise, where actually about an observation that I had made about the differences in translation I thought I saw of one particular sentence across the three languages that Ferghana.ru publishes in. I also mentioned that I thought it might conform to a pattern I had seen elsewhere, and this particular difference in translation, if real, would mark the first time I had noticed that pattern on Ferghana.ru.

Because it was basically off-topic, I didn’t elaborate much on that statement, but it drew a great deal of attention in the comments section (albeit mostly others wanting to spar about translations, which is an old and healthy sport here at Registan.net) so I thought I could explore the topic a bit more.

My theory (that I would be pleased to have comments to confirm or attack) is that there are some Central Asia news and information sites devoted to Uzbekistan in particular that take advantage of their multi-lingual content to advance a political agenda in different ways to different audiences. Very simply, English language content is intended to create a sympathetic image on the international stage and often in the US specifically. Russian content is often aimed at expats, who are insiders to the community but no longer living in Uzbekistan and potentially not fully on board with the political platform of the site or authors. Uzbek content, on the other hand, seems to be aimed at both a wholly “ingroup” audience and also often intended to be read inside the country, in spite of the “Banned in Uzbekistan” stamp pictured here that most of these sites display with pride. The politics displayed or advocated in the three different “communities” can sometimes be remarkably different, though the Russian and Uzbek sections are often similar in broad principles and both quite different than what’s available in English.


Okay, nice theory. Seems pretty logical. I guess I’d better try to prove it.

While it’s a subjective analysis, a little over a year ago I wrote an article that proposed to show this trend in three of the four languages available on the site “Muslim Uzbekistan,” and I present it for comment below. One huge caveat, however: this article is only meant to examine how exiled communities use the web to interact both with their new host cultures and with their home culture from a position of political opposition. It is in no way meant to advocate or evaluate for accuracy the claims, positions, or statements made by Muslim Uzbekistan.

I hesitated to share this for a long time mostly because I wasn’t sure I wanted my name to come up with Google searches for Muslim Uzbekistan, so let me be extra clear–what appears below is an analysis of the way that particular site communicates its message, not an endorsement of the that message. I am in no way affiliated with Muslim Uzbekistan and didn’t contact any of that site’s authors for input, nor have they ever contacted me.

The web citations of specific articles have been removed here, but everything cited was publicly available on the Muslim Uzbekistan website in the spring of last year.

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Three Voices of Islam in Central Asia: “Muslim Uzbekistan,” “Musulmon O’zbekiston” and Мусульманский Узбекистан”

“Today Uzbekistan is known to the world as a country in Central Asia where the majority of the population is Mulsim. This land was Muslim for a thousand years before it became known to the world as “Uzbekistan,” and it is yet today Muslim—and will continue to be, insh Allah. … It is well known that today in this ancient Muslim country–where people have since ancient times lived under the laws of Islam and where the national tradition of governance has similarly been based on the Qur’an and the Sunna–millions of believers live under harsh persecution from the government. Their Islamic independence has been trampled on. Tens of thousands of innocent Muslims are subjected to torture and abuse in prisons: such things have not happened in this land even since the times of Ghengis Khan.”

-“About ‘Musul’manskiy Uzbekistan’: Introduction:”
Russian/Uzbek Versions (Translation and emphasis by the author)

The internet is perhaps the greatest gift of the modern age to repressed political dissidents, giving voice to positions and opinions that governments and sometimes even civil societies try hard to silence or outlaw. The webpage is the proverbial cockroach of the nuclear age in the face of the most potent mechanisms of repression that a state can bring to bear—it is the famous Soviet kitchen-table conversation with the surprising new benefit of anonymity for the speaker and an incredible megaphone.

The history of the impact of this gift of modernity to political groups both mainstream and underground is still being written, and the reach of internet content is not limitless. In spite of the global reach of the fittingly named “World Wide Web,” potential readers are still limited to accessing texts written in languages that they understand and [still] excluded from texts in languages that they don’t. Additionally, tech-savvy states can limit access to otherwise comprehensible content by installing filters and blockades that try to prevent their citizens from accessing content from particular sites or of a particular type from within its borders.

For an expressly political site that aims specifically to breach information blockades and break a “state monopoly on the press,” these two problems create a specific challenge: “Muslim Uzbekistan” styles itself as a source of “truth” about contemporary Uzbekistan, events that take place there, and actions and policies of the Karimov government. On this much the three versions of the site examined in this paper are in agreement: the rest of the site’s goals, however, and its content varies widely depending on which language the viewer is reading. Rather than creating a single image of the site or body of texts that are central to its interpretation and translating this content into different languages, the authors of the site have created three distinct versions of the content they want to convey and the image of themselves and of Uzbekistan that they want to create. The second problem that further complicates the question of the site’s goals is that Islam Karimov’s government is among the tech-savvy states that can block access to internet content quite efficiently, and backs up that digital blockade with legislation—the details of which are posted as a rule in plain site in every internet café across the country—that threatens to punish citizens of Uzbekistan if they access the content.

Who, then, is the intended audience for the content published in “Muslim Uzbekistan”, and what do the rather dramatic changes in content between these three languages of the site tell us about the intentions of the site’s editors and the image of Uzbekistan they want to create?

This paper will argue that publishing material in three different languages on the site targets three separate audiences. The English section of the site was in fact the original one, published first under the name “Islamic Uzbekistan” in 1997. The Uzbek version of the site did not appear until 2000, shortly followed by the Russian (and Arabic) versions in 2001. This paper will argue that English content is aimed at an “external” audience, and that this audiencing significantly influences the image that is self-consciously represented. The Russian section has many important similarities to the Uzbek language section, and can be considered to be aimed at an “external and internal” audience, while the Uzbek section contains significantly different content than the other two and appears to be designed solely for an “internal” audience.

While to some extent this audiencing may be purposely deceptive, it seems likely that it is as much a reflection of the way that expatriate and exile communities relate to their host communities, and this particular site offers an interesting opportunity to view this dynamic through a new, rapidly evolving medium.

Three Visions of Muslim Uzbekistan: English/External

The English language section of Muslim Uzbekistan is to a large extent, like the other two sections, a portal for information and news from the region. Much of the news focuses on topics that portray the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan as evil and corrupt, using the language of globalized norms to paint a dark picture of him as a tyrant and murderer. Much of the attention in this and other sections is on Andijon and the Ferghana region, and on the Andijon events of 2005 (the “Andijon Massacre”) in particular. In all three languages, the site features of a section of what it claims to be voices from within Uzbekistan accompanied by disturbing and graphic photographs framed by a long, mournful lyric poem in Uzbek and English (apparently in Uzbek originally and very badly translated into English). This is perhaps the central text of the site, and seems also to be the only part of the content that was produced in a single original text (probably Uzbek) and then translated into the other languages nearly word for word.

The focus on Andijon, abuses of “human rights,” a focus on human-rights defense groups and the frequent use of words like “torture” and “genocide” (which is transliterated into Russian and Uzbek) present a picture of a people abused by a cruel dictator in violation of secular international norms, standards, and laws.

All of this is framed, though, by a Muslim perspective. Much of the information available in English is meant to portray Islam itself in a positive light and remedy what are construed as misunderstandings and misapprehensions that the West and (America in particular) and the Islamic world might have about one another. Islam is portrayed as a “the true religion,” a faith of peace and order, and negative stereotypes about Islam in the West are anticipated in articles that attempt to dismiss them. A great deal of general educational information is given about Islam, explaining the significance of the Qur’an , the Islamic worldview, the proper frequency of prayer, etc. Most of this information is copied and cited from other sources already produced in the English language to familiarize Westerners with Islam. Controversial issues, such as the position of women in Islam for example, are dealt with in their own sections and a wealth of material from other sites is brought to bear against the stereotype of the “oppressed Muslim woman” in articles with predictable titles like “The Great Women of Islam,” “The Condition of Women Before Islam” and “Islam—Elevation of Women’s Status” . In deliberate contrast to this is a section devoted to chronicling abuses of the Karimov regime specifically against women, linking to articles published by news services and produced for the site itself about mothers beaten by police when they inquired about the fate of their children, mothers advocating for sons who had been tortured to death, and other abuses targeted by the regime allegedly against women specifically.
A section called “Kid’s Corner” features articles that show that Muslim “family values” are not all that different than American or European ones, with content promising advice on how to cope with ill-tempered children, how to give children a moral upbringing, or exhorting children to love and respect their parents.

Political analysis offered in the English language section focuses on downplaying the threat of radical Islam in Central Asia and Uzbekistan in particular, and draws particular attention to non-governmental groups, think –tanks, or scholars who disagree for example with intelligence reports made public by the US government that list Islamist activity as a threat in the region, even when it’s framed as a response to Karimov’s brutality and oppression.

Tensions between the “Christian West” and the “Muslim East” are chalked up to stereotypes and misunderstandings in many of the articles, though the site is a collage of articles from many sources and authors and bitter notes are sometimes struck. The site features a link to a Saudi blogger’s “Christian version” of the controversial Dutch film “Fitna,” in order to “[show] that stereotyping can go both ways” , and buried in the “letters” sections are tirades from British Hizb ut-Tahrir against Western “passive collaboration” with Karimov and the hypocrisy of an allegedly decadent and immoral West refusing to recognize the value and superiority of Muslim women’s modesty.

While clearly not a united front, the bulk of the content is devoted towards creating an image of peaceful, enlightened Muslims of Uzbekistan oppressed by a brutal tyrant in violation of international norms. The external links given in the English section interestingly feature both sites helping the curious tourist arrive in Central Asia and directions to the CIA World Factbook’s assessment of the Karimov government and the US State Departments Human Rights reports.

Russian: Мусульманский Узбекистан (External/Internal)

While the front pages of the Russian version of the site appear quite similar to the English ones in that they focus on political issues, a slightly closer look quickly reveals that the tone and focus of articles and their intended audience is different. Political analysis and political articles focus on issues of specific interest to exiles and expatriates from Uzbekistan—European rulings on extradition, articles about Muslims living in the UK, and a wealth of political issues internal to Uzbekistan (including gossip about the first daughters).

The sections on Islam itself are very different from the ones in English: much of the content again comes from external sites, but it’s no longer “good PR” for external consumption: instead, it features instructions on how to read the Qur’an, a link to an online text of the holy book itself and some limited exegesis of particular passages.

The menu rubric that in English leads to descriptions of liberation of women under Islam and the history of great Islamic women now features a single article that bemoans the immorality of Western women and calls the so called “freedom, progress, and civilization” of higher education and inter-gender social interaction a “lie” meant to lead girls into meaningless sexual relationships where predatory men who have neither wives nor daughters can take advantage of naïve young women and destroy their honor and righteousness for their own fleeting pleasure.

Like the English site there is a section devoted exclusively to abuses of women by the Karimov regime, but a number of the articles in this section deal with the right to wear hijab rather than an “Uzbek national scarf” deemed acceptable by the government in Tashkent. Another prominent article claims that students in the Andijon province are being disciplined for showing any outward religious observance, for attending religious education, or for observing the fasts, and girls who dress in any way resembling hijab are allegedly forced to come to school in “miniskirts.” Rather, it seems, than focus only on grievances that the “international community” can all commiserate with (like torture and abuse), the recount of offenses of the Karimov regime here beings to focus well on issues that offend cultural and moral sensibilities specific to a more traditional Muslim audience.

Uzbek: A Political Program Emerges for the Internal Audience

While in the transition from English to Russian the concerns of building bridges between civilizations are de-emphasized, the Uzbek text drops them entirely. The political and human rights news articles are very similar (or are Uzbek versions) of those in the Russian section of the site, but in the sections dealing with Islam in particular we notice a dramatic difference between the two.

First of all, most of the religious content of the Uzbek section of the site is generated by the site itself. Gone are the “introductions to Islam” or “how to read the Qur’an” articles of the English and Russian versions; these are replaced by in-depth studies of particular verses and themes under a section now called “Qur’anic lessons” (Qur’on saboqlari) and a wealth of topic-themed lessons on proper observance of particular holidays, lives of great Muslims, and opinions of particular Uzbek religious authorities.

It is especially interesting that the Uzbek version includes a section on “Fatwas” (Fatvolar), some of which are framed as if they were written in response to questions from readers who themselves contacted the site as a religious authority. There is a section “for Women” but curiously, it’s empty. Instead issues about women generally are dealt with in the “Fatwas” section, the majority of which deal with questions about women’s conduct—proper dress, observance of grief, whether or not a woman can cut her hair, can divorce, or be remarried after divorce. The mostly anonymous authors of the opinions (most are signed simply “Musulman O’zbekiston”) begin and end each opinion with paragraphs of elaborately formulaic and heavily Arabic spiritual language and claim to base all opinions in reference both to the Qur’an and Hadith, citing these texts first in Arabic and then providing an Uzbek translation.

This is quite distinct from content provided in English and Russian, where the site and its editors claim no religious authority or ability to issue religious opinions themselves, and do not deal with issues in anything like the depth and specificity presented in Uzbek, legislating a range of topics as very broad as the admissibility of marriage for a couple who has already been sexually active to addressing a question “from a reader” about whether and how a women may tweeze her eyebrows.

In the articles offering political analysis we also see significant differences relevant especially to the English language content of the site. Impassioned and angry articles written by expatriate “politologs” or anonymous analyses virulently attack Karimov and his regime for complicity in destroying the Uzbek economy and sentencing the country to poverty and humiliation. While it’s not clear to whom exactly these articles are intended to be addressed (one wonders about the futility of writing an article called “Don’t Vote for Islam Karimov” on a site that can’t be accessed from Uzbekistan), looking slightly deeper at several of them it becomes clear that the authors have something openly subversive in mind: ‘Don’t Vote for Karimov’ is addressed under the main headline not only to “the people of Uzbekistan” (O’zbekiston xalqiga) but also to “officials in the Karimov regime” (Islom Karimov rejimidagi amaldorlarga).

Another article, called “The Chance of an Internal Coup in Uzbekistan is Strong” (O’zbekistonda saroy to’ntirishi ehtimoli kuchli) the pseudonymous author lays out a dark landscape in which there is no hope of help or pressure from the outside for removing or reforming the Karimov government, and where actors inside the country are helpless in the face of a regime that ignores even its own dictates. He portrays the regime officials as pawns in Karimov’s games, slaves that are played against one another for the tyrant’s entertainment. Borrowing a Marxist standby from the Soviet tradition, though, the author ‘creatively’ re-arranges a few historical facts to call for “a Spartacus” to emerge from the ranks of Karimov’s “slaves” and overthrow him, setting up a righteous government that would return Uzbekistan to its moral roots and bring justice to land. That this government would be called a caliphate is the optimal outcome, but what exactly that means or how the author imagines that in a practical sense we are left to guess.

This kind of article stands in a sharp contrast to the language of the English section, and this contrast is illustrated further by some differences between the way that the site describes itself and its purposes in English and then in the Russian and Uzbek versions, which are generally identical. In the English section titled “About Muslim Uzbekistan,” the people of Uzbekistan are described as having been traditionally Muslim and “have always followed the Shariah and based their lives, traditions, customs on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW).”

While this and the rest of the content of the “About” section is more or less paralleled in Russian and Uzbek, a key phrase here is different. In Russian and Uzbek this same passage reads: “…in this ancient Muslim country… people have since ancient times lived under the laws of Islam and… the national tradition of governance has similarly been based on the Qur’an and the Sunna” (emphasis mine).

Although a case could be made that the difference in translation is unintentional, or that the English section and the Russian/Uzbek sections were written without careful reference to one another, this seems highly unlikely given how closely the English language content matches the rest of the main themes of the Russian and Uzbek content in the “about” section in paraphrase. When taken together with the obvious differences in the image of Islam and the site’s authors, their religious authority, or their political views or programs presented in the Russian and Uzbek language content and in the English language content of the site, the exclusion/inclusion of the phrase “national tradition of governance” appears to be very purposeful.

Conclusions

Who, then, are the intended audiences for the site’s content in the three languages? English language content seems directly aimed at creating alliances with liberal Westerners who disagree with the Karimov regime on moral grounds, and who respect the rights of Uzbeks to practice their own religious and cultural traditions freely. One imagines that the desired outcomes from this kind or propaganda include Americans writing letters to their senators or congressmen, donating money to human rights defense organizations, or generally creating a global public opinion in response to which somehow Karimov would be forced to moderate his policies .

The Russian site seems geared primarily towards educated exiles or expatriates who still take an active interest in political developments in their own country, who engage political issues and may be interested in “discovering” Islam as part of their national heritage—the Islamic content on the site is geared to drawing a reader more deeply into Islam and its knowledge and praxis (and its potential as a political ideology) with the assumption that this process begins with a basic knowledge of the religion and its history, meaning, and identity (rather than defending these things or dispelling “myths” about them, as in the English section).

The Uzbek-language content contains all the same political news and focus on human rights and refugee issues as the other sections, but the religious content here is clearly intended for an audience that does not have to be persuaded that “Islam [is] the meaning of our lives,” as one of the rubrics is titled, nor do they have to be convinced that it is a viable political ideology. Here, the authors not only claim religious authority, but take for granted that the audience will accept this authority, and create an image supporting this assertion by interacting with (or pretending to, at least) actual readers and their questions. Taking stances on social issues and openly condemning “Western” practice and jahaliya- influenced lifestyles in general, content in this section places the Qur’an and hadith, not international law or globalized norms, as the central authority to be used as a benchmark for morality.

For an exile without guns, money, or a political party, the best that can be done to effect change in the homeland is to attempt to call those in power to moral responsibility, whether done by implicating them in Karimov’s sins or justifying them as slaves who can be heroes by overthrowing their master and instituting justice in the land.

In the end, there can be little hope that such a thing will happen: but conceiving Islam as a platform for justice and a viable ontology of national power is seen as empowering for those without political power. Drawing on a larger tradition, emphasizing worldwide brotherhood and the superiority of their conception of morality (at least for internal consumption) allows the authors and contributors to create an identity for themselves that turns the emasculation and impotence of exile into a position of power and moral superiority. Diplomatically, the image shown to the outside community– the ‘Western’ one in which most of these exiles appear to embedded–is quite different, claiming a position of authority derived from an entirely different set of (Western/globalized) morals meant to appeal both to the sense of liberal norms and tolerance for religious difference.

Literally, it becomes a case of speaking one language for one audience and another language in a different context, reinforcing the sense of “us” and “them” by carefully tailoring the outer, international image while guarding inside the Uzbek language an different, much more intensely personal and explicitly Islamic/Islamist conception of morality, norms, and politics.

Only the authors and editors themselves could accurately say whether or not this “image creation” is somehow willingly deceptive. More likely it is simply a window into what it means to be an exile or an expatriate from any culture, mediated by the unexpected possibility to publish on the web a single site layered in three languages simultaneously and accessible everywhere in the world except the country the site is dedicated to—a bizarre irony of globalization, of which there are surely many more to be discovered.


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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at Registan.net and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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{ 6 comments }

Ahad Abdurahmon September 6, 2009 at 10:52 am

Nice observation. Thank you for bringing this up. However, the initial assumption about multi-lingual periodicals (whether paper-based or internet-based) that one issue in a certain language gets translated into several other languages is misleading. Just like multi-lingual newspapers and magazines, multi-lingual websites also do not carry an obligation to make their all of their issues in all languages identical. For example, all the bi-lingual periodicals in Uzbekistan have completely different content in their Uzbek and Russian issues and even the staff and journalists of the each language division are different. I liked your ‘alliance building’ approach more than the ‘image creation’ one regarding this phenomenon. It is because I don’t think the site is necessarily being a turncoat or a liar by delivering different messages to different audiences. It is the opposite; they are being audience-driven. These differences demonstrate that they are trying to write about topics that each audience-group (separated by language barriers) would have liked to read the most. They are serving each group based on their particular features and needs. Therefore, they are not trying to create different images of themselves for different groups, but trying to win people’s sympathy and build alliances based on different issue areas where their interests converge with different audience groups.

Noah Tucker September 6, 2009 at 1:28 pm

…However, the initial assumption about multi-lingual periodicals (whether paper-based or internet-based) that one issue in a certain language gets translated into several other languages is misleading. Just like multi-lingual newspapers and magazines, multi-lingual websites also do not carry an obligation to make their all of their issues in all languages identical. (Ahad, above)

I’m not sure what our disagreement is–one of the central bases that I build from is that the content in different languages is different, if it was the same there would be nothing to write about. I didn’t mean to say that all the language texts should match one another word for word. Certainly you are right, there’s no reason not to change the topics covered to match interests of the audience. My argument, though, is that there are in this particular case things said in the Uzbek (and Russian) section that not only WOULD NOT be published in the English section, but in fact contradict to some extent the goals of the site that are being presented to the English-speaking audience.

I don’t intend by any means to demand that publications present the same thing to all audiences in the same way–writing about different topics for different audiences is, as you say, perfectly natural. That doesn’t meant that the differences between the texts don’t create additional meanings, though, whether they are intended or not.

Ahad Abdurahmon September 6, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Thank you for your reply Noah. As I said, your observation is very interesting and yet, I find it difficult to understand the parts like this one:

“Literally, it becomes a case of speaking one language for one audience and another language in a different context, reinforcing the sense of “us” and “them” by carefully tailoring the outer, international image while guarding inside the Uzbek language an different, much more intensely personal and explicitly Islamic/Islamist conception of morality, norms, and politics. Only the authors and editors themselves could accurately say whether or not this “image creation” is somehow willingly deceptive.”

The fact that they are appealing to essentially Western norms of liberalism and human rights in addressing the English-speaking audience while appealing to exclusively “Islamic/Islamist” values does not make them “deceivers”. Convergence of interests serves as a stimulus for cooperation; you don’t have to cooperate only with those who share your values. If we have to be judgmental for this type of action then we should also condemn many religious groups like the Amish people, Orthodox Jews, and many radical Christian groups in the West, which also appeal to liberal democratic principles in their interactions with outsiders (to ensure their own protection), while relying on their own principles (that often contradict with liberal-democratic values) for their inner circle affairs. We might also conclude that such groups use liberal democratic principles as shields to protect their illiberal values and agenda. In that case, illiberal “Muslim Uzbekistan”s “image creation” efforts becomes a far more inferior example.

Noah Tucker September 6, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Ahad, I think you draw a very interesting comparison. I think it would be especially helpful if anyone could broaden the discussion to some sites or publications beyond Muslim Uzbekistan, maybe also discussing sites focused on other countries as well. Uzbekistan is an example that creates a lot of extremely polarized positions.

Dav September 7, 2009 at 8:44 pm

if you look through the BBC website for example, their English version is different from that in Dari. Same with the Russian version.

ferghana(.)ru follows the same policy. BBC uzbek is more or less close to ethnic Uzbeks, but the way they write sounds like Erk and Birlik language, end of 1980s. Uznews is that of a russified Uzbek. Uzmetronom is totally pro Russia, and all things Russian.

Turgai Sangar September 10, 2009 at 5:15 am

I agree with Ahad and Dav. Does anyone of the audience reads Arabic? It would be interesting to know to whom the Arabic version is destined to: wider Ummah advocacy, and/or the old(er) Uzbek-Turkestani diaspora in Saudi Arabia (cf. http://www.cambridge-centralasia.org/?page_id=7 )?

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