It has been a week since riots broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, and, contrary to the claims of the New York Times, scholars of the region are no closer to achieving consensus on the cause of the violence than before. This is a good thing. It is irresponsible to draw definitive conclusions as to the cause of a week-old conflict marked by rumor, intrigue, and limited information from on the ground. (Though I encourage speculation and debate — that’s what this site is for.) I have no strong evidence as to who instigated the violence or why. But I would like to address another question that has been raised on this site in recent days: why didn’t scholars of Central Asia see it coming?
Every person I know who has spent extensive time in southern Kyrgyzstan is shocked by what happened. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more someone knows about southern Kyrgyzstan, the more shocked they seem to be. No one denies that there was ethnic tension in the region, but there were also interethnic friendships, marriages and co-operation. As anthropologist Madeleine Reeves noted in a recent interview for Russia Today, this is a region which has had centuries of ethnic interdependence and co-existence, a region where Uzbeks often speak Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz often speak Uzbek. Scholars who have been to southern Kyrgyzstan as recently as a year ago echo these claims. One sociologist told me that during her fieldwork last year in Aravan rayon, residents boasted of the ethnic harmony of the region with pride. So were they lying? Were we blind? Or is something else at play?
It is disconcertingly easy to convince people that a Muslim majority country ending in “-stan” is destined for violence. This is the default assumption when it comes to Central Asia, and it is often heard to convince people otherwise, despite the fact that there is little evidence to support this claim. Central Asia has serious problems — corruption, crime, dictatorship, poverty, and pervasive social distrust, to name just a few — but mass violence is not one of them. Riots are rare. As I said before, there is a different sort of violence — the quiet violence of a police state — that proceeds mercilessly in places like Uzbekistan. But Kyrgyzstan has historically had less ethnic violence than other parts of the world. There was no precedent for this conflict, save the Osh riots of 1990 (an important but isolated incident). Yet it is common for people to proclaim that there was. A few media quotes:
Newsweek: “What the Kremlin does realizes [sic] is that there’s definitely no upside to getting sucked into the ethnic quagmire of southwest Kyrgyzstan, where intercommunal violence has flared up regularly over the last 15 years.”
Slate: “Violence is common in the ethnically divided south… Until now, fighting has never reached 1990 levels, but violence is common. Disputes intensify when the economy tanks, as it has recently.”
No, violence is not common. No, violence has not flared up regularly for the past fifteen years. And if violence emerged every time the economy tanked, Kyrgyzstan would have wiped itself out long ago. There are a few reasons why outlets like Newsweek and Slate feel comfortable printing lies like this. The first is that they assume no one will know or care enough to check their facts. (The Slate piece originally stated that “the Soviets” have dominated the region since 1876, and that “Kyrgyz look like Russians or Persians”. These errors have since been corrected, yet dozens of other inaccuracies remain.) Pontificating on an obscure conflict like the Osh riots is an easy way for a hack writer to feel important and make some quick cash. But there is another, more insidious reason why statements like this are so frequently made, and so rarely corrected.
Over the last few days, an ugly question has emerged, on this site and on others: “Are Central Asians violent?” This question is often connected to accusations that scholars of the region are viewing it through rose-colored glasses, refusing to confront the base instincts of humanity. While this accusation is often amusing for the accused — this marks the first time in my life, at least, that I’ve been described as too sunny and optimistic — it is ugly in its connotations. When you ask whether Central Asians are “violent” or “not violent”, or presume a pattern of violence when there is none, you are not only reducing millions of individual people to an indistinguishable mass, but removing them from their own history. They become eternal people with eternal qualities, immune to change and completely lacking in willpower. They are violent even when they are not behaving violently, and anything said to the contrary is a delusion or a lie.
So instead of seriously considering the events in Kyrgyzstan of the last three months, or wondering what specifically might have spurred such violent behavior, some writers have implied that there is a “secret” Central Asia of scheming, murderous frauds. Such people undoubtedly exist; in many Central Asian countries, they are called “presidents”. And let us never forget that a large number of Kyrgyz men committed horrible, unforgivable crimes against Uzbeks. But did they do it because they are Kyrgyz and have some sort of primordial impulse to do so? No. Was it destined to happen? No. Was the violence most likely tied to recent political events and not ancient patterns of behavior? Yes.
It is telling that those who seem the most confident that they know the reason for ethnic violence go the furthest into the past to explain it. We have seen this before — I will never forget reading in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban that “the Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes” — but such claims are more disturbing now, as they are not only ignorant and bigoted, but a distraction from the important questions of what happened in Kyrgyzstan. To paraphrase Noah Tucker’s comment in an earlier post, why did this violence happen the way it did, when it did? Why did it not happen in other regions of Central Asia with similar problems and demographics? These are complicated questions. But we are getting simplistic answers. When we offer “ethnicity” or “class” as an explanation, we set Kyrgyz and Uzbek people outside of their own reality. This is not about who was a farmer or who was a nomad a century ago, contrary to the New York Times’ claims. The violence is, in a certain sense, about ethnicity, as the 400,000 displaced Uzbeks will surely attest. But ethnicity is not destiny, and interethnic tension is not a guarantee of violence — not in Kyrgyzstan, and not anywhere else in the world. Something else was at play.
This is why we didn’t see it coming. It is not because we are afraid to acknowledge the fact that people in Central Asia can be cruel or violent. It is not because we ignored the issue of ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan — indeed, this issue is relatively well-documented in scholarly literature. It is because we held on to a reasonable belief, still valid, that ethnic tension does not automatically translate into interethnic violence — a belief borne out by the region’s history, and by the observations of people on the ground. I do not think that the majority of recent scholarship on ethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan was misguided or delusional. I think it was an accurate reflection of its time. And now, it stands as a devastating reminder of how quickly times can change.