We’ve made it something of a habit here at Registan.net poking holes in the persistent story that always winds up saying Muslims are scary, and because there are Muslims in Central Asia and it’s not a perfect place, therefore Central Asia is scary.
So I was very excited to see John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran—two scholars whom I hold in tremendous regard, in particular Nick’s 1999-era piece, “Calming the Ferghana Valley Experts” (pdf)—write both an academic and more op-eddy article about deflating the fear-mongering about the region. This is a good idea to introduce, that even while we can all agree on the strategic importance, even the danger that the region can represent, it is not Mordor.
First up is their piece for OpenDemocracy.
Typically, Central Asia is spuriously identified as a source of a considerable Islamic terrorist threat as in the recent International Crisis Group report on Tajikistan. It can also mean that ethnic conflict is misread and great power conflict is assumed where in fact it may not exist.
This is absolutely true. But it leads into a discussion of their paper, which was presented last fall at Chatham House. And that paper is actually deeply problematic. For example, the focus on pop culture could be interesting, but not in the way they describe it: they seem to say that because shows like The West Wing or a videogame portray the region incorrectly, that those pop culture versions of the region then become policy, which then makes the region itself dangerous.
Really, for such an argument to make any sense, the authors must draw a causal relationship and explain how an incorrect portrayal of the region in popular culture then results in an adverse affect. They don’t, they just kind of say two things happen kind of near to each other, and that this is evidence of something. But it’s not (sorry for being so vague—the argument as Heathershaw and Megoran construct it is actually complexly written so responding in a brief way is kind of strange).
The challenge, as I see it, that, while the authors try to argue that Central Asia’s obscurity is “supposed” (meaning, it really isn’t obscure but people just think it is), Central is, in fact, an obscure place. The West Wing imagined a war in Kazakhstan because Kazakhstan is far away and very few people know about it. And this is where I start wondering about how they picked from popular culture. While people in general still remember The West Wing, Heathershaw and Megoran didn’t mention two other portrayals of Kazakhstan: Borat and Syriana (or even The World Is Not Enough, or George Clooney’s terrible 1997 movie The Peacemaker, or Call of Duty: Black Ops, or even Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater). These also matter: arguably Borat is a much closer cultural memory for Americans than the West Wing (and part of Heathershaw’s and Megoran’s argument is the importance of space and memory in perception), and it portrays Kazakhstan not as menacing but comically dysfunctional. Similarly, Syriana portrayed Kazakhstan—briefly—as a central front in the oil industry and the scene of corporate intrigue… not Islamist boogeymen (the crazies came from Iran and “the Middle East” in that film, not Central Asia).
I can’t see anything particularly problematic with the portrayal of Central Asia in these works of pop culture from an academic perspective beyond being annoying (people still ask me if Kazakhstan is really like Borat, yet oddly no one ever mentions the land war in The West Wing). It requires a very narrow reading of the pop culture discourse of Central Asia to conclude that its obscurity causes a “discourse of danger” in the public, rather than its obscurity makes it easier to set plots there because most people won’t be able to tell how ridiculous they are.
Much more damaging to the public understanding of Central Asia, I would argue, is not pop culture’s use of obscurity, but the policy community’s deliberate fudging of facts and analysis to make the region appear dangerous. And here, too, Heathershaw’s and Megoran’s framework doesn’t quite work. The “discourse of danger” that presents Central Asia as “obscure, oriental, and fractious” derives, most commonly, from sources within Central Asia. When someone like Ahmed Rashid declares that Uzbeks are about to be the downfall of humanity, he is basing that declaration on trips to the area, and his impression of the people there that he interviews. And he’s not alone: Fred Starr portrays Islom Karimov as the last bastion against a tsunami of angry Uzbek jihadis rampaging across the universe based on his conversations with Uzbek officials. There are countless others who do the same thing.
In other words, the idea of a dichotomy between western discourse and local understanding is far too simplistic a framework to explain why there is a mistaken belief in danger in Central Asia. There is a difference in some cases, but just as often it depends on the meaning of “local.” Regimes gain a lot of money, access, and influence by exaggerating the danger through gullible westerners. To pretend it is purely an invention of dumb westerners, as this paper argues, is just wrong.
There are some other ways this paper falls apart, particularly in its discussion of Osh. These two authors have spent the better part of a decade poking holes in predictions of violence, and they just don’t address in any real detail why there was an outbreak of violence in Osh last year. Constructing a framework for why there are either exceptions or why in that particular case they just got it wrong would make for a much stronger case. And to promote Registan.net a bit: I think it is unconscionable of them not to cite Sarah Kendzior’s brilliant post on Osh from last year on this very topic. People have explored this topic, soberly and appropriately. But Heathershaw and Megoran don’t account for that.
In all, Heathershaw and Megoran are absolutely right that the debate on Central Asia needs more knowledge and context and far less posturing. But unfortunately they did a lot more of the latter and lot less of the former in this article. Within the government and policy communities (at least in the U.S.) there is an active, if not entirely healthy, debate about the Great Game discourse, strategic priorities, and so on. I can remember dire assessments being vigorously debated in the military community in particular, and while cooler heads didn’t always prevail, they did sometimes.
That being said, I think Heathershaw and Megoran are contributing an important data point to the meta-discussion about Central Asia. My complaints above are my wishing it could be better, more air tight, more rigorous. But I substantively agree with them: more knowledge, and better knowledge, are how we can prevent lazy mischaracterizations of the region from adversely affecting the policy process and thus locals who must bear the consequences later on. I just wish there was more in that article to work with.