Yar, There Be Muslims Here!

by Joshua Foust on 6/20/2011 · 14 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Narcogen June 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm

“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.”

Actually, I think both are valid. The first takes the position of the audience, and the second, the position of the authors. The fact that the authors did not intend to necessarily portray Kazakhstan or Central Asia specifically as dangerous– choosing it only because of obscurity– does not mean that the audience does not interpret this as as an unknown place from which unknown dangers will emerge.

The only ones who see a disconnect are those familiar with the reality of Kazakhstan– who notice that Borat is more a film about the USA than any other country. Kazakhstan, when referenced specifically, has been fairly consistently portrayed as an unknown place of unknown dangers, from the X-Files forward– even when those portrayals were terribly inaccurate to the point of hilarity (or uncomfortably close to a hilarious reality). That this is unintended is not finally the point, because it has happened.

DPTrombly June 21, 2011 at 12:40 am

Don’t forget another Kazakhstan film portrayal – Air Force One. There it was genocidal Russian/Soviet ultranationalists (who are always popping up in technothriller scenarios in Central Asia and the Caucasus) causing all the trouble.

And I think in this case that most technothrillers which depict Central Asia as a dangerous place tend to draw on the bad policy analysis. Technothriller writers love “ripped from tomorrow’s headlines” kind of stuff, and tend to converse with the more hawkish sets of national security experts, and even in the case of the West Wing I’d say a lot of the big names in generic foreign policy that writers might encounter (Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” chapter in “The Grand Chessboard” is springing to mind here) are probably the ones influencing what somebody looking to do a “realistic” show with some action (Because nobody wants to use the boring narratives for a crisis show!).

And, as you well pointed out, there is sort of a symbiotic relationship between alarmist experts, analysts, pundits and locals looking to exploit the gullibility of Westerners. Part of what I often don’t like about these sort of “discourse” arguments is that the discourse of evil discourses renders the people being described passive objects with no voice of their own, but that’s a complaint with that sort of framework more generally, and not these authors in particular.

Estragon June 21, 2011 at 2:04 am

I think you give us far too much credit for developing our thinking aboout Central Asia, or anything else days on much of anything other than X = Different, therefore X = Scary.

Mexico is scary. But Boston is also scary, if you’re from Alabama. To some, one’s next door neighbor is scary. If not the next door neighbor, then definitely the people living downtown.

Very few people will ever hear of John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran, or care about them if they do. But they listen to FOX News and MSNBC as each calls the other scary, stupid, and unpatriotic.

Best of luck trying to educate us. We can hope and pray that our culture of hype, instant gratification, fear, and narcissism falls out of fashion some time. Unfortunately though, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

Joshua Foust June 21, 2011 at 8:26 am

I think one of the great ironies of this paper is that, while they valiantly try to correct a misleading narrative about Central Asia, Heathershaw and Megoran publish it in a gated academic journal no one can access outside of a university — thereby severely limiting its audience and influence.

Dafydd June 21, 2011 at 8:17 am

On the point of obscurity, Central Asia is not obscure to central Asians. No populated place is obscure to everyone. If a place is obscure to the western mind, it just means we don’t know much about it. It says nothing about the place itself.

Also, the tendency of local rulers to talk up the threat of islamic militancy to justify their suppression of democratic instinct and gain access to (military) aid is not unique to central Asia. Think about Mubarak in Egypt or Bouteflika in Algeria or even Saddam Hussein some years ago in Iraq. Pinochet did the same thing with communists in his day.

We do not need a great understanding of central Asia to realise where this kind on nonsense takes us. It is the flip side of the “our bastards” policy. Any bastard of a third world dictator will try to look like he’s your friend, like he’s fighting your enemies. This may not be the invention of dumb westerners, but it is an inevitable result of their policy.

Borat probably remains the best remembered pop culture portrayal of Kazakhstan. If such stereotypes were applied to almost any other nation, we would call is racism. Perhaps it is because so few of us actually know or deal with Kazakhs on a day to day basis, we find it acceptable to poke fun at them in this way.

Joshua Foust June 21, 2011 at 8:21 am

Dafydd, you’re getting at what was the most frustrating aspect to this paper, and I did a really bad job of saying it: they make it all about us (“us” being the West). Whereas, as you very rightly note, it should be about them.

Nathan Hamm June 21, 2011 at 9:14 am

I’ve seen a version of this presented that also discussed documentaries on the Ferghana Valley. It juxtaposed a western-produced one with a locally-produced one to show how different the “our” perspective on the region and what’s important in it is from theirs.

Dhul-Qarnayn June 21, 2011 at 8:53 am

A new “Carte du Tendre” where the solipsistic myopia of Imperial Vistas reigns. Neoliberals sulk in the sumptuous “Travails of Empire”–cf. “The Hurt Locker”. Indulging the same machine, noting ironies in sheltered repose.

Sarah Kendzior June 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

At the risk of negating my aforementioned brilliance, I believe the most telling portrayal of Central Asia in pop culture is actually Kate Hudson’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”. As every expert on Central Asian affairs knows, the movie opens with Kate Hudson, a journalist at a women’s magazine, reading aloud her latest masterwork: “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan”. (To my knowledge, this is the only mention of Tajikistan ever in an American film.) Her editor rejects it, saying, “It’s brilliant, and it’s really moving, but it’s never going to be in Composure magazine.” The conversation is brief– Hudson, chastened, spends the next two hours pursuing the less lofty specter of Matthew McConaughey – but it sums up the tenor of Western coverage of CA better than the West Wing or the oft-mentioned Borat.

“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” tells us nothing about Tajikistan other than it is plagued by significant yet amorphous problems, albeit not ones so dire that they cannot be solved by Kate Hudson from her New York office. Tajikistan is serious (but not so serious that anyone should care about it); it is important (but not so important that anyone should know about it). Tajikistan’s obscurity denotes the character’s “brilliance” and the topic’s irrelevance at the same time – which is exactly how coverage of Central Asia functions in real life. Kate Hudson’s journalist character is in the fine tradition of morons writing about Central Asia – Borat Sagdiev, Ted Rall – yet the film also feeds the presumption that the region could be “fixed” if someone would just take it seriously. And so anyone who does seem to be taking it “seriously” – Kate Hudson! — becomes an expert. You study Central Asia because you are intelligent, the presumption goes; you are intelligent because you study Central Asia. At the same time, it is considered hilarious to want to bother.

In journalism and in policy (and in chick flicks), Central Asia often functions as a blank slate onto which people project their personal obsessions. A Western policy preoccupation with “danger” in Muslim countries is just one of these obsessions; establishing personal cred by cashing in on the region’s purported “obscurity” is another. Bravo, Kate Hudson, for bringing this to our attention. (And bravo, “How to Lose a Guy” PA, who so diligently copied a BBC piece into the screen-shot of Hudson’s “article”.)

Nathan Hamm June 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm

So much win in that comment.

I need to make a post that is about 50% the following link: Ted Rall.

Don’t let anyone say you’ve never inspired someone to do great and necessary work.

Joshua Foust June 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm

SO MUCH WIN, just to re-double-confirm what Nathan said. SO MUCH WIN.

hannah June 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Sarah is and always has been 113% awesome!

mark June 21, 2011 at 11:17 am

“Central Asia is not obscure to central Asians”

I am not sure this statement is true. From my experience a rural Tajik (for example) is likely to have roughly the same degree of “understanding” of Kazakhstan as an American fan of West Wing and vice versa.

Ken June 21, 2011 at 7:20 pm

I just saw a preview for a new medical drama TV series called “Combat Hospital,” a show about surgeons working in a hospital in… Kandahar! Apparently venomous snakes getting into the ER room are common and require the ER doctor to shoot at them while operating, at least according to the preview commercials.

If it’s like all the other medical dramas, there will be extensive surgeries, sex, existential crises, ultra-idealist rebels bucking the “author-i-tay” and even more sex. But this medical drama will be different because it is in Kandahar, Afghanistan! I wonder if they will get Kandahar and Afghanistan right or even talk about it except to say “We’re in Kandahar, Afghanistan!”

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