If the story of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova is not real, who benefits? Ever since Uzmetronom released a report claiming that Abdujalilova — the Uzbek emigre who allegedly committed suicide after being interrogated by the Uzbek police — does not exist, observers have speculated on who created her, and why. One Eurasianet reporter echoes Uzmetronom’s claim that the story may have been planted by members of the Uzbek opposition; another Eurasianet reporter dismisses that claim, suggesting instead that the story was planted by the national security services. In the comments section following my original article, Registan reader DW makes a convincing critique of Uzmetronom’s unprecedented foray into investigative journalism, urging us to subject the stories supposedly disproving her death to as much scrutiny as the original.
None of this tells us much about Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. But it reveals a great deal of how rumor operates on the Uzbek political internet. The assumption that all information is unreliable, and all sources biased, has had the perverse effect of ensuring that all rumor is taken seriously. This is not to say all rumor is believed – on the contrary, most information is received with skepticism – but that it is shared, parsed and discussed to a degree belying its dubious origins. The result of ubiquitous paranoia is not disbelief. It is credulity.
This is not unique to the Gulsumoy Abdujalilova case. Rumor shapes the Central Asian political landscape, online and on the ground. Where the Gulsumoy Abdujalilova case differs is that it is difficult to figure out who would benefit from such a gruesome farce. Let’s review the options.
The Gulsumoy Abdujalilova story was planted by the Uzbek opposition. In this scenario, the opposition created Gulsumoy in order to “smear the Uzbek government.” Leaving aside the fact that one hardly needs to invent stories with which to smear the Uzbek government, let’s pretend that the ruse is successful. What would be the result? One could argue that the Abdujalilova story showcases the brutality of the national security services. The downside of this, of course, is that it showcases the brutality of the national security services. That is, it would confirm things about the NSS that everyone already suspects, heightening public awareness of state violence and potentially making apolitical Uzbeks more fearful and less likely to join dissident groups or human rights causes.
The Gulsumoy Abdujalilova story was planted by the NSS. In this scenario, the NSS created Gulsumoy in order to make Uzbeks afraid to support dissident causes, especially online. What would be the result? One could argue that the Abdujalilova story showcases the brutality of the national security services. The downside of this, of course, is that it showcases the brutality of the national security services. That is, it would confirm things about the NSS that everyone already suspects, heightening public awareness of state violence and potentially making apolitical Uzbeks outraged and more likely to join dissident groups or support human rights causes.
There is no real way to lose. Or to win.
When I looked at Gulsumoy Abdujalilova ‘s Facebook page, I could have gone two ways. I could have assumed that because her only link to the opposition was her Facebook profile, that it was her Facebook profile that led to her interrogation in Uzbekistan. Or I could have assumed that the Facebook profile, which dates back to July and was not particularly active, inflammatory, or unusual, was part of an elaborate five-month plan devised by Uzbek political operatives to manipulate an audience accustomed to rumor, deception, and lies.
Both options, in this political environment, are plausible. I’m still going with the former.
The last Facebook post written by Gulsumoy Abdujalilova was an Uzbek proverb that translates roughly as “You learn who your real friends are when you are in trouble.” Let’s think about this before we accept claims that a woman who committed suicide did not exist. Let’s think about this when we consider the innumerable Uzbeks whose tales of the NSS remain untold as Gulsumoy’s story — disturbing no matter which version you believe — enters infamy.