In 1978, Edward Said defined orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The Muslim world, he argued, is rarely seen as significant and complex in its own right, but derives its significance from its relationship with the West: a comparative framework that guarantees a delusory bias. The Orient is the West’s “surrogate and underground self”, an “Other” that allows the West to define its cultural identity while justifying its imperialist goals.
Though ostensibly meant to include the broader Muslim world, the theory of orientalism has never worked well with Central Asia. As I’ve previously noted, Central Asia is “not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts; a region whose best-known ambassador is Borat. Unlike the Arab world, Central Asia is not demonized and degraded in the Western public imagination: it is disregarded. The region connotes nothing – except perhaps obscurity itself.
There is a certain irony, therefore, in the new identity that has been forged on Central Asia since January 2011: that of the Arab world’s aspirational doppelganger. Since revolution first broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, countless analysts have speculated about whether unrest would “spread” from the Arab world to Central Asia. Never mind that comparatively little has “spread” from the Arab world to Central Asia in recent years (hyberbolic claims of Hizb-ut Tahrir domination notwithstanding), or that Central Asians sometimes take a dim view of these revolutions, or that the Soviet legacy shapes Central Asian politics far more than anything taking place abroad. Instead, Central Asia is often presented as a Middle East in training: they are Muslims, they have oil, they have dictators, so their policies and protests must have the Arab Spring as their guiding impulse.
Central Asia is not unique in this regard. Hundreds of riots, rampages, strikes, skirmishes and complaints the world over have been labeled “the next Arab Spring” by analysts eager to understand not only where the Arab revolutions are going, but how they spread in the first place. What differs is that the social, political and cultural conditions of most revolutionary contenders are analyzed, whereas for Central Asia, they are assumed. Occupy Wall Street, for example, is often said to be influenced by the Arab Spring — because the protesters themselves have claimed this affiliation. Russia, to name a closer case, is said to be entering a period of political unrest — and the complexities of this situation, as well as its key players, are thoroughly debated. In contrast, few Central Asians have predicted uprisings in their own region. Most claim the opposite. Yet nearly every story about Central Asian politics carries a perfunctory reference to the Arab Spring, with the result that protests and policies that emerge in reaction to domestic strife – as was the case in Kazakhstan – are assumed to reflect and respond to events abroad.
In this way, Central Asia is a region subject to a strange sort of “reverse orientalism” – a region deemed meaningful only by virtue of its similarity to the Arab world. This is particularly unfortunate because, as Rami G. Khouri observes, “the popularity of the ‘Arab Spring’ term across the Western world quietly mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping all Arabs as a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way.” Much as the mainstream Western press often fails to distinguish between individual Arab countries, it also fails to distinguish between the Arab world and Central Asia, emphasizing broad, sweeping similarities – religion, resources, repression – while playing down the sharp differences in politics, social life and history that determine the likelihood of political change.
One could argue that focusing on these differences obscures the fact that seemingly stable regimes are falling fast. The number of dictatorships that have been overthrown in the past year prompts big questions: How do revolutions spread – if they can be said to spread at all? How does technology create awareness of dissent and revolt among disparate populations? How well does revolutionary currency travel? Answering these questions requires a comprehensive approach. But if one is going to speculate about the prospect of revolution in a particular place, then the political particularities of that place must be given equally serious consideration.
“The worst aspect of this essentializing stuff,” wrote Said, “is that human suffering in all its density and pain is spirited away.” Predicting a “Kazakh Spring” after an incident like the shootings in Zhanaozen trivializes both the struggles of Arab dissidents and the pain of Kazakhs who endured a serious, but unrelated, tragedy. Similarly, not every move a Central Asian dictator makes is in reaction to uprisings in the Middle East. Censorship and repression have a long history in Central Asia – yet they fail to merit media attention unless they are linked to a more popular plight.