The Story That Wouldn’t Die

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by Nathan Hamm on 2/14/2012 · 8 comments

The “Uzbekistan bans Valentine’s Day” story has been going on a slow burn through the western media for the last several weeks or so. (The amount of attention already seemed over the top to me a a couple weeks ago). With today being the big day, there has understandably been a minor explosion of articles on the efforts to suppress celebration of the holiday as the story flames out and shuffles off to become fodder for how western publics define Uzbekistan, insofar as they’re aware of it.

That this story has received so much attention probably shouldn’t be surprising. It’s pretty much the perfect kind of Central Asia story for capturing the attention of the likes of Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and local news outlets picking up the story from the AP. It’s about a far off place with a funny name populated by Muslims (who might be doing things for Muslim reasons!) that is doing something absurd and/or reacting forcefully to something fairly innocuous. Oh well, there’s probably not much to be done.

What is welcome in this instance is that at least one of the larger media outlets covering the story do a fairly decent job explaining the reason for the ban while David Trilling EurasiaNet shoots for the moon, attempting to explain attacks on Valentine’s Day throughout Central Asia, and hits the ground hard.

So what’s with the assault on Valentine’s Day? Yes, it’s nominally a Christian holiday in a predominantly Muslim region, but the elites who call the shots are secular. Could it be that menace of the heart, jealousy, gripping Central Asia’s leaders? Could it be, since governments around the region already maintain a monopoly on people’s voices, they also expect control over their hearts? Without more than empty “national values” on offer, they’re unlikely to succeed.

I guess that’s not supposed to be entirely serious. The internet, however, is a harsh realm where humor goes to die, so this ends up being not just a flat joke but also a pretty overblown explanation for the assault on Valentine’s Day. Meanwhile, the BBC provides a better explanation in its story, pointing out that Uzbekistan’s government and state controlled media have a track record of attacking foreign cultural imports.

In the past few weeks there have been several articles attacking foreign soap operas from Mexico and Latin America for being too explicit and for undermining local values and traditions.

Similar criticism was levelled against hard rock and rap music in an extensive campaign a year ago. A Youth Channel on state TV labelled the music “Satanic”, feeding on drug addiction and immorality.

Why over-analyze this? Karimov’s government has made redefinition of what it means to be Uzbek one of its biggest projects. Attacks on alien ideologies have grown from being attacks on foreign political and religious ideas to including video games, cell phones, movies, music, and just about anything else the kids are into nowadays. Yes, the way that not only Uzbekistan’s government, but also others in the region, attacks rock music, modern incarnations of western holidays like Valentine’s Day or Halloween, etc. make them look silly. It’s not even clear if the constituencies that are generally in support of the amorphous collection of culturally conservative linguistic nationalist beliefs that are the content of “national values” even care about things like Valentine’s Day all that much. (If Tata Ulan or the self-described intellectual quoted in the BBC story are any indication, there are in fact such constituencies — the governments are not entirely out of touch with the public.) But the explanation for the attacks, which sadly was lacking in most of the western coverage, needn’t be overblown.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Wendell Schwab February 16, 2012 at 9:57 am

The story that never took off: the Muftiate of Kazakhstan’s website published article on the inappropriateness of Valentine’s Day for Muslims ( Maybe because not celebrating the ostensible feast of a saint from another religion makes sense.

Nathan Hamm February 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I’m too lazy to look into it, but I’m kind of interested in what it is about the Uzbek story that caused it to be picked up in the western media while this doesn’t. I suppose that the state actually shutting down public events and substituting its own suggested alternative probably makes a difference…

Wendell Schwab February 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm

I think you are right on. When a government shuts down what is already a non-official holiday, someone is bound to notice that this is strange. I think the analogy is Italy banning Ramadan celebrations and the Pope saying that Catholics don’t need to celebrate Ramadan. The former would be news; the latter would make sense.

Guy Fawkes February 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm

The decision to ban western holidays has to do with politics, it doesn’t have to do anything with religion. They way regime thinks is if western cultural traditions make inroads into Uzbekistan and take roots there Uzbeks will be more open for even more cultural exchange and experience. That ultimately, brings western way of thinking into Uzbekistan that demands democracy and zero tolerance toward corruption to start with. The Uzbek regime is the most corrupt country in the world they don’t want to give up that “kormushka” as they say in Russian, or in English take their hands off of the pie, if you will. After that it is a slippery slope to the end of the regime. The only way to keep that from happening is to keep the entire population docile, gullible and uniformed. This is the reason behind the official resistance to western traditions or holidays. Uzbeks by and large are secular people and they don’t care about religion (don’t forget 70 years of atheistic teachings), instead being able to internalize any western ideas and traditions elevates persons image in Uzbekistan because the west is still seen as a torch-bearer for the rest of humanity by the Uzbeks.

Another proof why the regime wants to keep people uninformed so that they don’t get ideas is that there has been no word uttered in the Uzbek media about the Arab Spring or when the Libyans shot Qaddafi like a dog he is or when the Egyptians forced Mubarak to step down. Why? The regime thinks that seeing that gives the Uzbeks ideas and they will start something. Being able to keep people isolated is the real reason for all these stupid bans.

AS February 18, 2012 at 8:50 am

Ah yes Fawkes, if only it wasn’t for that sticky customer Karimov who prevents his “by and large” secular people (with 70 years of pseudo-atheist Soviet rule why mention the previous 1150 years of Islam) who look to the West as the “torchbearer” of humanity (which is laughable), the Uzbek nation could realize its full potential as Western oriented consumer-driven democrats.

And Western way of thinking that demands zero tolerance toward corruption? Have you driven down K St in Washington DC lately…?

Guy Fawkes February 19, 2012 at 1:10 am

Those officials who frequently fight anything western send their kids exclusively to western universities to study. They will be more happy if their kids can prove to integrate into western society the best they can, including taking part of celebrations of holidays. But those officials don’t want the same thing for us, kids of poor people.

Corruption in the US doesn’t affect average person directly. In Uzbekistan it affects person daily life directly. Any Uzbek cop can stop you in order to solicit bribe or the SNB if they find out that you have a successful business they will come solicit bribe. According to Transparency Int’l in 2011, Uzbekistan ranked among top 5 most corrupt countries in the world. Out of 180 countries, Uzbekistan is among top 5! That should tell you something. This never happens in the US and that’s what I am talking about.

Metin February 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Corruption and rights violation are different things. Country ratings on corruption, human rights, and others mean very little as they can be manipulated depending on methodology used.

If you are after rating, have a look at the Observer human rights index. It lists the United States as the worse violator of human rights than Uzbekistan.,,258330,00.html

Metin February 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm

14th of February happen to be the birthday of national hero Babur. Celebration of national hero’s birthday is encouraged, which is understandable.

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