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.