As many regular readers have noticed over the past few months, Registan has nearly fallen silent. There are several reasons for this, as I’ll discuss below, but the core message is that it is time to reboot and we need your help. During this period I will take on the role of managing editor, but the site continues to belong to its original owner and founder, Nathan Hamm.
Registan has consistently been (I think) the most vibrant and genuine independent English-language forum for issues affecting the people of Central Asia and Afghanistan since Nathan founded the site in 2003. The fact that this site has sputtered in the past few months is in part a troubling symptom of waning interest in the region and faltering engagement between the US and Central Asian society in general.
Although the region was sadly a blank on the map to most of the outside world until the fall of the USSR, in the two decades since many well-trained researchers and professionals from the US, Europe and Central Asia have together successfully created the basis for better and better scholarship and policy advice on the region and built meaningful ties between our societies. In spite of these gains, as the war in Afghanistan winds down, Congress cuts funding for research and education in the region and the various government offices and agencies that supported Central Asia sections now turn their attention elsewhere, those of us who continue to care about the region and US engagement with it (or vice-versa) face a steeper burden of proof that it matters and deserves attention.
The lives of our friends in Central Asia and Afghanistan matter in a deeply personal way to many of us who have written here and been part of this community–which is another one of the things that has always set Registan apart. We have never had an agenda other than to write about and discuss the things that we think are important and worth attention. As a site we have never had a political platform (despite occasional accusations to the contrary), we have no funders who push their agendas on us, and we have no editorial board: comments are moderated only in extreme cases, and once an author is approved to post (or a guest post is accepted) content is entirely under his or her control.
Last year our regular authors gathered together in the same room for the first time for our conference in DC. During those few days it became clear there that if Registan has a single underlying theme or purpose, it is to question prevailing narratives and misleading assumptions about the region and the people who live there that can lead to bad policies and make a difficult situation worse. Our underlying message has often been “not so fast, it’s more complicated than that,” pushing back against oversimplifications and sloppy reporting that relies on tropes and stereotypes.
This site, its authors and commenters have never been afraid to call out policymakers, dictators (and their progeny), politicians, police, military officials and of course other media on all sides when they try to bend the world to fit into comfortable or exploitable narratives. At times many of our authors have written under carefully protected pseudonyms (including me, during the years I lived in Uzbekistan and began writing for the site in 2004) because the work they publish here could have endangered them, their jobs, their co-workers or their families in the region.
Even more importantly, we have tried to give Central Asians and Afghans whose voices aren’t heard elsewhere a chance to be heard, and this has also at times meant not excluding voices that support governments or policies that many of our regular authors harshly criticize. We have always tried to be a platform for genuine speech, and for openness to all perspectives as long as they were expressed with respect for the site and others who write and comment here.
New Economies and a Post 9-11 Central Asia
Why, then, has this community begun to fall apart? The first reason is that many of our regular authors from the past several years when the site grew to its peak participation level have finished grad school, have small children and regular jobs (or are looking for them!). Registan has always been an all-volunteer effort–none of us are paid to write here–and many of the authors who have contributed some of the best original content here now have to focus their work on publications that pay. Many of our other semi-regular authors are either buried in stringing together fellowships to finish their PhDs or are trying to make it as adjuncts or associate professors and feel pressure to save their best ideas and new work for paywalled academic publications.
As several of our authors like Joshua Foust have described elsewhere, it has been difficult or at least unstable at best for many of us to make a living doing research and writing about Central Asia. Changes in the economy of journalism, policy analysis and academia–combined with waning funding and interest in the region as the war in Afghanistan and the 9-11 era in general come to an end–have pushed many of us to expand our topical focus or move on to other things entirely in terms of actual, paid work. This is the decision that Nathan Hamm, the founder and chief editor of Registan has had to make, and some of the lag in activity here over the past few months reflects that tough decision for him and his need to step back from the site for a time and concentrate on his new professional plans and on his family.
In that interim, I will step in as managing editor for the site. Registan has meant a lot to me in the last decade and if you are reading this that likely means it has to you, too. I believe we have made a unique contribution to the public discourse about Central Asia—such as it exists— and over the last two years in particular we have become a bridge between policymakers, scholars, NGO staff and other regional professionals. Nathan has built something valuable and worth keeping that I don’t want to see fade away, and I hope you feel the same way. The site was always only a platform. The people who participate here make all this possible, and we need you if we hope to continue.
I also believe that this is a vital time to keep this community alive. Official and public attention to the places we care about show signs of waning. Many of us joined the site while working for NGOs or Peace Corps in the region or studying in grad school programs at Title VI regional studies centers like the ones at Indiana, Washington, and Harvard. Now, though, Peace Corps has all but disappeared from Central Asia, many NGOs have closed up shop and moved elsewhere, and Title VI National Resource Centers are struggling to fund their students and programs.
We are in a period of transition in which if we don’t stand up for the importance of Central Asian and Afghanistan studies they may not be able to sustain momentum, and what so many have worked so hard to build may begin to fade. In the past few weeks I’ve talked to friends from the primary Central Asia research universities across the country, and all are struggling with the same things—making due with sharply reduced Title VI funding and convincing their host universities that Central Asian studies is a worthwhile investment. As the “old guard” generation of Central Asia scholars retire, their positions may not be filled again in spite of the fact that they succeeded in training a generation of well-qualified specialists they hoped would carry on their legacy.
This is not to be overly pessimistic, or to say that our field is dying, but I believe this is a moment in which if we cannot convince the public and policymakers that the places and people we care about are still important we may wake up one day soon and realize that most of our cohort have had to take jobs doing very different things. The curious enthusiasm for the newly independent states of the 1990s has long passed, and the urgency of the 9-11 era and the war in Afghanistan is quickly disappearing. Most of us always believed that the region was important in and of itself, but we could also admit that our own interest in it was heavily sponsored by those who saw it had strategic or commercial importance.
Now the burden is on us to continue to convince the rest of the world to care, and if we can’t, the things we care deeply about—like the plight of people in Southern Kyrgyzstan living in fear of their own police and judges, or of Uzbeks in Andijon or Tashkent afraid every day that their business could be raided and they could be jailed and tortured, or people of all ethnicities afraid to meet with friends to pray or talk about books or politics—could fall to the wayside again, with no one interested in their voices or their fate. These are only a few issues I care about from personal experience, and I want this site to continue to be a place where all of you can continue to share your own, especially for those of you who call the region home.
Why You Should Contribute (and I Don’t Mean Money)
In light of all this, I’m going to kick off the “reboot” by contacting many of you who previously contributed and gently pester you to come back now and then, to update us on your new research or projects: the site has always, for me at least, been an excellent place to sketch out new ideas, to build interest in new projects, and make connections with others who care about the same things I’m interested in. I am also issuing a call for new contributors, will try to recruit people I know whose voices we are interested in hearing more of, and would welcome suggestions from all of you. I’m happy to announce that we have a new intern, Reid Standish, and I’m especially interested in recruiting several new authors who would like an opportunity to build a public profile for themselves earlier in their career.
For those of you who feel pressure to save your best ideas and new research for conferences and journals, let me make this simple argument that I will echo from another of our former regular authors, Sarah Kendzior: giving the wider public a preview and giving more people an opportunity to engage with your work is always worthwhile, and you are not forced to choose between the two. Posting here is an opportunity to reach an audience of policymakers, professionals and the rest of the world who can benefit from your hard work and insight but would likely never see it even in a cross-disciplinary journal like Central Asian Survey and won’t be among the ten or twenty people who turn out listen to even your most brilliant presentation on a rainy Sunday morning in Bloomington or Columbus.
In the next few days I will also ask for contributions sharing your perspectives about why Central Asia still deserves investment and attention, and about why the region continues to be important to the rest of the world in the near and medium term. I want to gather and publish here many different angles and perspectives, including voices from the region. With your help we can continue what we have built here over the past decade and most importantly help keep interest and attention to the people and places we care about from fading away.