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Majlis Podcast: Is Central Asia Being Unfairly Portrayed In The Media?

Yurts in front of the Khazret Sultan mosque during the Norouz celebration in Astana.
Yurts in front of the Khazret Sultan mosque during the Norouz celebration in Astana.

Central Asia’s image has often suffered from international media coverage. The region rarely figures in the reports of the big television networks and print media. Only when the rare crisis hits Central Asia does the area receive a lot of attention.

So, someone following international news might remember the violence in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijon in 2005 when security forces opened fire on protesters, or the revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, or that the region borders Afghanistan, or that it was once part of the Soviet Union.

Not the best publicity for Central Asia.

One thing no one seems to forget is that Central Asia is home to an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Articles and reports have appeared in recent months portraying Central Asia as a hotbed of unrest, a breeding ground for extremists, a region from which the Muslim population could potentially pour out into conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or maybe, even further away.

It is a characterization many of the journalists and scholars familiar with Central Asia -- people who have lived there -- reject.

There are some ill-founded assumptions making their way into reports and some information that is simply incorrect.

To discuss where these misconceptions come from and offer a different view, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to consider media and think-tank coverage of Central Asia.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.From the Massachusetts-based organization Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion (CEDAR) David Montgomery, who is also author of the book Practicing Islam: Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan, joined the Majlis. Participating from New York was Edward Lemon, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University, member of the Harriman Institute, and author of in-depth studies focusing on Tajikistan’s citizens who have gone to fight in the Middle East. Also taking part, from Prague, was Noah Tucker, associate at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, managing editor at the Registan website, and currently working with us at RFE/RL. I just had to be in on this also.

First, it is not the intention of this work to criticize anyone, any particular article, or any particular media outlet. I probably speak for many when I say I welcome any interest in Central Asia. I simply wish for an accurate picture.

The suggestion that somewhere in the five Central Asian countries there is a spark waiting to ignite the Muslim population into violence and extremism is not new, as Tucker noted. “If we go back far enough into the 1980s, people have had this same discussion about Central Asia over and over again,” he said.

Lemon recalled, “If we look at the Soviet period and the titles of books like The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State: Moscow’s Muslim Challenge, there was this assumption that if the Soviet Union was going to collapse it would come from the soft underbelly… from Central Asia.”

As part of the Soviet Union, most Muslims of Central Asia could not openly practice Islam. Not surprisingly, when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the Muslims of the now five independent states of Central Asia, who had been cut off from the greater Islamic world for some 75 years, reembraced the religion that had dominated the region since the 8th century.

In some reports, this seemingly sudden zeal to practice Islam, to construct new mosques, the desire of some to dress in clothing they consider Islamic, and other outward expressions of the faith are implicitly putting the people and the region on the course of extremism.

Montgomery explained, “In a lot of the reports there’s already this assumption that somehow Islam is, if it becomes too Islamic, too active in its practice, it’s somehow threatening.”

During the last approximately five years, a few thousand people from Central Asia, from a population of nearly 70 million, have gone to the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. Citizens of Central Asia have carried out terrorist attacks that gained large international attention -- the attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in 2014, the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport in 2016, and allegedly the Istanbul New Year’s Eve nightclub attack.

Again, people are more likely to remember incidents such as these and draw their conclusions on Central Asia based on these attacks.

Research has already shown most of the young Central Asian men who have gone to join extremist groups in the Middle East or elsewhere, tend to have little knowledge of Islam. Indeed, their reasons often seem to have nothing to do with religion at all.

Tucker recounted a story of a young Uzbek man from Tajikistan who was in Donetsk, fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists. “Most of the young men from his village had gone to fight in different theaters but most of them had gone to fight for ISIS,” Tucker said. “He didn’t have a foreign passport, so he wasn’t able to go to Syria but he could travel within the former Soviet Union. He was a young guy who just wanted to go out somewhere, make some money, have an adventure, and fight.”

And Lemon said often for those who go to join extremist groups in conflict zones, “It’s about masculine pride, it’s often about local connections… it’s not a matter of where they’re fighting or who they’re fighting, it’s just the process of fighting and seeking an adventure that appears to be most important for these individuals rather than any kind of religious commitment to jihad.”

Tucker’s research has shown that Central Asians can be found in the ranks of various groups in Syria and Iraq, sometimes fighting against each other.

“It’s not that we deny that these things are happening,” Montgomery said, but he continued that reading some recent reports on Central Asia could leave one with the impression “things are really bad and they’ll only get worse and probably the only thing that makes sense is Islam.”

This was a meaty topic and it led the discussion into the evolution of traditional and new manifestations of Islam in the region, how government polices toward religion and domestic security often reinforce general international perceptions of Central Asia as a volatile region, and other issues.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard at:

Majlis Podcast: Is Central Asia Being Unfairly Portrayed In The Media?
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*NOTE: Qishloq Ovozi is assembling a list of organizations and individuals who can be contacted for information on Central Asia in the hope such a list can prove useful to journalists and others who have questions about Central Asia. It should be up on Qishloq Ovozi soon.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.