This week is the 7th anniversary of the Karimov government's massacre of civilians in Andijan, a story about hundreds of victims that is mainly about the horrendous brutality of the Uzbek regime, but also partly about the willingness of desperate opposition leaders to use violence (the events began with a prison break and the killing of several policemen, then the taking of hostages). I don't view violence in response to brutality as excusable, and I don't view it as a Thomas Jefferson moment or an equivalency to the American revolution (which some Uzbek colleagues raise as justification for opposition violence in 2005). These are modern times with modern human rights treaties, and the human rights movement should be the first to repudiate violence by any side in a conflict. It often doesn't.
Uznews.net is an independent Uzbek news site forced to operate in exile because of oppression in Uzbekistan. Its editors are now leading a lonely fight in criticizing Uzbek extremists and fundamentalists who would take away media freedom, the rights of women, and other rights and liberties if they were to come to power in Uzbekistan with their notion of the caliphate and sharia law.
Lonely, because they have no friends among the very Western liberals who ought to be backing them.
Their editorial stance is fairly extraordinary, as people who criticize their country's extremists with a rights-based approach are putting themselves at grave risk. In fact, the supposedly secular government of President Islam Karimov doesn't make the same critique of the Islamists who resist him, and merely uses brutal methods to suppress the slightest independent form of Muslim belief.
Human rights activists should be able to criticize both the suppression of religious belief and the threat to women's rights and free speech that would ensue if fundamentalists came to power, but they seldom do the latter.
Indeed, it's an outright fashion among the largely liberal and left-leading media and human rights crowd covering Central Asia to take the side of Muslim victims without ever conceding that they have produced -- or could produce -- their own victims. Human rights groups do this for different reasons, some good, some bad. First of all, it's because they generally work only in a framework of the state and its obligations, and don't always have a handle on how to raise the abuse of rights by non-state actors. That's because the international human rights system is set up this way -- states undertake obligations and are reviewed for their compliance, not individuals. The UN and other bodies try to avoid establishing "duties" or "obligations" for individuals because authoritarian states always misuse this exercise to oppress civil rights.
But the other reason is that the left tends to minimize the threat of terrorism as a counterpoint to what they see as an exaggeration of it by the US and other Western states. Worse, they don't think it's their job to tell various non-state or private groups in society what to do. (Except, of course, groups they don't like, like Komen, for not funding Planned Parenthood or Amazon, for not housing WikiLeaks). They become especially uneasy about criticizing violent and extremist groups. They don't think it's their job.
In fact, this frank condemnation of the recent suicide bombings in Dagestan is an extremely rare Human Rights Watch statement on a terrorist act in Eurasia -- so rare as to beg the question as to what might really be driving it -- and I'll bet its the Putin administration's constant complaints that human rights groups don't seem to care about terrorism. (More typical than a condemnation of the Russian metro bombing is a critique of European states for their damaging of human rights by counterterrorism, or Ken Roth's indignant oped piece complaining about the abstract injustices of military commissions without ever admitting what a spectacle the trial has turned into, enabling the defendants to mock any justice.
Galima Bukharbaeva, editor-in-chief of uznews.net, famous in her field for her eyewitness reports of Andijan, has decided to take on the fundamentalists. Good for her! She's performing in fact a very brave act and should get solidarity, not airy meta condemnation from the international justice and journalism jet-set.
No, she's not doing this perfectly. She may be taking as actual animosity certain acts by other exiles that in fact have been stirred up and incited or simulated by the Uzbek National Security Service (the SNB). But that's ok. It's hard to be perfect when you are a journalist in exile and what's important is that she is taking on the hard task here shirked by her far more resourced -- and safe and secure -- colleagues in the West.
Indeed, for anyone who has spent time watching the Soviet and post-Soviet governments and intelligence operations over the years, it seems obvious that the SNB is instigating a lot of the problems, trying to split groups that get together, and trying to destroy whatever fragile alliances existed between the secular journalists and human rights groups who covered the persecution of Muslims in good faith, by their values for human rights, and the Muslim fundamentalists, especially in exile, who are eternally unhappy with that exile media's equal willingness to cover the problems of media freedom, LGBT rights, and women's rights.
Galima goes after Abutov in this post after a series of other posts criticizing the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan -- the movement headed by exiled Erk Party leader Mohammed Salih which has also been covered critically by the exile website fergananews.com, as Salih has called for "civil disobedience" from outside the country and it's not clear exactly whether/how much violence this might entail.
Now, Abutov may or may not have sent the porn photos to the editor of uznews.net on odnoklassniki.ru, a Russian-owned social media site. She's obviously decided that he had. We don't see any disassociation from this nasty act yet from him. If there was, it would be about the fourth time he has had to disassociate himself from hoaxes and attacks, and some people would find the story getting a bit thread-bare. It was Abutov who was accused of the hoax involving the supposed student who committed suicide in police detention. It turned out she didn't exist. Abutov denied any involvement, and said he believed a woman claiming to be her friend or sister -- a woman who later claimed to Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service that she was coerced into perpetrating the hoax by an SNB agent travelling with her. All in all, a very murky story I wrote extensively about, which to me showed all the signs of intelligence work, not emigre quarrels.
Then Abutov was fingered for setting up a man to be arrested in Tashkent, when his emails and flyers were said to get a man in trouble at the Islamic University. But he denied that he sent the communications. There have been other incidents, and either the SNB is assiduously setting up Abutov to make him look bad, or he himself is referencing the SNB to give himself a pass for provocations, but the fact is, Karimov and the SNB are ultimately the problem, not him.
Mohammed Salih is a figure in the Uzbek emigration who is widely criticized for not being able to let go of leadership and let the reins pass to younger people with more ability to get groups together and mobilize successfully rather than endanger and isolate followers inside the country. He does in fact put together coalitions and then they fall apart -- but in fact that's largely due, again, to the SNB, which savagely persecutes anything related to the PMU or him or his allies and which frightened those in the coalition with threats to their relatives so that ultimately, they had to pull out.
But Salih himself constantly gets questioned by the secularists because while purporting to be more liberal, he keeps coming up with things like plans to isolate homosexuals, come the revolution. The incident that occurred with Elena Urlaeva only raised more and more questions about him. Urlaeva, a Russian who is Orthodox by faith and a secular human rights leader came back from a trip to Turkey where she stayed with Salih acting strangely, unlikely herself, saying she had suddenly converted to Islam. Alarmed friends and family thought somebody had drugged or hypnotized her. They were even forced to put her in a psychiatric hospital as she began to break dishes. This was really something they didn't want to do as the authorities had been threatening to put her in psychiatric detention for her dissent for years, and she had been fending it off many times, obtaining an independent psychiatric examination and statement of sanity from a Russian clinic in her defense.
After a day or two in psychiatric confinement, Urlaeva camed to her senses and said she had been mistreated, demanding an independent international investigation. Since then weeks have gone by and she has remained sane and competent and discussed her need to continue her human rights work. Meanwhile, Salih didn't seem to answer questions about this incident when pressed, saying that his cell phone was out of range (although how he got that message itself through then was a mystery). He has never satisfactorily explained anything about Urlaeva's trip, never questioning how she would suddenly convert to Islam. That's the problem.
Uznews.net has an article today calling out Salih's slam on them for criticizing Obid-kori Nazarov, the imam in exile who was the victim of an assassination attempt. He calls their coverage "anti-Islamic hysteria." But in fact their articles which I summarize here cover the very glaring dilemma I've outlined here: yes, the imam is likely a victim of the SNB trying to kill him because he has a following. But yes, he opposed press freedom and wanted the media to be subordinate to the principles of Islam, and that's a problem. Why can't we say that?! That's not hysteria, that's normal.
Bukharbaeva's criticism of Salih and other exile politicians who say they combine Islam and democracy is in fact very much needed. No international group ever, ever questions his views or his claims or his statements against human rights. Human rights groups inside Uzbekistan very, very rarely take up their concerns about the threat to human rights posed by Islamists, with only an occasional voice worried about what it means for those charged with membership in Hizb-ut-Tahir or other extremist groups, which they would not like to see tortured or jailed, to nevertheless keep their girls home from school and insist that their wives don the veil.
So while Bukharbaeva may be shrill at times and may not have every fact or nuance correct, I think her editorial position has to be respected and Westerners should be showing solidarity with her and her mission.
Instead, I see David Trilling, Central Asia editor of EurasiaNet, use the visibility and clout of his office to cast aspersion on her on Twitter:
http://Uznews.net is being dragged down in Uzbek exile feuds. Lately reads like the "black PR" drivel we expect from Tashkent. Pity.
I'm going to swat hard on this one. Drivel? Oh, no, David. Not at all. It's legitimate, needed reporting and editorializing that is a needed counter to the fundamentalists and an advocacy for human rights against them -- and that's ok.
I'm really tired of Western male journalists and analysts like Joshua Foust on Central Asia swaggering around, minimizing terrorism, and taking the side of the Islamists as the only human rights victims, with never a concern about women's rights or free speech and never a show of solidarity to their fellow regional journalists -- who are as secular as they are and would wish to be in any society.
If we're going to bash "black PR drivel," let's look at the fact that Tashkent -- the SNB -- itself is the primarily concocter and dispenser of this black PR. Reducing Galima's very important coverage to the status of "drivel" like the sort Tashkent produces on its paid-for websites is really unconscionable and inexusable moral equivalence that helps endanger her.
In the very incident that Galima describes, somebody tampered with her photos and turned them into porn; somebody incited Abutov to them comment on them, or feigned to be Abutov. THAT is the problem, not Galima, a secular editor, herself. Why no condemnation of THAT?!
Why does this even need explaining?!
It's a very entrenched position, this male human rights/aid worker/journalist/analyst position to always and everywhere take the side of the violent male Muslim fundamentalists. Evidently, it's because they see them as victims of the "war on terror," and therefore a kind of variation of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" kicks in which is this: "the victim of my enemy is my friend". These male chroniclers see themselves as heroically standing up to some sort of establishment or bulwark of Bushian conservativism where the terror threat is exaggerated and counter-terrorism measures always harm people's rights. It really gets old, when the terrorist attacks and the suicide bombs keep coming without them ever condemning them, and the space in Uzbekistan keeps shrinking for the secular human rights groups and journalists.
These male "thought leaders" don't seem to realize that they are the establishment now. Those exaggerators just aren't as visible. It's rare that anyone (like Mary Habeck) steps up to the plate to call out terrorism as expanding without Registan and other liberal centers lashing out at them and accusing them of falsifying facts. Terrorism gets very little good analysis these days -- it's odd, for example, that very few seem to be blogging about the Osama raid documents.
The struggle for power in Uzbekistan will only increase as Karimov ages and tries to ensure a successor and immunity for himself and his family. And there will be competing models of variants of Islam and secularism just as there have been in Egypt and Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries, although the Registani try to suppress any comparisons -- and therefore any debate! -- by claiming it is "reverse orientalism" to even think of such a comparison between Muslim populations under long-entrenched tyrants.
Meanwhile, while uznews.net is under assault from fundamentalist critics, various exile groups that don't like their critical stance about those who would abuse human rights, and various anonymous DDOS and other cyber attacks, those of us who are in this field should be unequivocally coming to their defense and not lecturing them from a metaplace of moral equivalence or worse.