Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Going Forwards Here...

So as I mentioned earlier this week, I've started writing over at Registan. Let's see how long they'll have me. It's really an honor to be there for as long as they let me. If you look at how long it took Nathan to build up the readership he has over there, well, I'm not sure I'd have it in me to write that long. So I'm happy to ride on his (and everyone else over there's) coattails until they tell me to stop showing up.

My writing gameplan so far has been one post a week, and that's been going alright. I've heard a lot of criticism that the stuff I write here is too 400-level for the audience that is, pretty much, my friends and family. So I'll try to post more of the short, amusing, sort of stuff here. That may not happen very often, though, because is hard.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


In the middle of school and in the middle of work, but it's worth mentioning that my last piece, in a moderately edited version, got on Registan this week. Look for more of my stuff there in the future.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Balochistan Azadi and other Pipedreams

And I ain't talking about the awesome Windows 95 game or even the single by the 2nd best Britney Spears Cover Band.

The suicide attack in Pishin, Iran a week or two ago was probably one of the stranger, more out-of-context bits of news to hit the D.C. policy world since the Obama Administration and the refocusing on Afghanistan. It just sort of screws up any black-white image of Central Asia even more. From the Beltway's perspective, I can't imagine how a suicide attack (bad guys) on the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran (bad guys), who were meeting local Balochi leaders to discuss Sunni-Shi'a relations (good thing) can possibly be parsed.

Jundallah, the group who carried out the attacks, are Sunni partisans, but not Balochi separatists. Abdolmalek Rigi seems to want to work within the Iran state to get better rights for Sunnis within the Islamic Republic, like a late-stage Apo. The serious discussion of their tactics (targeting Shi'a civilians and IRGC members) is less relevant than their goal (destablization of Iran) and their perceived backing (United States and/or Pakistan). The attack was seen as an American-related attack on Iran to some extent. I wish I had the Farsi skills to link to those newstories, but Press TV is sometimes enough. It's something else that can be construed as American meddling, which ISAF certainly doesn't need. And it likely allows Ahmedinijad to pander to his base.

Balochis are kind of the unmentioned minority of South-Central Asia for reasons I haven't fully understood. I'm presuming its because Balochistan is sort of the littoral part of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan: underdeveloped and far from the centrality of the state. But this can't last. The Trans-Afghan Pipeline and any sort of transit from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea relies on development in Baluchistan.

Baluchi development isn't high on Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan's radar (Gwadar notwithstanding...but even Gwadar has a lot more in common with Mumbai, Muscat, or Singapore than it does with Jiwani or Pishin). All three of those countries seemingly don't have the sort of resources or the political willpower to really get involved in domestic development outside of their own pet projects, either.

So development in Balochistan would be beneficial for just about every party involved, it seems. It would allow for another export for oil and lots of mined resources, it would calm down one more tense spot in a region that isn't looking for more tense spots, and it would seem to be something that the US could agree with Iran about. But I personally don't think it's likely to happen.

Would there be just too much domestic anger at recognition of Baluchi rights and any sort of Baluchi autonomy in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? I just can't imagine any of those three governments doing anything that would even smell like redrawing the lines on the map.

Tatli Harbesi

Chocolate War was one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. And the trailer for the film had one of the creepier songs I've ever heard on it. And someone decided to even make a fanvid that was as creepy as the song. If I was a bit skinnier, I would probably just be a different era's David Bowie every year for Halloween.

The Tatli Darbesi is, of course, about life in a Jesuit school. And what better transition can be made for the Jesuits of the East, the Fethullahcilar. The movement is named after their leader, Fethullah Gulen. In Central Asia, the movement is often confused with Nurculuk, after Said Nursi, which is less of an offical practice and more a school of Islam. However, since Gulen was a Nurcu early on, there is a strong relationship between the two.

The Fethullahcilar education movement has become the target of think-tank consternation and governmental distrust (re: Islam Karimov) mostly for being difficult to pin down. Nurculuk is a far cry from Salafi Islam, as it is Islamicist and futurist at the same time. It has its roots in Sufism, which otherwise sober-faced experts are deeming Happy Fun Time Islam, but also works hard to call its brotherhood cemaat instead of tarikat (just don't tell Soner Cagaptay, Amurrica's Favorite Turk).

Of course, there is the Islamist issue. And as long as the Fethullahcilar teachers are Turkish urban males who live Islamic values, the schools are going to be seen as simply Medresses in slacks by a lot of people. And I of course don't mean this article as a Fethullahcilar apologetic, I realize that there are lots of issues of proselytizing going on, and that not all teachers are as Fethullahci as Fethullah may like...and that these are serious issues. But they are also ones of corporate oversight, good policing, and other issues that can be reached through other mediums. The AKP's new vision for Turkey, and its relationship with Fethullah Gulen, could be construed as troubling, and it certainly is fascinating, but it's also something to be dealt with later.

At the same time, the Sufi brotherhood ideals that Ibn Battuta relied upon can have tremendous power in the days of the internet. Fethullahcilar schools are not just top-notch schools providing relatively good educations, they also have become networking hubs, sending students to different schools across the world, and teaching Istanbul Turkish as a lingua franca. Social networking allows for people to keep their ears to the ground and for news to travel quick, obviously, but it can also slip by most any governmental censorship. Well-educated, well-connected Kazakhs, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Pakistanis, et. al. are good for most everyone, no?

So what can Fethullahcilar education do for Central Asia? It could, over time, help create the middle class that can transform these resource-rich countries into real, live, solid, states. A large part of the reason why there are fake democracies are because the leaders of the countries don't trust the public with real democracy. But a power shift (which could conceivably become a power struggle) to a younger generation would allow a new guard, educated and connected through an entirely different paradigm, to take over leadership positions. Don't forget, these schools have only been around since the mid-1990's. When I was studying Turkish in Turkey, the vast majority of my class consisted of Central Asians studying on scholarship; loads of kids from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, mostly (and one who was very adamant that he was from Cechnya, not Russia, or even the Kavkaz, but that's another story). They all retained a very strong sense of "homeland" (I'm not sure how else to translate vatanlik) and were more interested in working in their home countries than Turkey once they graduated. The Fethullahcilar education system is, in short, building a new generation of Central Asian leaders who have a sense of pride in their homeland while being connected abroad, through Islamist and Turkic principles.

No, the folks who go to Fethullahcilar schools will not turn out like good Groton or Exeter men. And yes, the whole movement is something that sounds like it came out of Enver Pasha's fever dreams, what with the Pax Turania and Islamic brotherhood. All the same, the rise of the movement intimates a rise of Turkic geopolitics as compared to all of the other interests in Central Asia. Michael noted the big partnership Kazakhstan did with Turkey pretty recently, for example, even if it is buried among the French and the Chinese and everyone else trying to get some oil. It's an interesting long-term development that'll have an impact on most everything in the region. And this is all without even mentioning their news branch, Zaman, throwing its weight around online and in print in Central Asia (and the Balkans, and Europe...)

This basically represents another competing identity for Central Asians, just proving the point that much more that there is more to the region then a "Western-oriented" or "Islamofascist" dichotomy (which, if you're reading this blog, you probably already know). But it would be interesting to see if it actually works. Education is the basis of a cultural identity, "The school will finish what the bayonet began" and all of that. And education based around creating a well-traveled and well-spoken middle class seems to be a possible quiet revolution in Central Asia...the first grads ought to be getting jobs now, I'll be on the lookout for any social sea change in Turkmenistan relative to Uzbekistan, personally. The more forms of identity that don't involve blind chauvanism and dogmatic polemics, the better off the region is. Let's see if this one takes root at all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Golden Brown, texture like sun

For a song about heroin, The Stranglers did make a hit that was relevant to, well, gold as well. And since it is about heroin, it's a perfectly legitimate lede to this post about Afghanistan.

This week in esoterica unrelated to water or oil, we will look at the Bactrian Gold, which has enough of a backstory to make a decent Indiana Jones-knockoff film. Maybe McConaughey is free. I can't imagine that he has much else to do.

Long story short, there was a hoard of 20,000 golden objects from BC that some Soviets discovered in the 70s. Then the Afghanistan Invasion happened, and the gold wasn't rediscovered by white folks until 2003.

To get BldgBloggy, I think the implications and storylines here are moderately fascinating. Taliban art theives, keyholders lurking in the shadows, and an international nation branding effort through art. The Bactrian Gold isn't about Mujahedeen, Soviet aims, heroing, it's about ancient shiny stuff. If Afghanistan is going to become a real country again, it'll need an identity outside of the bad past 30 years.

Which leads me to nation branding. It's something that I've been pretty interested in since reading about it in The Monocle in a very un-Monocle situation (overnighting on some benches in Heathrow airport. The idea behind branding is that a state needs to obtain some popular perception before it can get foreign investment, get a middle class going, and all of that stuff. Monocle is big on good airlines, good food, and good hotels. Afghanistan has these. Well, maybe the airline. Or the hotel. But hey, the food rocks.

Afghanistan has a similar problem to Georgia in trying to become a Real Country. This is also why I'm curious to see how Armenia will be going forward, and if it will be able to be a model for Central Asia to follow. Afghanistan obviously has a lot more problems for it going forwards, but it's not hopeless. It will be a while before it can even think about opening up to tourism, business conferences, and all that sort of stuff. But it is central to one of my overarching themes to the blog. There is more about state-building than politics and military. Sense of place, sense of community, and reputation building all can play big parts in making a country a decent place to live.

I heard Robert Canfield talk a couple of days back, and he was very clear that most Afghans want to live in an Afghanistan united. I'm not 100% sure I agree on that, but considering he knows way more about Afghanistan than I do, I'll believe him. So for an Afghanistan united to exist, it will have to be based on some sort of nation that can be branded as a halfway-decent place. We're not asking for a Switzerland here. Phillippines would suffice. And building national stories like bringing tawadars together to rescue a millenia-old treasure from the Taliban would go a bit of a way towards that.

And also, the gold is absolutely stunning. Definitely worth checking out if you can spot the tour.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ahmedinejad: Not a Jew

But guess who is? Motamed, and Habakkuk too!

Just a brief post in re: the fairly absurd "Ahmedinejad is Jewish" rumor that is making the Facebook rounds. It doesn't make sense. I just want to make that very clear for the record. The logic behind the article is basically the following: Ahmedinejad's family name used to be Sabourjian. In Aradan, where he's from, Sabourjian means "weaver of Tallit". A fellow from a think-tank says this "explains a lot about him."

First off, "Sabour" may be a term for Tallit, I don't know, I've never heard it, but I don't know Farsi. I do know, however, that Sabour is an awful lot like the Arabic "sabur", which means timeless/everlasting, as in "Allah as-Sabur", God the everlasting. Just from a really brief search, this is a fairly common name. Because any paterfamilias would want to have an everlasting family, right?

I'm not sure when "-jian" became Jewish. It seems much more likely to be Armenian, since like, all their names end with -ian, because it means "son of". "Son of the timeless" seems pretty common, much more common than two tortured translations to make "weaver of Tallit." Occam's Razor and all.

Aradan is a small town outside of Garmsar, in Semnan Province. Jews (and Armenians, since I mentioned it) tended to live in the western, more populous, areas of Iran. Semnan is basically the border between the urban areas of Qom, Tehran, and Isfahan on one side...and Yazd, Khoresan, and Gulistan on the other. Apparenlty there are a decent chunk of Karteli, Lurish, and Arabs in Semnan...but nobody is going to put you on the first page if you say Ahmedinejad is any of those. But there simply aren't many Jews there, for whatever reason (ask an Iranian historian, not me...but it may have to do with trade coming west from Khoresan/Balochestan, or north through the Dasht-e Kavir...both of which have strong merchant cultures that don't involve Jews). But hey, apparently the Chinese are drilling for oil around here! That's exciting!

And as for the Telegraph's expert think tank? Well, the first thing you read on their website may give a clue as to their leanings. "The Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies was founded in 1980 by former Iranian diplomat Ambassador Jaffar Ra'ed." Hmm...looks like the think tank was started by, and guided by the principles of, a dude who lost his job and his country in 1979. These folks may not be the clearest thinkers when it comes to Iranian governmental policy. There could be some bias there, I don't know.

I mean, Ahmedinejad is a bad dude...he's really put the screws to his people in a lot of ways, and his government really has to pull a rabbit out of its hat in the current nuclear talks in order to be welcomed to the world stage in any way whatsoever. He's being hounded by domestic political enemies, his worst enemy has brought war into the countries to his West and East (Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively), and the election he just won by a landslide looks awfully, awfully, sketchy. There's lots of things one could reasonably demonize the dude with. But let's not try to psychoanalyze him using cutsey-wootsey methodology in a downright dishonest attention-grab of an article.