Argument

‘We Are Not Afraid’

Inside an Uzbek Internet rebellion.

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“Today the main disease of Uzbek society is fear,” says Kudrat Bobojonov, an Uzbek journalist exiled in Sweden. “Our group aims to deliver people from fear with positive information, with the most important form of positive information being a flash mob of Uzbeks posting photos of themselves.”

Bobojonov is one of the moderators of “Qorqmaymiz” — or “We are not afraid” — one of the most popular Uzbek Facebook pages. Launched in August 2014, Qorqmaymiz has grown to over 12,100 members, an enormous number for an Uzbek group. (To put it in perspective, Sayyod, Uzbekistan’s premier gossip and entertainment group, has around 30,000 members.) The success of Qorqmaymiz is all the more remarkable since everything about the group — from its criticism of the government to its circulation of censored content to its dissident-fueled camaraderie — is illegal in Uzbekistan.

While popular as a discussion site, the main purpose of Qorqmaymiz is for Uzbeks to post photos of themselves holding signs that say “I am not afraid” — meaning they are not afraid of the government of Islam Karimov, who has been Uzbekistan’s president since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Karimov’s government is regarded by human rights groups as one of the most brutal in the world.

“This is a page [for] Central Asians who believe in liberty,” says the site’s description. “Our slogan: ‘I am not afraid of dictators!’ We kindly ask members of our group to [post] their photos with words in their language: ‘I am not afraid!’”

In Uzbekistan, “I am not afraid” is a subversive statement, punishable by a nebulously defined state law which makes “slandering the regime” a crime. Like most dictatorships, Uzbekistan markets itself as a paradise, boasting of uniformly happy citizens who adore their leaders. Proclaiming that one is not afraid of the government is a dual affront: it implies that the government is fearsome and hurts its own citizens, a view for which one can be arrested in Uzbekistan; and it shows that Uzbeks are willing and able to speak out against the authorities.

Uzbekistan has some of the harshest Internet restrictions of any country. Since the Internet gained popularity in the early 2000s, the government has used blocks, surveillance, threats by security services, and legal codes to prevent Uzbek citizens from reading content the state deems unacceptable.

In 2005, the number of unacceptable websites exploded after dozens of journalists and activists were sent into exile following the Andijon massacre, the killing by state forces of over 700 Uzbeks who had gathered in protest in the city of Andijon that May. Forced abroad but able to access the Internet regularly for the first time, the exiled Uzbeks created websites documenting the dictatorship and its discontents. Bobojonov was among the exiled, and since then the Uzbek government has been determined to prevent Uzbeks like him from interacting with Uzbeks in Uzbekistan.

While most people in Uzbekistan do not have home computers, cell phone penetration is over 90 percent. Uzbeks usually access the Internet through social media applications on their phones. While Uzbekistan’s government has attempted to draw virtual borders — one state-sponsored social media site, Muloqot (“Dialogue”), requires an Uzbek passport and phone number to join — Facebook has proven a problem. Groups like Qorqmaymiz circumvent the barriers the Uzbek government has taken pains to construct.

“The Qorqmaymiz group is very important for Uzbek people,” says Torabek Sano, an exile who fled Uzbekistan following the Andijon events and lives in France. “Because Uzbeks from both inside and outside Uzbekistan can enter it without difficulty, the opinions expressed by Qorqmaymiz group members can be read inside the republic. Uzbeks living inside Uzbekistan are being made aware of problems and hearing informed opinions from members of the group. It’s true that many Uzbeks in Uzbekistan will limit their own expression of ideas to clicking ‘like’ on posts. But that does not mean they’re not reading them.”

In September 2014, the Uzbek government passed a new law on blogging, banning “untrue posts and reposts” and obligating citizens to remove “untrue posts” — including those on social media — on state demand. The law’s description of what is prohibited is vague enough that Uzbek officials can declare anything they find objectionable to be “untrue” and illegal. In the context of the blogging law and other harsh restrictions on free speech, participating in Qorqmaymiz is a risk. But it is one Uzbeks are increasingly willing to take.

“I was one of the first people to put up my picture,” says Dilya Erkinzoda, an Uzbek law student exiled in Sweden and a Qorqmaymiz moderator. “I did it because I wanted to make it known that I am a person who speaks the truth and let others who are having the same struggle know they are not alone. Posting my photo had both a positive and negative effect, but I am happy to say it was mostly positive. Most Uzbeks are not indifferent. After the 2005 Andijon events, our people became very afraid and depressed. Groups similar to us tried to inspire hope and confidence, but there is still an overwhelming need for people to go forward, to unite, and I think our efforts are having a great effect.”

Since August, hundreds of Uzbeks have posted a picture of themselves holding an “I am not afraid” sign. (It is difficult to ascertain the exact number since the photos are not held in one place, but Bobojonov says over 80 photos were posted within the first few days.) They include men and women, young and old, and while many are Uzbeks living abroad, dozens claim to be posting from inside the country.

Paranoia about identity is rampant on the Uzbek Internet, particularly given the country’s long tradition of state surveillance. To post a photo of oneself under one’s real name — linking to one’s own Facebook page — assures others that the poster is a real person and also makes a contentious political statement seem relatable. Most Uzbeks who post to Qorqmaymiz are smiling, look proud, or otherwise assume a posture of peace. Their statement and countenance stand in stark contrast to a state-sanctioned culture of fear.

Exiles stress that the Uzbek culture of fear crosses borders — as do agents of the state. Since the Andijon massacre, there have been a number of prominent Uzbek activists shot or murdered abroad, including journalist Alisher Saipov in Kyrygzstan in 2006, activist Fuad Rustamxojaev in Russia in 2011, imam Obidxon qori Nazarov in Sweden in 2012, and sheikh Abdullo Bukhariy in Turkey in 2014. Uzbek authorities have targeted the families of exiles in order to punish those who participate in anti-state activism. Even for Uzbeks abroad, asserting their non-compliance with the regime is risky.

Qorqmaymiz also serves another purpose: it offers a discussion forum on topics ranging from Uzbek politics to currency inflation to Ramadan to the World Cup. Memes and jokes, many critical of the Uzbek government, are posted and shared. The site is reminiscent of Arbuz.com, a popular web forum shut down by the authorities in December 2011 that had drawn a similarly wide spectrum of Uzbeks from inside and outside the country. But while forums can be shut down, social media is much harder to block. Qorqmaymiz includes members of Uzbek opposition parties (all banned) as well as devout Muslim opponents of the Karimov regime — one frequent poster identifies himself in his Facebook profile as the “general mayor of Hizb-ut Tahrir,” a banned group seeking to form a caliphate in Central Asia.

No one is barred from participating in Qorqmaymiz. According to Sano, participants include supporters of the government. “There have been debates between supporters of Islam Karimov and those who oppose him,” he says. “Debate is always beneficial. If we can deliver truth through debate, it is useful for people who may not comprehend the extent of the situation. Qorqmaymiz is a place where people can discuss the real condition of our motherland and exchange views about its future.”

Given the popularity of Qorqmaymiz and the use of Facebook for burgeoning political mobilization, why has the Uzbek government not blocked Facebook, as the governments of neighboring Tajikistan and other dictatorships have done? It is difficult to say. Qorqmaymiz allows the government to see who opposes it. It is useful as a venue from which to ascertain the strength of the Uzbek opposition. Shutting down Facebook in Uzbekistan would raise public ire, but since public ire is rarely a factor in state decisions, one can assume it is not particularly relevant here. It may simply be a matter of time before the Uzbek government decides to block access.

Until then, Qorqmaymiz represents the future of Uzbek dissident politics. While previously Uzbek dissidents posted meandering proclamations reminiscent of Soviet samizdat, they can now rally around a brief, unified statement, with photos vouching for the authenticity and humanity of those who express it. Members of the Uzbek opposition, which has struggled with internal feuding for decades, finally have a message on which they agree and which resonates with a broader public. The real question is what effect an online message could have on Uzbeks contending with state repression on the ground.

Sano, for one, is not too optimistic. While an important step, Qorqmaymiz is no antidote to decades of fear, nor is it an indication that change in Uzbekistan will come quickly. The group is a reminder that even in a notoriously insular dictatorship, citizens still contemplate their political reality and do not blindly accept it. On Qorqmaymiz, Uzbeks can hold debates and conversations that are impossible in Uzbekistan. By posting their photos, they can show unity even while separated by geography and repressed by a ruthless regime. Where they struggle is how to translate their virtual public sphere into change on the ground. Acknowledging a culture of fear is the first step. Transforming it is a greater challenge.

“Uzbeks at some point will begin to live in a democratic and free country,” Sano says. “But most people need to wake up and the Uzbek consciousness needs to be transformed. There needs to be a revolution in Uzbekistan. But until there are major changes, the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan have no future and will continue to live in slavery, suffering, and poverty. Dictators do not want to change. How Uzbek people will live for now is set. The Uzbek people are not able to change in the near future, because fear lives in their hearts.”

One can only hope that this new form of online protest represents the first small step toward overcoming that fear.

Photo credit: Kudrat Bobojonov

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