Central Asian Views on Pro-Palestinian Protests in the West

Image: TCA, Aleksandr Potolitsyn

Pro-Palestinian protests erupted in university campuses and other locations worldwide in response to the ongoing conflict involving the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinians in Gaza. European cities, including in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium, have been major flashpoints where, in some cases, the police resorted to using batons, shields and tear gas on protestors. In the U.S., The New York Times has reported on May 13 that since April 18, over 2,500 individuals had been arrested or detained at 54 college campuses nationwide.

The increasingly violent nature of the protests causes alarm. A poll conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University, published on May 8, has revealed that almost 32% of Americans express “very concerned” sentiments about the potential for the protests to lead to violence, while slightly over 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”.

Some of the messaging coming out of the protests has also been characterized as antisemitic, leading to a congressional bill in the U.S. known as the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which aims to expand the legal definition of antisemitism to curb any speech that provokes violence. Free speech advocates, including some international human rights organizations, have challenged these measures.

 

Remembering their own turbulent times, Central Asians generally support state measures to maintain order

Central Asians’ perspectives on the pro-Palestinian protests sweeping through Western cities, and the way various governments respond to them, are naturally influenced by their own historical and political contexts, shaped by decades of political transition and international rivalry. Emerging as new democracies just three decades ago, these nations have witnessed a tumultuous mix of violent power struggles among oligarchs, and intense competition from foreign actors vying for control over the region’s abundant natural resources and strategic geopolitical position.

At the same time, the region hosts a large Muslim population who may sympathize with the Palestinians, even though many do not know the history of the conflict in the Middle East, according to Daniyar Kumpekov, a 46-year-old economist in Kazakhstan. “The Arab-Israeli conflict is beyond the attention of most citizens,” says 21-year-old Kazakhstani student, Anar Zhakupova, adding that they are more concerned about the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, 29-year-old merchant, Dmitry Povolotsky, says that there were only small rallies in support of the Palestinians.

There also seems to be a sense of skepticism towards the protests. Kumpekov, for instance, draws attention to a trend of “Islamization” in Kazakhstan’s society”.  Mahmut Orozbayev, a Kyrgyz civil servant in his 50s, cautions about terrorist cells in the country, which, he says, “should be feared” from a security perspective. “We have a majority of Muslim citizens. They can gather and condemn Israel’s actions. But all this [should be done] within the limits of what is permissible, so that there is no unrest,” he adds. According to Donokhon Ruziboyeva, an Uzbekistan resident in her 20s, pro-Palestinian protests raise awareness, but “they don’t stop the conflict in Palestine”. While the devastation in the Gaza Strip seen on social networks deeply moves Ruzboyeva, she thinks holding demonstrations calling for an end to the war will not benefit the Palestinians. “I don’t think it’s the right decision to hold protests in Uzbekistan either,” she asserts.

The region is no stranger to widespread (and often violent) unrest. The Andijan events in Uzbekistan in 2005, for instance, was triggered by protests over the trial of 23 businessmen for alleged Islamic extremism, escalating into a violent confrontation. In the same year, Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip Revolution” saw protesters seizing government buildings, resulting in President Akayev fleeing the country, followed by the 2010 uprising that led to over 80 deaths. In January 2022, Kazakhstan experienced a violent insurrection incited by coup organizers, where government buildings were stormed and burned, causing over 200 fatalities. Tajikistan witnessed violent clashes in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in 2012 between government forces and local groups after a security official’s murder. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime maintains strict media control and swiftly quells dissent, effectively suppressing public protests.

The views of the region’s citizens reflect these memories. Kumpekov points out that authorities are notified of all rallies in Kazakhstan, and they have a right to refuse if the procession is destructive in nature. “This is a preventive practice,” he says, as “all the more Kazakhstanis remember the events of January 2022 when peaceful rallies turned into uncontrolled pogroms”. Authorities have the right to stop actions that lead to violence “so that the actions, for example, do not turn into anti-Semitic pogroms, as in the airport in Makhachkala [in Russia]”, he adds. Sharing a similar view, Zhakupova says that “Kazakhstanis do not want a repeat of the January 2022 events. The coup attempt and the ensuing chaos frightened citizens. The authorities are trying to establish a dialog with the residents [and] prevent social unrest”. In contrast to the January 2022 events, pro-Ukraine gatherings in Kazakhstan were peaceful, where citizens expressed their opinion and dispersed, and the police simply observed law and order, according to Kumpekov.

 

Freedom of expression should be allowed but not at the expense of national security

In Zhakupova’s opinion, any calls for violence should be condemned and it is unacceptable for a group of people to demand infringement on the rights and freedoms of others, but peaceful demonstrations should not be censored. “A person should realize that aggressive actions will cause a response,” Kumpekov argues. This sentiment is repeated elsewhere in the region. According to Ruziboyeva in Uzbekistan, “Speech that encourages violence should be restricted to prevent harm”; however, there is a balance; “censorship should be handled cautiously to maintain order while respecting freedom of speech”. Anwar, an Uzbek teacher in his 50s (who chose not to provide his last name), agrees: “Any speech inciting violence should be prohibited. I admit the need for censorship during aggressive protests in order to prevent threats and danger to the civilians.” In Kyrgyzstan, which has an article in its Criminal Code that punishes incitement of discord, Povolotsky says, “this is right, you can’t call for violence”, but adds that people should be allowed to “speak the truth” and be able to “see and hear everything” when it comes to protesting.

 

A familiar woe for Central Asia plagues the West: Suspicions of external involvement and prejudiced campaigns

Protests in the West, while overall more peaceful than those in Central Asia, have also seen protestors openly defy government orders and make statements that incite violence. In general, both Western and Central Asian supporters of protestors have used video footage from such confrontations to construct a narrative that accuses government forces of human rights violations and portray all protestors as victims. These clips, usually showing forceful detentions and altercations between the security apparatus and the civilians, are seen as use of excessive force undermining the right to peaceful assembly. The depiction of tear gas and water cannon use as well as the handcuffing of individuals is often framed not as a crowd control tactic, but as state oppression.

The current situation presents Western officials with a scenario reminiscent of the more tumultuous protests Central Asian authorities have handled in the past. The ongoing challenge for Western governments remains how to curb the escalation of such protests, combat increasingly harmful disinformation campaigns, and prevent a dangerous spread of violence while simultaneously protecting the rights of assembly and free speech.

Adding to the difficulties of managing this process, the commercialization of the human rights arena, and the resulting bias in what is reported on the protests, spark worry given the apparent involvement of NGOs and foreign actors in providing financial and other support. These concerns prompt scrutiny over whether their contributions are driven by interests that are contrary to those of Western host countries. In the U.S., questionable sources of funding used to mobilize non-students at university campuses as well as for the procurement of uniformly colored tents point to a well-coordinated and sponsored operation, possibly with the involvement of outside actors. Adding a layer of complexity, a report by Wired has suggested that Russia is capitalizing on college campus protests to foment unrest in the U.S., repeating claims that foreign assistance may be bolstering the agitators.

For their part, Central Asian countries have previously raised concerns about the weaponization of human rights activism as a tool used by kleptocrats and foreign states to gain diplomatic leverage over regional governments. These worries have a basis. The so-called “Qatargate” scandal in the EU that broke out in 2022 exposed how European officials have been compromising their authority on human rights issues by selectively condemning or endorsing human rights records of third-party states in exchange for cash payments and other perks from outside actors.

 

No perfect path, but possibility for progress

Regardless of a country’s East-West alignment or its position on the democratic spectrum, it should remain a universally accepted fact that when protesters flout a country’s laws and engage in frenzied acts, they encroach on the rights of other citizens and threaten peace and security. The balancing act for governments between protecting fundamental rights and maintaining the safety of state institutions and all its citizen remains precarious. So far, few (if any) have been able to get it just right. In the wake of its own recent large-scale protests, the West can perhaps better relate to Central Asia’s challenges. With such empathy, all sides may be able to give credence to the historical context as well as to the influences of internal and external bad actors in defining such events and the risks they bring to each country’s domestic peace and security.

Stephen M. Bland

Stephen M. Bland

 Stephen M. Bland is a journalist, author, editor, commentator and researcher specialising in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Prior to joining The Times of Central Asia, he has worked for NGOs, think tanks, as the Central Asia expert on a forthcoming documentary series, for the BBC, The Diplomat, EurasiaNet, and numerous other publications.
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Published in 2016, his book on Central Asia was the winner of the Golden Laureate of Eurasian Literature. He is currently putting the finishing touches to a book about the Caucasus.
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www.stephenmbland.com

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