My letter to SOAS about Shirin Akiner has generated a good deal of heat across the blogs, with a few colleagues rushing to her defence. What follows is a previous deconstruction of her Andijan report I have lifted from Registan
“1. Agree with Nathan and David that there’s a lot to take issue with here, and that anyone with any Central Asian knowledge and/or critical thinking skills who has the patience to read Akiner’s entire report could pick it apart logically and factually if s/he wanted to dedicate the time.
One thing that is immediately clear to any reader is that Akiner had a very busy day. In fact, on closer inspection of the report, she had a nearly impossibly busy day. In any event, looking closer at how she spent her time can give readers an idea of how careful her research was likely to have been.
She says she was there for 12 hours (this was almost two weeks after the end of the events, by the way) and interviewed 40 people. That’s an average of 18 minutes per interviewee without even factoring out travel time in the city, meals, waiting for interviewees to show up. She says she also ‘walked around the city’, inspected the jail and the school, and paced out the entire square in front of the Hokimiyat in order to get a rough measurement ‘ this would have all taken time too. Akiner, however, claims to spend 20 ‘ 45 minutes with each witness ‘ a mathematical impossibility.
She notes that she spoke with a classroom of about 15 madrassah students ‘ and while it is somewhat disingenuous to pad the number of ‘witnesses’ you had by counting all the participants of a class discussion, assuming that she included these 15 as witnesses make her account of her day a little more palpable, though still unlikely. Without the 15 madrassah students from the class discussion, it is actually 25 witnesses, that gives an average of about 28 minutes per interview (again, if Akiner spent every second interviewing people, which she clearly did not).
Akiner indicates that she spoke with 12 categories of witness (Akiner calls anyone she talked to a ‘witness’) besides madrassah students: madrassah teachers, imams, mahalla committee members, cemetery keepers/ gravediggers, doctors, prisoners, prison staff, bazaar traders, government officials, law enforcement officers, independent human rights activists, one hostage. So her remaining 25 interviewees were presumably divided among these categories (mostly official appointees or state employees with something to lose’notice the absence of anyone who was actually in the square, except for the hostage and perhaps law enforcement officials).
It also appears that at least several of these remaining witnesses were mahalla leaders, as Akiner relies on them for death estimates, citing a range of 3-10 deaths per mahalla (one would hope that she didn’t just ask two mahalla leaders to get this range) this eats into the remaining 25 witnesses with people whose testimony, as just neighborhood leaders, would not be particularly useful.
So really we’re talking about 20-odd interviews that probably lasted 15-20 minutes each after factoring in all of Akiner’s class discussions, inspecting of buildings, measuring public squares and walking around town. This is still an extremely tight interview schedule, which implies that someone was bending over backwards to get her all this face time (and presumably, most interviewees would be going through those who organized the interview and, thus, could be briefed or intimidated beforehand). Additionally, most of these interviews were of people who were either direct state appointees or de facto appointees (mahalla heads and official imams) who have to more or less tow the official line.
So the real question is how did this report get so much attention? For God sakes, an entire lecture tour?!! Akiner herself even admits she is not writing as an academic, but as a layperson.
Oh, and Starr’s assertion in the introduction that HRW was hiding dead bodies in Tashkent is just plain ridiculous. It’s a shame that someone so detatched from reality is allowed to continue to teach. He should be sued for libel.
2. Comment by brian
9/19/2005 @ 10:57 pm
Great deconstruction of events in the report Matt. And as far as having offical/well-connected help to arrange the interviews, I agree something’s amiss. Something I’ve commented on a couple times before is her interview for Uzbek TV, but read the paragraph where she discusses this:
‘My companions on the journey to Andijan were themselves surprised by how greatly the situation there seemed to differ from what they had learnt through the press (these were mainly individuals who had access to foreign media reports). One of them suggested that I give a television interview about my impressions. I thought about this for a while and then agreed to do it, since I strongly believe that important issues such as these need to be debated in an independent, open manner.’
My questions are: Who were her companions? Considering they were ‘mainly individuals with access to foreign media reports’ and were quick to suggest discussing it on Uzbek TV, this makes me suspect that they were Uzbek nationals and perhaps connected to the government or national media. This goes back to what Matt suggested.
Then the obvious question is why would she think interviewing on Uzbek TV would be discussing it in an ‘indpendent, open manner’?
3. Comment by squid123
9/20/2005 @ 12:27 am
Matt W., impressive deconstruction. But an even more damning criticism of her methodology is that she admittedly did her interviews while walking around with government minders. I quote:
‘We stopped where I wanted to stop, talked to whom I wanted to. I asked Uzbek friends to help me. They were present, but not on top of me.’ She added that she felt she had some leeway because she was considered a ‘sympathetic outsider.’ She admitted that she had government cooperation, but distinguished that from sponsorship’
OK, so this lady is walking around with ‘Uzbek friends’ asking strangers, many of whom have had relatives killed or injured, about what happened. Has anyone ever conducted an interview? In Uzbekistan? OK, I’ll tell you. You can’t just walk up to people on the street and expect them to tell you the truth. Much less with a group of (possibly) government goons (or that people would preceive as such). Much less when people are paranoid because their friends were shot and made to disappear last week!!!
Plus, and kudos to Matt for pointing this out, she relies on mahalla leaders for her statistics. Not only unverified, like HRW eyewitness reports, but as government employees, they are the absolute worst type of source imaginable to get accurate information. Those are the people to ask if you want to hear government propaganda’or maybe that IS what she wanted? Plus, she uncritically accepts the government’s explanation of who the insurgents were and their motives.
In short, a farce’a specious piece of spin that the Uzbek government would have paid a lot of money for if it had hired a PR firm.
4. Comment by David
9/20/2005 @ 3:35 am
Wonderful mathematics, and that’s without even taking into account the key to interviewing in Uzbekistan: the plov factor. Nobody who doesn’t know you is really going to tell you anything close to the truth unless you’ve eaten plov with them, so for proper research you have to factor in large amounts of time eating and admiring your host’s rice and meat dishes. When I was young and naive i also thought I could do 8 interviews in a day in the Fergana valley. If I got two that was a good result, and that presumes that you’re with the non-drinking variety of plov eater.
On Akiner’s friends: she says she went to Andijan with Ravshan Alimov. He is a nice guy and has a reputation as relatively independent. But he’s still a government official. He used to be head of the Institute for Strategic Studies, the govt ‘think’tank, and a member of the security council. But last I heard he was apparently lecturing at the SNB academy. So you turn up with a Tashkent official with SNB connections, and expect people to talk freely with you? Its just not serious.”
In fact we now know she was also accompanied by the regional governor ‘ the hokkim of Andijan. Nowhere has anybody taken issue with my assertion that it is ludicrous to conduct interviews about an alleged government massacre, in a situation where local people are obviously going to be traumatised, accompanied by government heavies.
The defence largely runs that she is an innocent academic being picked on by politicos. Innocent, my foot! She was shipped in to the Ferghana Valley, paid for and accompanied by the Uzbek Government, at a time when it was sealed to all other academics, journalists and NGOs. She produced a report which she claims was not intended for publication, but which she then went on a high profile US tour to promote.
Let us look at her history. Akiner claimed that the Uzbek elections last December, from which the five opposition parties were banned, were fair and democratic. Those elections were condemned by the OSCE observer mission, the EU and (sotto voce) the US.
Karimov’s atrocities did not start with Andijan. His political repression is legendary, and the kleptocratic economic system impoverishes his people and drives them to despair. That is widely acknowledged. Akiner has been publishing on Central Asia for years. I am offering a Mars Bar to anyone who can find me, from Akiner’s vast opus, three quotes ‘ just three quotes ‘ which are critical of the Karimov regime.
Akiner’s history is an example of how easy it is to become the expert in an academic field so obscure that few others are studying it. Her pro-Karimov line was very useful to the West for a time, and she received commissions from NATO and from Western governments to produce her work, exaggerating the threat of militant Islam in Central Asia and arguing that only authoritarian government like Karimov’s can fix it. Her work is dull, repetitive and positively tendentious. She appears to believe, for example, that the 1999 Tashkent bombings really were the work of Islamic terrorists linked to the democratic Erk opposition party, as the Uzbek government claims. I don’t know a single person in Uzbekistan, or any serious commentator, who believes this. For all of which the Karimov regime has been most grateful to her. They knew they could rely on her for an unquestioning Andijan whitewash.
Andijan, coming on top of sustained effort by Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, Forum 18 and not least my own campaign team, has led to a much greater media focus on Uzbekistan. Creatures like Akiner, who flourished in the dark, have shrivelled in the light as their lack of rigour and support for tyrants have been exposed to a wider audience.
It is no more academically respectable to justify Karimov than to justify Mussolini. The Royal Institute for International Affairs demeans itself when Akiner can tour and promote her justification of a massacre, billing herself as a Fellow of Chatham House. SOAS ‘ that endearing relic of Empire, stuffed with eccentrics – has been appallingly negligent.