I know what you were thinking: ‘It’s about time for another post about Craig Murray, because we haven’t had enough of those.’ Well you are in luck, because I just read his new book, Murder in Samarkand, and am about to ‘ somewhat reluctantly ‘ share my thoughts on it.
But first I should note that, according to Mr. Murray, there are currently no plans to release the book in the States. Luckily, American readers can buy it on the UK Amazon site, although I wouldn’t recommend it as in-flight reading.
Love Murray or hate him, the book is an interesting read that anyone interested in Central Asia or the War on Terror should be familiar with. If you’ve been living in a cave, Craig Murray is the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan during 2002-2004. He was eventually fired from his post by the Foreign Office, allegedly because of his personal indiscretion, but he argues that he was sacked because of his stance on human rights issues and opposition to the Iraq war. Murder in Samarkand is his side of the story.
For people who have not had the luxury to spend a great deal of time in Uzbekistan, this book is a wonderful way to obtain information one doesn’t necessarily get from academic journals or news reports. Murray relays the rumors and oral history directly from the mouths of people he meets, including torture victims, KGB agents, and government officials. Naturally all of this information must be taken with a grain of salt, but Murray is fairly up front about how he came by the stories he is told.
I was impressed by Murray’s defense of the accusations leveled against him. He often backs up his points with citations referencing websites on which he posts actual classified transcripts he went to pains to obtain, but was not allowed to publish for fear of legal action.
The book is obviously not a comedy, but there are parts that are hysterical. For instance, in one scene Murray repeats word-for-word Karimov’s ‘paranoid’ speech, complete with a translation from BS into English. I have heard others recount these infamous, rehashed speeches, but Murray describes it in particular detail and directly from the horse’s mouth:
[President Karimov] ‘The greatest misfortune in the history of the Uzbek people is what happened in what you call the Great Game. Unforunately, The British were never able to make any progress stowards Central Asia, and their efforts to do so met with some very historic defeats’
Subtext: your country doesn’t really cut that much ice around here.
‘ and so forth.
Finally, Murray is remarkably candid about his personal life. He seems to hold nothing back about his affair, the end of his marriage, nights spent at strip clubs, etc. There is a flip side to this honesty, however, which will be my first point in the next section.
Sometimes it seems that Murray is actually taking pains to come across as a pig. For instance, nearly every female the reader is introduced to ‘ even when an irrelevant character ‘ is presented in sexual terms.
I was shown into his office by three absolutely gorgeous young women, one Italian and two Uzbek, who were a clich’ of office sexiness: white low-buttoned blouses exposing a terrific amount of cleavage, hip-hugging short black skirts with stockings and shiny black high heels.
This is just one such example that leaves the reader wondering about the point of such detail. Because the Foreign Office employed a strategy of attacking Murray’s personal integrity, he seems to pursue a counter-strategy of being so brutally honest that no one would ever presume to dig up dirt on him again. As I noted in the previous section, it is a strategy that does work, but it does make for some jarring reading.
Murray takes a few analytical liberties of dubious veracity. For instance, in the footnotes, Murray draws some level of causality between the cancellation of a microfinance project in Andijan and the massacre several years later. There could of course be some truth to this, but given the few facts we actually know about those events in 2005, this seems a pretty bold claim.
One noticeable literary flaw, if only a minor one, is that he frequently goes into too much detail on irrelevant subjects, especially in the beginning. The reader is simply subjected to a bit too much logistical detail, or observations on people and events that do not turn out to be relevant to the rest of the book. At times I found myself skimming sections that I rightly assumed would have no bearing on the rest of the book.
When he lifted the charred head of the first corpse, the brain had plopped out of the back of the skull, hitting his trousers and then landing on the floor. He had to pick it up and scoop it back into the skull.
A footnote where he describes an accident involving his penis and a broken bottle was also a heavy contender for this distinction. Read the footnotes; I never once regretted flipping to the back of the book.
I think Craig Murray plays a valuable role in promoting human rights and exposing their abuse. When he is criticized, it is generally because people see him stepping outside the boundary of his ‘role.’ For example, as an ambassador he ended up playing the role of an activist (although he does go to great pains to convincingly describe all of the work he did for British business) when he was supposed to be playing that of a politician. Now he is an activist full time, and most of his criticism comes from people expecting him to act like a dispassionate academic, which he is not.
The most aggressive criticism of Murray generally seems to be for his implicit policy recommendations, not for his opposition to torture or the Karimov regime. Following his logic, Murray seems to advocate Uzbekistan’s complete isolation. Because of the nature of the regime, the West should have no dealing with him. I have never heard or read of him making this argument explicitly, but it would not surprise me if he has. This book is not a policy treatise, however, and though he spends a great deal of time writing of the horrors he witnessed while ambassador, the only policy prescription he makes is that the UK should not use intelligence obtained under torture. Therefore, even if you disagree with his politics his book is a valuable primary source; I haven’t yet seen the document exposing any of the stories or facts he reports as fabricated, which would render this text useless (aside from the fact-checking errors Nick pointed out and a few analytical liberties that I noted).
Should Murray have spoken out? I think so. Whistleblowers are essential to an open democracy, and the public has a right to know what the government is up to. Should he have been fired by the Foreign Office? Probably. He wasn’t an elected official, and those who are have a right to appoint team players. But they should have been upfront and fired him for his political views, not through a smear campaign. The strategy they pursued to get rid of him illustrates their own discomfort with the policy, or at least fear of the public’s discomfort with it.