Uzbeks: “We are not afraid”

My latest for Foreign Policy is on a group of Uzbeks who are using social media to fight back against a ruthless regime:

“Today the main disease of Uzbek society is fear,” says Kudrat Bobojonov, an Uzbekistani 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.

Read the full article, ‘We Are Not Afraid’, at Foreign Policy

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