Friday, 17 June 2011

Central Asia: The Discourse of Danger

That's the title of an excellent new piece by the academcs John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran at OpenDemocracy, building on a paper they recently wrote for Chatham House's International Affairs journal (which I missed until now - the Chatham House site is down at the time of writing).

In their OpenDemocracy article Heathershaw and Megoran lucidly outline the distorted, fragmentary understanding - or lack of it - among Western policymakers towards Central Asia.

The authors observe that Central Asia is usually portrayed in popular culture as a distant, 'Oriental' land of ethnic strife and Islamist conflict, and that this matters far beyond the pop-culture field. These distorted perceptions fiter through to policy analysts and journalists, and from there to the governments which are responsible for formulating policy towards Central Asia. This seriously shapes policymaking towards Central Asia, leading to exaggeration of imagined dangers and ignorance or marginalisation of the real problems.

As a solution Heathershaw and Megoran call for the academic and policy communities to "abandon our easy resort to caricatures and break our addiction to the discourse of danger", and suggest greater government funding for area studies and a greater willingness by scholars to bring their work to a wider audience.

The article is a very impressive correction to the wave of cliche and sloppy writing which pervades regional  analysis. Lazy articles about a 'new Great Game' or an 'arc of instability' are not just bad assessments. When they shape the views of governments, most of whom have little knowledge of the region, they can encourage policymaking which is misinformed at best and outright dangerous at worst 

If more people thought like Heathershaw and Megoran, the debate on the region would be a lot more sensible and a lot more focused on facing real issues.

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