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In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory
, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America.
This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
and morality.

Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.

The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.

Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.

Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
îles flottantes."

The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
spirits?

Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.

But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.

Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad
in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.

Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria
in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude
, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
his opinions.

All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.

These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:

A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.

This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Latino.

Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.

There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:

race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.

So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory
the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times
, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
intervening years.

At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"

Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time
it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying
"any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the
operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."
Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or
organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but
not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on
government forms."

Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to
protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an
act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from
being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories
from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities.
"Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its
contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for
only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell"
stance of racial revelation.

In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions
that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely
upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large,
there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy
Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to
collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that
police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial
privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."

Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical
research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of
data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public
health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable
exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much
of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall
not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any
individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten
years after the effective date of this measure."

In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from
being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all.
If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued
by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of
public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In
such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American
women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than
other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools
were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students
into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other
patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census
data.

With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling
such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would
have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or
upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no
doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks
like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, this initiative is not about "privacy" as most laypeople think
of it. It is actually about privatizing racially based behavior. And
privatized racism has been a dream of the far right since the first
whites-only private schools sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board
of Education
. Segregation is "private choice," a "social" problem,
not a legal one, according to this logic. You can't force people to love
you. Suing over discrimination is victimology. As long as the government
doesn't force you to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a
separate school, then that is the limit of equal opportunity.

Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public
sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating
Jim Crow laws. (Indeed, many California voters seem as confused about
the meaning of the initiative as they were about Prop 209, which sounded
to many as though it would lead to more inclusion rather than less.) In
fact, however, "racial privacy" accomplishes little more than
institutionalizing an official stance of denial and, in the process,
eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms. Californians
may as well put those three little moral idiots, Hear-no-evil,
See-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, in charge of remediation for
discrimination.

In what has been one of the most effective manuevers of the right in
recent years, defenders of the initiative have co-opted a good deal of
the vocabulary of the civil rights community in a blizzard of
definitional inversions. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will
keep the state from "profiling" its citizens. If one accepts that to
most Americans "profiling" connotes the unethical use of data to
discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the
neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading. By the
same token, the name of Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights
Coalition, would seem to imply a greater measure of protection for civil
rights rather than lesser. I do worry that such studied reversals of
terms will come to overtake the discourse as much as the term "quota"
has displaced any public understanding of the actual meaning of
affirmative action.

The publicly collected statistics we take for granted today show
undisputed racial and ethnic disparities in every realm of American
life. Any proposition that this gap is either not worth documenting--or,
even more insidiously, is aggravated by the gathering of such
knowledge--consigns us to a world in which "intelligence" is the
exclusive preserve of unrestrained police surveillance. The collective
ignorance with which we will be left will quite literally keep us from
ever speaking truth to power.

Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the
earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded
in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important
to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino
playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had
come to be California Chicanos.

So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its
secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory
stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of
the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some
ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a
decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San
Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational
elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a
Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines
identity for the play.

Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm
of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where
he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in
actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at
work sites and in union halls.

But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made
Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s,
that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching
all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual
and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.

Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's
materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the
1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential
of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into
commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's
response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the
mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that
prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it
was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that
aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part
of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and
self-destructive.

Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly
to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast
Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also
an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make
about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get
Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the
movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or
drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.

Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making
headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing
Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan
Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing
in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as
far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet
escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way
from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.

The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the
most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters
excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed
that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican
revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden
release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't
work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and
expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his
writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't
jettisoned the past.

In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily
cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be
petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an
ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce,
84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from
abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as
cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for
sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at
Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to
pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story
and the family's history.

Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and
migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't,
however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and
inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui
genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped
four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European
colonization.

In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're
presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away
and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and
uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass
slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the
mainstream.)

Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it
reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a
kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when
Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little
sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by
saying simply, "We were always very close."

To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially,
either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though
they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes
them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures
of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that
works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past,
but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the
weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot
mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.

It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way
from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to
Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's
also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters
played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very
high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously
change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the
flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it
vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful
woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that
sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's
mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).

Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated,
there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly
the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified
fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take
in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his
continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually
evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally
confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and
keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is
dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent
and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her
granddaughter, Armida.

On May 2 the Senate, in a vote of 94 to 2, and the House, 352 to 21,
expressed unqualified support for Israel in its recent military actions
against the Palestinians. The resolutions were so strong that the Bush
Administration--hardly a slouch when it comes to supporting
Israel--attempted to soften its language so as to have more room in
getting peace talks going. But its pleas were rejected, and members of
Congress from Joe Lieberman to Tom DeLay competed to heap praise on
Ariel Sharon and disdain on Yasir Arafat. Reporting on the vote, the
New York Times noted that one of the few dissenters, Senator
Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, "suggested that many senators were
after campaign contributions."

Aside from that brief reference, however, the Times made no
mention of the role that money, or lobbying in general, may have played
in the lopsided vote. More specifically, the Times made no
mention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's a
remarkable oversight. AIPAC is widely regarded as the most powerful
foreign-policy lobby in Washington. Its 60,000 members shower millions
of dollars on hundreds of members of Congress on both sides of the
aisle. It also maintains a network of wealthy and influential citizens
around the country, whom it can regularly mobilize to support its main
goal, which is making sure there is "no daylight" between the policies
of Israel and of the United States.

So, when Congress votes so decisively in support of Israel, it's no
accident. Yet, surveying US newspaper coverage of the Middle East in
recent months, I found next to nothing about AIPAC and its influence.
The one account of any substance appeared in the Washington Post,
in late April. Reporting on AIPAC's annual conference, correspondent
Mike Allen noted that the attendees included half the Senate, ninety
members of the House and thirteen senior Administration officials,
including White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who drew a standing
ovation when he declared in Hebrew, "The people of Israel live." Showing
its "clout," Allen wrote, AIPAC held "a lively roll call of the hundreds
of dignitaries, with individual cheers for each." Even this article,
however, failed to probe beneath the surface and examine the lobbying
and fundraising techniques AIPAC uses to lock up support in Congress.

AIPAC is not the only pro-Israel organization to escape scrutiny. The
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though
little known to the general public, has tremendous influence in
Washington, especially with the executive branch. Based in New York, the
conference is supposed to give voice to the fifty-two Jewish
organizations that sit on its board, but in reality it tends to reflect
the views of its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein. Hoenlein has
long had close ties to Israel's Likud Party. In the 1990s he helped
raise money for settlers' groups on the West Bank, and today he
regularly refers to that region as "Judea and Samaria," a biblically
inspired catch phrase used by conservatives to justify the presence of
Jewish settlers there. A skilled and articulate operative, Hoenlein uses
his access to the State Department, Pentagon and National Security
Council to push for a strong Israel. He's so effective at it that the
Jewish newspaper the Forward, in its annual list of the fifty
most important American Jews, has ranked Hoenlein first.

Hoenlein showed his organizing skills in April, when he helped convene
the large pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill. While the event itself was
widely covered, Hoenlein, and the conference, remained invisible. An
informal survey of recent coverage turned up not a single in-depth piece
about Hoenlein and how he has used the Presidents Conference to keep the
Bush Administration from putting too much pressure on the Sharon
government.

Why the blackout? For one thing, reporting on these groups is not easy.
AIPAC's power makes potential sources reluctant to discuss the
organization on the record, and employees who leave it usually sign
pledges of silence. AIPAC officials themselves rarely give interviews,
and the organization even resists divulging its board of directors.
Journalists, meanwhile, are often loath to write about the influence of
organized Jewry. Throughout the Arab world, the "Jewish lobby" is seen
as the root of all evil in the Middle East, and many reporters and
editors--especially Jewish ones--worry about feeding such stereotypes.

In the end, though, the main obstacle to covering these groups is fear.
Jewish organizations are quick to detect bias in the coverage of the
Middle East, and quick to complain about it. That's especially true of
late. As the Forward observed in late April, "rooting out
perceived anti-Israel bias in the media has become for many American
Jews the most direct and emotional outlet for connecting with the
conflict 6,000 miles away." Recently, an estimated 1,000 subscribers to
the Los Angeles Times suspended home delivery for a day to
protest what they considered the paper's pro-Palestinian coverage. The
Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the
Philadelphia Inquirer
and the Miami Herald have all been hit
by similar protests, and NPR has received thousands of e-mails
complaining about its reports from the Middle East.

Do such protests have an effect? Consider the recent experience of the
New York Times. On May 6 the paper ran two photographs of a
pro-Israel parade in Manhattan. Both showed the parade in the background
and anti-Israel protesters prominently in the foreground. The paper,
which for weeks has been threatened with a boycott by Jewish readers,
was deluged with protests. On May 7 the Times ran an abject
apology. That caused much consternation in the newsroom, with some
reporters and editors feeling that the paper had buckled before an
influential constituency. "It's very intimidating," said a correspondent
at another large daily who is familiar with the incident. Newspapers, he
added, are "afraid" of organizations like AIPAC and the Presidents
Conference. "The pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would
just as soon not touch them."

Needless to say, US support for Israel is the product of many
factors--Israel's status as the sole democracy in the Middle East, its
value as a US strategic ally and widespread horror over Palestinian
suicide bombers. But the power of the pro-Israel lobby is an important
element as well. Indeed, it's impossible to understand the Bush
Administration's tender treatment of the Sharon government without
taking into account the influence of groups like AIPAC. Isn't it time
they were exposed to the daylight?

Right in the wake of House majority leader Dick Armey's explicit call
for several million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and
East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest
articles accusing a vague entity called "the left" of anti-Semitism.

This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as
an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University
of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox's
contribution "The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and
anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel's
critics."

Over the past twenty years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring
just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number
of articles accusing "the left" of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt
varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think
well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein, who wrote that "it
is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Mr. Sharon
that the fight against it must be reclaimed." Is Klein saying the global
justice movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don't
think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be
prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?

If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the
supposed silence of the left about anti-Semitism demonstrate their own
good faith by denouncing Israel's behavior toward Palestinians? Klein
did, but most don't. In a recent column in the New York Times
Frank Rich managed to write an entire column purportedly about Jewish
overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even fleeting
reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis to reports
presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found
time for abuse of the "inexcusable" Arafat. Isn't Sharon "inexcusable"
in Rich's book?

So the left gets the rotten eggs, and those tossing the eggs mostly
don't feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose
obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land,
oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and
in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or
Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the
third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).

Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon: "'Let's move back,'
my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: 'Israel Is a Terrorist
State!' We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion
into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to
wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel
sign." Inference by Fox: The banner is grotesque, presumptively
anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the
Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and
anyway, even if it wasn't, the description would not per se be evidence
of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner had read "All Jews Are Terrorists"
would Fox have a point.

Of course, the rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the State of
Israel" with "Jews" and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to
criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many
of Israel's most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the
cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don't like
hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don't like reading
articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like
Fox will rush into print denouncing those who "toy with the old
anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press." These days you
can't even say that the New York Times is owned by a Jewish
family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels's shoes. I
even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the
Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a
funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood
, by Neal Gabler.

So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those
charges of anti-Semitism) that even after Congress recently voted
full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators
and twenty-one reps voting against (I don't count the chickenshit
twenty-nine who voted "present"), you could scarcely find a mainstream
paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of
AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian right and the
military industry, which profits enormously from military aid to Israel,
since Congress has stipulated that 75 percent of such supplies must be
bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Poverty
Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to
march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the
United States, and almost none that I've ever been able to detect on the
American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating
Jews. It's comical to find the left's assailants trudging all the way
back to LeRoi Jones and the 1960s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic
gibes. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough
criticism of Israel's ghastly conduct toward Palestinians, which in its
present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic
cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.

So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks
(which the White House declared he hadn't made) instead of trying to
change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It's not
anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy that, according to
recent polls, almost half of Israelis now heartily endorse. In this
instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who
accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for policies
put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an
unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.

Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
California.

In anticipation of the Second Coming, evangelicals leap to Israel's
defense.

Extreme Solution I: Priests

The old movies used to feature a priest walking alongside the condemned
man toward the scaffold, offering last seconds of comfort,
plea-bargaining strategies with St. Peter, a bolstering hand under the
elbow. Sometime in the next decade the tableau may be reversed, with a
lay counselor assisting the condemned priest as he totters toward that
final rendezvous with the executioner.

The death penalty is being vigorously touted as the best way to deal
with child molesters. And as the world knows, the Roman Catholic Church
has sheltered many a child molester. On the cutting edge here are three
states noted for the moral refinement of their legislators: to wit,
Montana, Louisiana and Alabama. The first two states have already put
Death for Molesters into their statute books, and when Alabama lawmakers
convene again next year they will press forward into legislation, after
an overwhelming vote from the state's House of Representatives last year
in favor of molester executions.

The Montana law allows a person previously convicted of "sexual
intercourse without consent" with someone under 16 in any state to be
sentenced to death if convicted of the crime in Montana. The law was
passed in 1997, but no one has yet been charged under that provision.
Since 1995 Louisiana has had a law allowing the death penalty for people
convicted of raping a child under 12. Thus far, a few charges, no
convictions.

Alabama's bill would authorize the death penalty for people convicted a
second time of having sex with someone under 12. No other states allow
capital punishment for a sex crime. ABC News quoted Marcel Black,
chairman of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, as saying, "The very
serious meaning of this is to send a message to child molesters that it
is a bad thing to do."

Molesters can take comfort in the fact that these laws will probably not
survive challenges from higher courts. The US Supreme Court ruled in
1977 that the death penalty is excessive punishment for rape. But who
knows, in the current atmosphere anything is possible. Maybe that's why
Pope John Paul II, a far-seeing man, shifted the Church toward
opposition to the death penalty.

Extreme Solution II: Palestinians

Two years ago fewer than 8 percent of those who took part in a Gallup
poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favor of what is politely
called "transfer"--that is, the expulsion of perhaps 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan River. This month that figure reached 44
percent.

Professor Martin van Creveld is one of Israel's best-known military
historians. On April 28 Britain's conservative newspaper the Telegraph
published an article outlining what van Creveld believes is Sharon's
near-term goal--expulsion.

According to van Creveld, Sharon's plan is to drive 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan using the pretext of a US attack on Iraq
or a terrorist strike in Israel. This could trigger a vast mobilization
to clear the occupied territories of Arabs. Van Creveld notes that in
the 1970 showdown between Jordan's King Hussein and the PLO, Sharon,
serving as commanding officer of Israel's southern front, argued that
Israel's assistance to the King was a mistake; instead it should have
tried to topple the Hashemite regime. Sharon has often said since that
Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority even now, is the Palestinian
state, and thus a suitable destination for Palestinians to be kicked out
of his Greater Israel.

A US attack on Iraq would offer appropriate cover. Sharon himself told
Secretary of State Colin Powell that nothing happening in Israel should
delay a US attack. Other pretexts could include an uprising in Jordan,
followed by the collapse of King Abdullah's regime.

Should such circumstances arise, according to van Creveld, Israel would
mobilize within hours. "First, the country's three ultra-modern
submarines would take up firing positions out at sea. Borders would be
closed, a news blackout imposed, and all foreign journalists rounded up
and confined to a hotel as guests of the Government. A force of 12
divisions, 11 of them armoured, plus various territorial units suitable
for occupation duties, would be deployed: five against Egypt, three
against Syria, and one opposite Lebanon. This would leave three to face
east as well as enough forces to put a tank inside every Arab-Israeli
village just in case their populations get any funny ideas."

In van Creveld's view (he does say that he is utterly opposed to any
form of "transfer"), "the expulsion of the Palestinians would require
only a few brigades. They would not drag people out of their houses but
use heavy artillery to drive them out; the damage caused to Jenin would
look like a pinprick in comparison." He discounts any effective response
from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.

But what about international reaction? Van Creveld thinks it would not
be an effective deterrent. "If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only
country that can stop him is the United States. The US, however, regards
itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have
supported Osama bin Laden. America will not necessarily object to that
world being taught a lesson--particularly if it could be as swift and
brutal as the 1967 campaign; and also particularly if it does not
disrupt the flow of oil for too long.

"Israeli military experts estimate that such a war could be over in just
eight days," van Creveld writes. "If the Arab states do not intervene,
it will end with the Palestinians expelled and Jordan in ruins. If they
do intervene, the result will be the same, with the main Arab armies
destroyed. Israel would, of course, take some casualties, especially in
the north, where its population would come under fire from Hizbollah.
However, their number would be limited and Israel would stand
triumphant, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973."

We've been warned.

It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps
of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of
Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously
smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep
furrows and strained by even

deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely
around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were
keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden
religious group. Although Muminov's job as a builder prevented him from
attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to
find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali's
sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.

When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a
rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road
beside the city's Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first
floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek
President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights.
The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by
the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young
convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere
of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly
patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this
case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and
renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime's harsh
crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually
unforgiving Uzbek justice system might--just this once--tilt toward
leniency.

It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for
participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls "the most
popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan." The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because
of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir,
which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and
Jordan in 1953, foresee "a moment when millions of its supporters will
simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments--particularly
the Karimov regime--by sheer force of numbers." In place of the region's
various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single
Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to
western China and beyond. It's a threat that the local autocracies, as
well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb
ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the
region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly
concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid
argues: "The fear is that young [members]... may soon ignore their
elders' advice and turn to guerrilla warfare."

That fear may be somewhat hasty. But for the government in Tashkent, it
has been amplified by the activities of a much more militant insurgency
known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose leaders made
just such a transformation from nonviolence roughly ten years ago. Since
1998, when the IMU officially came into being, it has clashed with the
government forces of three states, engaged in kidnappings and the drug
trade, and engendered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility among the
region's strongmen. The movement's leadership has established close
links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and even moved the IMU
headquarters to northern Afghanistan when the more welcoming Taliban
regime was in power. Uzbek President Karimov blames the IMU, among other
opposition groups, for detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in
February 1999. The explosions killed thirteen people, injured more than
a hundred and touched off the latest and harshest in a series of
government campaigns against independent religious expression and
political dissent. Following the bombings, Karimov announced that even
the fathers of sons who participated in IMU activities would be
arrested. "If my child chose such a path," he said, "I myself would rip
off his head."

However, again and again, Rashid rightly argues in Jihad: The Rise of
Militant Islam in Central Asia
that the growing popular support for
groups like the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely a response to the
corrupt Karimov government's inability to bring even a modicum of
economic prosperity or democracy to Uzbekistan, the region's natural
axis of power. Central Asia has known harsh leadership and violent
upheaval before. Prior to the Soviets there were the czars, and prior to
the czars there were the local khans, who ruled brutally. However, when
the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan fell into independence following the collapse of Communism,
they not only experienced a crisis of national identity (none had ever
existed before as an independent state), they also joined a more
integrated world, where political and economic expectations for open and
fair governance are arguably higher than they have ever been. All this,
at a moment of religious reawakening across the region.

In this context, Central Asia's radical Islamic movements were very much
forged in a modern political pressure cooker. "In a series of crackdowns
in 1992, 1993, and after 1997, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary
pious Muslims for alleged links with Islamic fundamentalists, accusing
them of being Wahhabis"--converts to the strict brand of Islam embraced
by the Taliban--"closing down mosques and madrassahs, and forcing
mullahs into jail or exile," Rashid writes. "The result of these
repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared:
extremist Islamic militancy."

A visit to Uzbek courts is a good way to see this machinery in motion:
the steady spinning of the gears that wind moderate Muslims into
radicals. Here too, the display is one of the precarious fragility of
Uzbekistan's current order, and I can think of no better corollary to
Rashid's careful descriptions of a region approaching the edge of chaos
than the observations of Bill Berkeley, a journalist who has spent
numerous years reporting from Africa. "Many suppose that tyranny and
anarchy are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum," Berkeley has
written. "But often they are side by side on what might better be
described as a circle: the one is a product of the other, and vice
versa." For a number of Central Asian states, that circle has been
getting tighter and tighter over the past decade, and the ouster of the
Taliban regime from Afghanistan has done little to prevent it from
shrinking toward its explosive focal point.

The anarchy of tyranny is starkly evident in a place like the Akmal
Ikramov District Court. After Gairam Muminov and the other families had
waited for several hours, frustration and impatience set in. A few
splintered off to find a bailiff or clerk, but no one was able to find
out when, exactly, the sentencing was to occur. An Uzbek journalist
waiting with me explained: "The authorities do this on purpose. They
want to wear people down; they are counting on people like you and me to
get tired, hungry. Maybe we will have to leave for business or lunch,
and then suddenly the doors will open and court begins. This way they
can say they are being open but attract the minimum amount of
attention." However, at 3 pm, when Judge Nizom Rustamov, a stout and
smug man in a shiny sharkskin suit, finally ambled up the courthouse
steps, a slightly different picture emerged--that of the unaccountable
bureaucrat who probably decided against rushing to work simply because
he could. Matilda Bogner, Uzbekistan's Human Rights Watch
representative, described the judge this way: "Rustamov is known to have
sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home
because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of
explosives."

Such capricious power infests Uzbekistan's neighboring governments as
well. As the Soviet Union began to implode, none of the five Central
Asian republics rushed to embrace independence, democracy or economic
reform. Indeed, leaderships in a number of the republics actively
plotted to stymie the demise of the Communist system, however rotted,
because it had been nourishing them so well. As Rashid demonstrates,
this reluctance to break away was to a large degree ironic, given the
region's vast reserves of natural resources--primarily in oil, gas and
minerals--and its potential for prosperity (not to mention the potential
to funnel that prosperity into the hands of local elites). Moreover, as
he points out, "the Soviet policies of closed borders, forced cotton
agriculture, farm collectivization, population relocation and--most
significant--Stalin's redrawing of the map of Central Asia to create
five incongruous states had left the region economically hard-pressed,
[and] ethnically and politically divided."

Ten years on, much of Central Asia remains mired in its Soviet
inheritances: petty and sometimes not-so-petty corruption are a part of
everyday life; news is censored, often heavily; dissidents are
imprisoned, exiled or caused to disappear; resources are squandered;
environmental damage continues unabated. Yet, as the region remains
politically and in many ways economically stagnant, it is experiencing a
demographic surge. "The population gets younger," Rashid notes. "More
than 60 percent of the region's 50 million people are under the age of
25. This new generation is unemployed, poorly educated, and hungry--how
long will it continue to tolerate the decline in living standards and
the lack of rudimentary freedoms?"

There is no easy answer to this question. And Rashid is shrewd enough to
avoid offering one. Just as he is sensitive to the dangers that could
well belong to the region's future, he shows with great nuance that
important differences among the five republics have already led to a
diversity of outcomes. Turkmenistan, for instance, is now ruled by a
bizarre hermit-dictator who had himself decreed President for Life, a
position he plans to hold until 2010, when he intends to retire.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, the only country of the five not to become an
immediate heir to its Soviet-era leader, has shown a promising
willingness to reform, even if that willingness has waned over the past
several years. However, if these two countries sit at the region's
political poles, the most intriguing case among them may be Tajikistan,
which in Rashid's eyes serves as both a warning and a potential model
for its neighbors.

Not long after the Soviet collapse, mountainous Tajikistan fell into a
five-year civil war that appeared to mirror the conditions in
neighboring Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1997 the multiparty conflict,
which primarily cut across clan lines but also included Islamic rebels,
democrats and former Communist bosses as the main combatants, claimed
the lives of more than 50,000 people and forced roughly 750,000 people
from their homes. In Rashid's view, the primary engine of that conflict
was the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP--Central Asia's first popular
Muslim fundamentalist movement--which led a unified band of rebel groups
from headquarters based in Afghanistan and Russia. The fighting might
have ground on indefinitely (or remained frozen in stalemate), but in
1996 "the regional equation changed dramatically when the Taliban
captured Kabul," says Rashid. Fear that the Taliban regime would project
its influence into Afghanistan's post-Soviet neighbors pushed the rest
of Central Asia and Russia to force the Tajik government into making the
necessary concessions for peace. A year later, the parties signed an
agreement that legitimized the IRP and brought it into Tajikistan's new
coalition government.

The complexity of Tajikistan's civil war makes it difficult to summarize
neatly, and perhaps for this reason, coupled with its remoteness, it
received scant attention in the West. For Rashid, though, the outcome is
one that must not be ignored, not only because the peace agreement held
the country together over subsequent years but also because the radical
IRP has seen a dramatic loss in popular support since its inclusion in
government. "In many ways," Rashid argues, "Tajikistan is the key to
peace and stability in Central Asia--something the international
community must recognize, and soon." The logic being: Bringing
fundamentalist Islamic groups into the light rather than driving them
underground is the best way to show that their platforms are unworkable
and at odds with the region's traditionally moderate religious
sentiments.

This may be true, but Tajikistan's civil war is an unlikely example to
prove it, primarily because the conflict was largely one of regionally
based clans vying for political and economic power. Although radical
Islam colored the conflict, it was by no means the driving force. The
coalition government, if anything, was a joining of competing warlords
dressed in various ideologies and beliefs rather than a bridging of
deeply held convictions on secular and Islamic fundamentalist
state-building. This difference must be obvious to Rashid, who awkwardly
suggests the coalition government is an instance of the latter while
acknowledging the former, sometimes in dramatically confusing ways. At
one point, he writes that Soviet "collectivization...had fragmented the
clan structure.... Thus, many Tajiks saw the Islamic revival as a means
to cement a Tajik identity and ensure Tajikistan's development as a
unified state." Then, later, he writes that "most Tajiks identified with
their regions and clans rather than with their country." And later
again: "The civil war had quickly become a battle between clans rather
than an Islamic jihad." This last statement is by far the more realistic
and complete assessment--one echoed by Central Asia scholar Martha Brill
Olcott, who has argued that the "larger issues contested in Tajikistan's
civil war were clearly those of economic and political control."

In fact, the weakness of the government--its inability to protect
Tajikistan's borders and control its rugged territory--has made the
country an ideal base for the region's most extreme militants and best
organized drug traders (often one and the same). Today, roughly 70
percent of the world's heroin funnels through Tajikistan from
Afghanistan, and since the early 1990s Tajikistan's Tavildara Valley has
been an important training area for the IMU's charismatic military
leader Jumaboi Khojaev, a former Soviet paratrooper who later assumed
the name Juma Namangani after his hometown, Namangan, Uzbekistan. The
kind of detailed portrait Rashid has sketched of Namangani, who was
recently reported killed alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban units during the
latest war in Afghanistan, is unparalleled. This is where Rashid is at
his best, especially when he shows how the secretive Central Asian rebel
makes unusual company with Osama bin Laden, despite their close ties.
During one of Rashid's many exclusive interviews in the region, a former
Namangani compatriot explained how the notorious rebel was "shaped by
his own military and political experiences rather than Islamic ideology,
but he hates the Uzbek government--that is what motivates him above all.
In a way, he is a leader by default because no other leader is willing
to take such risks to oppose Karimov."

This in many ways appears to be a capsule characterization of militant
Islam in Central Asia, where religious extremism is primarily harnessed
to the cause of political and military aims, whether in internecine clan
warfare, in insurgencies acting against repression or in the meddling of
outside empires. As readers of the great historian Peter Hopkirk might
recognize, Namangani's pragmatism situates him in a long-running Central
Asian tradition in which strategic objectives rather than fundamentalist
religious ones ultimately lie behind the call to jihad. It was a move
even the Soviets tried. In 1920 Grigori Zinoviev, a close associate of
Lenin, called the Muslims of Central Asia to battle at a weeklong rally
in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Brothers," Zinoviev boomed to a wildly fervent
crowd brandishing swords and revolvers, "we summon you to a holy war, in
the first place against English imperialism!" This display fell in with
a briefly held plan Moscow had at the time: fomenting a chain of
uprisings and establishing an "Army of God" that would penetrate India
through Afghanistan and trigger enough Muslim unrest there to subvert
Britain's hold over South Asia. However, as Hopkirk notes in Setting
the East Ablaze
(and as the United States learned painfully after
aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s), cultivating pan-Islam
"could be double-edged." Religious and nationalist sentiments could just
as easily flow against Moscow. The Basmachis, Central Asia's homegrown
mujahedeen, resisted Soviet power for more than a decade after the
Russian Revolution--and with a good deal of support from the British,
who slipped them caravans of arms and munitions from India.

Today, although the spirit of jihad has largely been unhinged from the
machinations of outside empires intent on controlling the region, its
proponents see themselves very much as bearers of the Basmachi
tradition, as Rashid demonstrates. But his book is also instructive in
pointing out differences between the region's Islamic groups of then and
now. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing popularity suggests that outside
influences of a very different kind are leaking into Central Asia.
(Along with the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents subscribe to the strict
Wahhabist brand of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia, rather than
the more indigenous Sufism, which tends toward mysticism rather than
millenarianism.) This time it's happening at the grassroots--and feeding
off the criminality of local regimes.

There is probably no way to know whether Gairam Muminov's son,
Abdulvali, was truly a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir or was simply caught
praying in the wrong place, or listening to the wrong person, or
carrying the wrong leaflet. I'm sure even his lawyer doesn't know. When
one of the accused suggested that they had been tortured to confess (to
"anti-constitutional crimes"), Judge Rustamov would not hear of it. The
next day, I watched Muminov's hands shoot up to his face when Rustamov
sentenced his son to ten years of imprisonment. And as the father slowly
drew his shaky fingers away, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned blank.
I wondered: Earlier, this man shrugged off my criticisms of Uzbekistan's
ironfisted approach to dissent, saying he had all the freedom in the
world--limitless choices in the marketplace, among whichever apples and
oranges he desired. Was that still good enough for him?

That is a question the United States must begin asking if it intends to
become more active in fostering stability in the region. Rashid's
book--which follows his bestseller, Taliban--was rushed to
publication after September 11, so it is understandably short on
evaluating current US Central Asia policy. But it is the first good,
hard look at the region's Islamic movements and deserves the attention
of policymakers and interested everyday readers alike. The careful
consideration Rashid has given the grassroots causes that set these
insurgencies into motion will keep this book relevant for a long time to
come. As Rashid argues: "The Clinton administration policy of helping
Central Asia's repressive governments combat terrorism whilst mildly
lecturing them on their human-rights violations did not constitute a
strategic vision for the region." It still doesn't. Under the George W.
Bush Administration, military and economic aid to the region has
increased; so too, it seems, has the repression.

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