What is it with Islam and dictatorships? I sometimes wonder if it’s some kind of test Allah has set for his followers to endure to prove that they are truly worthy of paradise. I don’t expect paradise for myself in this world but I can’t quite grasp why so many other lovely people would need to be subjected to a lifetime of tyranny to qualify for it in the next one. At this rate my odds for the next one aren’t looking that favourable at the moment. It’s not as if the religion itself supports such tyrants as most of them are about as committed to the religion as they are to human rights. The Quran, in Sura 42:38, concerning the traits of believers says, “their affairs are decided after due consultation among themselves”. If there is one thing you can’t accuse dictators of it’s due consultation, even Hasan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly an institution based on pro western sentiment, was in favour of parliamentary democracy (a pity his most recent successor in Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi, in his brief term had no apparent understanding of its basic concepts, beyond elections and neither for that matter have the current administration as well).
The sad fact is that the majority of Muslim countries, if not ruled by dictators have dysfunctional, corrupt, authoritarian governments, even Turkey one of the shining lights of Islamic democracy is descending into a despotic hissy fit because some people had the audacity to say what they actually thought of the President on Twitter. Much of the blame for the installation of these dictators can be put down to failings in post colonial handovers, particularly with the USSR where former Communist Party leaders, with their retinue of corrupt class mates became the de facto presidents of the newly formed independent states. President Niyazov of Turkmenistan being a fine example.
I was deeply saddened to hear of his death of a heart attack in 2006, not because I had a sneaking sympathy for his totalitarian rule but because the inconsiderate old git had kicked the bucket before I could witness at first hand the rule of the World’s Number 1, out-and-out fruitcake of a personality cult dictatorship. This was a man who made the Kims of North Korea look as irrational as a maths seminar. To have a hope of understanding the country today you need to have an understanding of him and his legacy. The most important thing about his rule was undoubtedly himself, with an ego that knew no bounds. He named himself Turkmenbashi, meaning Father of all Turkmen and wrote the national anthem claiming Turkmenistan as, “The great creation of Turkmenbashi”. He declared himself President for Life and designated himself as Saparmurat Niyazov The Great, which would be fine for an American wrestler or someone who had at least conquered a few militarily significant countries but given that about the only sensible decision he ever made was to declare a Swiss style neutrality there wasn’t much chance of that happening. It was this policy of avoiding the ludicrous military posturing of North Korea that kept his demented rule out of major international news headlines, which was just how he liked it, so he could get on with telling the rest of his country exactly what to do.
In order to facilitate this he wrote the Ruhnama, a book of his “great” wisdom and declared it a holy book and required reading in all schools. In what was probably the only incidence of anyone disagreeing with him, who didn’t go immediately to prison, the religious authorities did have to politely suggest that maybe his wish to place the book next to the Quran in all mosques might just contravene some central tenets of the faith. He claimed he had made a deal with God that anyone who read it three times would go to heaven.
I managed to get hold of an English copy of volume 2 of this masterpiece (an online version of volume 1 is available at http://intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/eBooks/Asia/BOOKS/Ruhnama%20Niyozov.pdf should you be so inspired) and the most apparent feature was that no one was going to risk their life by suggesting some discrete editorial work may be necessary. Although amongst the rambling nonsense there was the occasional snippet of common sense, such as the importance of teaching science in schools, or homely wisdom that your grandparents may have passed on, much was about alleged Turkmen history and tradition to justify his own position. An obsession with fatherland and nation (overtones of Hitler surely!) and traditions of serving the Khan in the good old days were used to disguise the demand of unquestioning loyalty to himself. An obsession with manners sees the word appear on virtually every other page and whole chapters are devoted to Manners for the Young, for example. His hypocrisy knew no bounds with statements such as : “Turkmen traditions are a democratic system of rules” and he criticized fame and status as it, ” leads to attacking other people’s rights by using power”. At time his grasp of history was less than tenuous to say the least, where just about any figure from Central Asian history could be described as Turkmen if it suited his purposes. He claimed that’ “Turkmen with their bravery and heroism saved Islam, if it were not for Turkemen, today the Arabs would have no religion, no language, nor would they be able to exist. The academic, historical terminology for this is, utter bollocks.
You only need to look at the list of things he banned to get an idea of the level of random idiocy his rule characterised: gold teeth; long hair; beards; opera; circus; ballet; listening to music in cars; miming on televised musical performances (actually I could go along with that one but the rule has obviously been repealed by the new administration judging by the synthetic folkloric displays on tv celebrating national pride), all hospitals and libraries outside the capital; all dogs in the capital and make up on tv presenters. I could offer his reasoning for all of these for you but in reality there was only one: he was a complete nutter.
The most apparent manifestation of his ego are undoubtedly the gold statues which can be found in most large towns and reached a pinnacle in the capital, Ashgabat, with one 12m tall in gold plate that turned to constantly face the sun, atop a 75m three-legged tower, costing a mere $12 million. Alas since removed to make way for a new development. If this were not enough he changed the names of the months to those of himself and family members. He even had plans for an ice palace out in the open desert, which one can only assume were scuppered by the minor logistical issue of restraining vast quantity of frozen water from reclaiming its liquid identity in the scorching 50C summer heat.
Of course after a performance like that there was little that his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow could do to match it so he has gone down the more acceptable, dictatorial route of just having large photo-shopped images of himself displayed everywhere, as well as repealing some of the more absurd pieces of his predecessor’s legislation. His literary aspirations have so far stuck to more modest subject matters, such as horses but there is talk of a possible tome espousing his thoughts, so future entertainment is not out of the question. Of course none of this has done anything to add even a glimmer of human rights. There is a zero tolerance of any kind of dissent and family members of anyone perceived as disagreeing with the government are regularly threatened. Charges are fabricated against any opponents and a guilty verdict is guaranteed. Of course the EU and other western powers make all the usual statements decrying human rights violations but use the vacuous argument of constructive engagement to do absolutely nothing about it, for fear of jeopardising the flow of gas and oil or hindering the purchase of western goods or services by the regime.
It would be unfair to say that everything is bad though. Many dictatorships are astute enough to realise that a cost-effective way of suppressing opposition is dishing out enough free stuff and services to mean that many will just grumble a bit and just get on with life. With large oil reserves, the fourth largest gas reserves in the world and a pipe funneling it directly to China, the money has been rolling in nicely, so the government have continued Niyasov’s policy of providing free gas, electricity and water to the masses. Drivers get a ration of free fuel each month and tax is only 10%, plus 2% for health insurance. As is common with oil and gas based economies though there is much unemployment, the wealth is not being spent on creating new industries. Non Turkmen citizens have been excluded from some areas, such as access to higher education but if you are lucky enough to have a job and sensible enough to keep your gob shut you can get by with at least your testicles intact.