Uzbekistan officials call Harlem Shake ‘a vortex full of meaninglessness and shamelessness’

April 10, 2013

MC Hammer and Kid President perform the Harlem Shake in Seattle. (Getty Images)

An Uzbek news site called Ziyouz, once known for its cultural commentary but increasingly for parroting official state propaganda, has published a length article condemning the Harlem Shake. It calls the dance, a breakout phenomenon that has produced silly homemade videos from every corner of the globe, "a vortex full of meaninglessness and shamelessness."

Sarah Kendzior, an anthropologist with extensive experience studying Uzbekistan, says the articles reflects more than just knee-jerk anti-Westernism from this majority Muslim dictatorship. Nor, she believes, is this about preempting the Harlem Shake "flash mobs" that became public protests in Egypt and Tunisia.

"This is more of an opportunity for them to establish their moral authority and present the world outside Uzbekistan as dangerous and corrupt," Kendzior wrote in an e-mail. "It’s not a knee-jerk response; it’s calculated."

The article, she explains, quotes two "experts." The first is an "expert on culture" with no stated affiliation (is he an academic? a government official?) and the second is a preacher and rector at the state-run Tashkent Islamic University, which is affiliated with members of the Uzbek government. They argue, according to Kendzior's summary, "that the Harlem Shake is mindless, damaging to youth, a typically terrible product of globalization and mass media, and that it does nothing to help Uzbeks develop their spiritual values." The preacher is quoted as citing the Koran.

Freedom House ranks Uzbekistan as "Not Free" and included the country among just eight others in its 2011 report, "Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies." Their report cites, among many other civil rights abuses, the degree to which the government attempts to control public and even private speech. "Open and free private discussion is limited by the mahalla committees — traditional neighborhood organizations that the government has turned into an official system for public surveillance and control," it reads.

For a state-aligned Uzbek outlet to treat even just this slight hint of popular culture as a threat, though funny from afar, is part of a much darker mission.

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Max Fisher · April 10, 2013