Kazakhstan 2, Baron Cohen 0

As if the Pope’s remarks were not enough, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie is poised to precipitate yet another international crisis. Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev plans to bring up Cohen’s Borat character, a bumbling Kazakh journalist who hardly brings credit to his countrymen, at a meeting with President Bush.

Cohen is the British comedian who created Ali G, a satirical character who either mocks black street culture, or whites who throng to embrace it.

The academic world hasn’t quite figured out which of these is true. This is not surprising. Cohen, who was educated at Cambridge, built his stage personality on acting clueless and stupid, and seems to be several steps ahead of his audience, who can’t quite figure him out. His “Throw the Jews Down the Well” routine, which really mocks antisemites, seemed so real and authentic that Jew-haters responded with glee to the suggestion. British Rabbis have urged Cohen – whose parents attend an Orthodox synagogue to drop his immensely popular Ali G persona, because its mockery of others is not consistent with Jewish values, and fans resentment towards other Jews. (Ali G has since migrated to the other side of the Atlantic, and has taken up residence on HBO. I guess he’s our problem now.)

Cohen’s new Borat film was recently unwrapped to appreciative audiences at a Toronto film festival. Kazakhs find Borat deeply offensive for completely misrepresenting their country as they see it.

Kazakhstan, second largest of the former Soviet republics, is not well known to Westerners. It is no typical backwater. It has shown real growth in its GDP, won an investment-grade credit rating, pursued a rational foreign policy friendly to its strongest neighbors (Russian and China) as well as the West. It’s literacy rate is close to 99%. It paid its debt (the first former Soviet republic to do so) seven years ahead of schedule. Jews live there relatively undisturbed, and President Nazarbayev personally intervened years ago on behalf of thirteen Jews imprisoned by Iran on an espionage charge.

Did I mention that Kazakhstan’s largest religious group (almost 50%) is Muslim?

So what does this largely Muslim state do, in a week that saw Muslims riot, murder, plunder and issue death-threats, to prove that the Pope was wrong in suggesting that they were violent?

Kazakhs did not issue a fatwa against Baron Cohen. They did not disrupt oil pipelines, torch movie theaters, or burn churches and synagogues.

Instead they hired two PR firms to take their case directly to the public with ads and articles bent on educating Americans about the true Kazakhstan. What a novel idea – using rational discourse instead of firebombs!

I am not going to predict that Kazakhstan will win the battle with Baron Cohen.

I think they already have.

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8 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    >The academic world hasn’t quite figured out which of these is true.

    The academic world?

  2. anon says:

    Borat is NOT going to be on the agenda of the Nazarbayev-Bush meetings.


  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Sam –

    Well, yes, actually. The Wikipedia entry for Ali G has an entire subsection devoted to it.


    You do seem to be correct. The point still remains that they have made some headway simply by not acting like other parts of the Muslim world. Kazakhstan remains a very imperfect democracy, with charges of the constant presence of the heavy hand of the government against opposition parties, press, etc – but after only a short time playing at it, they are well ahead of so many other places in the Muslim world.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “The academic world?”

    – means the world of scholarship, universities, etc.

  5. Seth Gordon says:

    Kazakhstan remains a very imperfect democracy

    As far as I can tell from Wikipedia and from reports like this, Kazakhstan is “a very imperfect democracy” in the sense that football is “very imperfect baseball”. The current president of Kazakhstan was the head of the Kazakh Communist Party before Kazakhstan became independent, and has ruled the country continuously since independence. The largest opposition party has been outlawed. The ruling party won the last election with over 90% of the vote, in an election that, according to OSCE observers, did not meet international standards.

    In other words, the country has gone from being a republic within a one-party authoritarian state to being an independent one-party authoritarian state. Given this history, and given that the population is about evenly split between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, I’m not surprised that political Islam hasn’t gained a toehold there.

    If Kazakh government officials are really interested in “using rational discourse” to resolve disputes, maybe they could start by legalizing such discourse among their own citizens.

  6. joel rich says:

    See today’s NY Times for an article on the topic.

  7. Jesse Curtin says:

    I agree with Seth, and I think that the Borat videos are the funniest thing ever.

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