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Uzbekistan and Islam

Uzbekistan is more than 80 percent Muslim. The majority of the country's Muslims are Sunni and regard themselves as followers of the Hannafi branch of Sunnism. In the Stalin era, Muslim clerics suffered persecution, as did Christian clerics throughout the Soviet Union, because they opposed the Soviet regime. During World War II, the Soviet government forged a rapprochement with clerics, and established the Muslim Board of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. In the later Soviet period, just prior to independence, overt expressions of piety were strongly discouraged and could disqualify a person from educational or career opportunities.

The Muslim Board was the core of "official" Islam during the post-war Soviet period. With the Mufti at its head, it was charged with regulating the registration of mosques, appointing imams to lead local congregations, and even dictating the content of sermons and the nature of "proper" Islamic practice. The official Muslim clergy was coopted by, and took its cues from, the communist party leadership. Some people in Central Asia managed, however, to practice a private form of Islam in secret and beyond official Islam.1

With independence in 1991 came the opportunity for Muslims in Uzbekistan to practice freely and openly in accordance with their beliefs. Mosques were built with community donations and foreign aid, religious schools were opened, and young people began to learn more about Islam. Outside observers predicted a "Muslim renaissance."

The revival of Islamic adherence came in a variety of forms not easily grouped together. Many citizens continued to follow a primarily secular path, adopting the Muslim appellation and identity without corresponding religious practice. Others began openly to observe holidays, rituals, and Friday prayers, but altered little else in their lifestyle or place in the social structure. Some, particularly younger Muslims, chose a stricter form of religious practice: they undertook religious education and adopted religious dress and other obligations prescribed by a conservative interpretation of Islam. Still others saw Islam as the basis for an alternative political system.

After independence, the government's leadership appeared to view official Islam as a useful tool in building national identity and solidifying and legitimating its monopoly on power. Following independence, President Islam Karimov, the former first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party, made reference to Islam in political speeches, and even held the Koran in one hand and the country's constitution in the other on the day of his inauguration as first president of independent Uzbekistan.

The lines of control between the government and official Islam during the Soviet era changed little in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. By 1992, the Muslim Board of Central Asia and Kazakhstan was decentralized, with the establishment in each Central Asian state of a Muslim regulatory board. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assumed the same functions that the Soviet-era board had performed. Nonetheless, some Muslims in Uzbekistan established their own mosques beyond the government's purview, selected their own imams, and adopted Islamic practice as congregations saw fit. The Karimov government regarded this innovation as threatening, both in light of the violence that had wracked Tajikistan and Afghanistan and, no doubt, because Islam remained one of the few potential forces for alternative political organization in Uzbekistan.2

The Campaign against Independent Islam

The nature and timing of the academic expulsions place them solidly within the Uzbek government's campaign against independent Muslims. Immediately after independence, the government viewed as profoundly threatening any politicization of Islam. It eliminated the Islamic party in 1992, along with independent, secular political parties. The campaign against "unofficial" Islam began in 1994-1995, with the harassment and arbitrary detentions of men wearing beards and the "disappearance" of popular independent Muslim clerics, and intensified in 1997, with the closing of mosques and a broader crackdown on Islamic leaders and other practicing Muslims not affiliated with officially sanctioned Islamic institutions. The media, under the thorough control of the government, stigmatized strictly observant Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. At least one university closed its Islamic studies department. Symbols of religious piety, including beards and headscarves, became signs of political partisanship.

Eliminating politicized Islam was part of President Karimov's consolidation of power and of the strengthening of authoritarianism in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. The Islamic Renaissance Party was banned, and in December its head, Abdullo Utaev, who was also an independent religious leader, "disappeared."3 Earlier that year, in January, President Karimov dealt his secular political opposition a sobering shock when a student demonstration in Tashkent turned violent and security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing at least two students.4 Members of nascent alternative parties and opposition leaders were systematically jailed, physically mistreated, and harassed. Many fled the country, fearing physical harm and long jail terms.5

In late 1994, the government began a crackdown against independent Muslims, primarily in Tashkent and in the major cities of the Fergana Valley. This involved arbitrary arrests, "disappearances"-including Sheikh Abduvali Qori Mirzo (Mirzoev), who "disappeared" in 1995, allegedly at the hands of the government6-impedingfree attendance at some mosques, arbitrary dismissals from work, and prohibition of some individuals from teaching Islam and related materials.

A new wave of repression against independent Muslims began after the murders of police officers in Namangan in December 1997,7 which the government blamed on "Wahhabis" or "Islamic fundamentalists."8 Government authorities systematically closed independent mosques, arguing that the buildings were needed for other purposes. As in Soviet times, the population saw its political leaders turn places of worship into grain storage facilities or to other government uses. The call to prayer was silenced when government officials banned the use of loudspeakers by mosques, with the explanation that the noise constituted a public nuisance. The Muslim Board ordered the removal of several key independent religious leaders, at least one of whom was feared to have been "disappeared" or to have gone into hiding in March 1998.9 Officials in Tashkent created a new censorship apparatus designed to stop the free flow of religious materials from abroad and instead subjected them to government scrutiny and confiscation. Perhaps most devastating, police and security service officers rounded up pious Muslims and average citizens in numbers estimated in the thousands. They arrested men throughout the Fergana Valley and Tashkent, often on fabricated charges of possession of small amounts of narcotics or a few bullets. Police routinely beat or otherwise mistreated and intimidated arrestees to coerce self-incriminating statements. Dozens of those arrested for alleged possession of narcotics, bullets, or weapons were later charged under article 159 of the criminal code, "encroachment upon the constitutional system of the Republic of Uzbekistan." The trial of those charged with the murders of the police officers was marred by procedural violations and by allegations that police tortured the defendants to coerce confessions. The eight defendants were given sentences ranging from three years in a reform colony to the death penalty.

Since the intensification of the government campaign against independent and openly observant Muslims, there have been widespread reports that police forced men to shave their beards.10 Police ordered some men wearing beards in public to go home and shave and threatened to fabricate evidence against them as a basis for arrest if theyfailed to comply. In other cases, individual bearded men and even whole groups of men were rounded up and taken into police custody where they were detained until they shaved.11

Neighborhood council (mahallah) leaders enforced government policies on religion apparently aimed at ferreting out advocates of new strains of Islam.12 In the city of Kokand, in the Fergana Valley, Human Rights Watch was told that the local police force had enlisted the help of the head of the mahallah in collecting information about residents' religious practices and beliefs. People were reportedly interrogated by members of the mahallah, who passed the results on to the police. The "survey" included questions such as whether or not the person prayed or had a beard and who had taught their children about Islam.13

At the same time, the government-controlled media launched a relentless propaganda campaign. The national television news program issued regular updates on the threat posed by so-called militant Wahhabi terrorists. It claimed that those arrested in the mass police sweeps had been highly organized agitators bent on destabilizing the constitutional order of the republic and warned the general population to be vigilant in guarding itself against this "enemy from within." Statements issued directly from the government via the government-controlled media painted religious Muslims with a broad brush, portraying all followers of new Islamic tendencies as fanatics who were endangering Uzbekistan's traditional version of Islam and creating the groundwork for a "second Tajikistan."14

In 1998, the Ministry of Higher Education reportedly ordered the Institute for Oriental Studies to close its Islamic studies department.15 The university complied in the second semester of the school year, without giving students prior notice. The students then had to transfer to other departments in the school, such as history or philology, to complete their education.16 After what students described as the "liquidation" of the department, the administration failed to deliver a clear explanation as to why this area of study had been eliminated from the curriculum.17 The contention that the Islamic Studies department did not have enough students was met with disbelief, as students knew of other departments with even fewer students.

The Politics of Religion

In Uzbekistan, beards and headscarves have long been powerful symbols of religious affiliation and have been imbued with political significance. A decade after the Bolshevik revolution and three years after the Red Army finally subdued Central Asian partisans, the Soviet government launched a campaign to "liberate" the region's women.18 This "hujum," or offensive, included mass rallies where women were incited to burn their paranjas, a form of Muslim robe and veil.19 Many who did fell victim to violence from their outraged communities and family members. While the active campaign soon lapsed, the Soviet identification of the veil with ignorance, repression, and fanaticism remained.

After independence, Karimov's vision of the modern Uzbek state drew heavily on the Soviet project of secularism. Thus, he continued to uphold, at least in words, the Soviet vision of female equality-maintaining that the central measure of women's rights is the opportunity to gain access to higher education and to work outside the home. As in most post-communist states, that vision has come into conflict with those who, for reasons of shrinking economies and reversion to an idealized pre-communist past, would crowd women out of these spheres.20

Uzbek government leaders, suspicious of the unifying potential of Islam, feared symbols of piety as signs of political affiliation and ambition for power. But also at stake in Karimov's anti-Islamic campaign was control over religious belief, or at least religious discourse: who would dictate the parameters of "proper" belief and worship, who would declare what was right, what was truly the national tradition, the "Uzbek way" of practicing Islam. To distinguish the "right" kind of believer from the "mistaken" or "dangerous" worshiper of a "false way," a dividing line had to be drawn. The symbols of piety themselves, including beards and headscarves, marked one's affiliation with "unofficial" Islam and thus with political opposition.

The "Uzbek Way"

In interviews with Human Rights Watch and in other fora university rectors and other government officials repeatedly drew a distinction between what they considered acceptable national dress-a patterned scarf worn on the head and tied at the back of the neck, leaving the face open-and what they regarded as "Arab" or foreign dress-a solid colored scarf that is clasped in front or covers the face. To them, the latter style was unacceptable because it does not conform with Uzbek tradition.

Aliya Tuygunovna Iunusova, a government expert on religious affairs, expressed the government's fear that an increase in the number of women wearing traditional Muslim dress would result in the perception of Uzbekistan as a theocracy.22 At a court hearing on a student's claim for reinstatement in the Institute for Oriental Studies, she said:

The official Islamic establishment also took the position that hijab (Muslim attire ranging from a scarf covering the hair to clothing covering the entire body and face) undermined Uzbek tradition. Several students from Tashkent who considered their expulsion for wearing this form of Muslim dress to be a violation of their religious freedom appealed to the mufti of Uzbekistan, Abdurashid Qori Bahromov, the highest-placed leader of official Islam in the country. The mufti dismissed the students' religious practice as "foreign" to Uzbekistan and anathema to the form of Islam embraced by the majority of the population. The mufti supported the government's argument that by merely wearing this form of Islamic dress, citizens of Uzbekistan are declaring themselves part of an alternative religious tradition, "Now girls are covering and only the eyes show: these are Wahhabi, because chador is from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Wahhabis send women to the front and they [the men] come next behind them."24

University administrators expressed similar fears about the invasion of "foreign" practices, and expressed their commitment to secularism and concern about Uzbekistan's image abroad. The rector of the Institute for Oriental Studies, for example, commented, "...we are now on the threshold of the twenty-first century, when we want to build up a secular state like all the other countries. How is it possible that people can think like people thought thousandsof years ago?...The institute has a code of conduct that says students may not wear hijab, that they should just wear `normal' clothes."25

Rector Damin Abdurakhimovich Asadov of the Pediatric Medical Institute demonstrated for Human Rights Watch the "proper," "Uzbek way" for a woman to wear a scarf. He also modeled the so-called Arabic way and remarked of the female students he had expelled, "They are wearing not the cloth of the Uzbek people, but Arabic people. No one would mind if they wore Uzbek national dress. My wife wears national dress and a scarf."26 Students from the Institute for Oriental Studies reported that their university also tolerated females who agreed to wear short scarves tied at the back of the neck, leaving both their face and neck uncovered.27 At Fergana State University, students were told that they would be allowed to stay and study if they too wore floral-designed scarves tied at the back of the neck in "Uzbek style." Even after one student adopted this dress, however, university administrators continued to pressure the students to remove their scarves altogether.28

1 Olivier Roy uses the term "parallel" Islam. He writes, "The Soviets adopted a two-tiered policy toward Islam: to undermine and even attempt to destroy popular Islam, particularly the connections between national and religious identities, and to create a token, regulated, officially appointed clergy in order to manage the few remaining religious institutions and, after 1955, to improve relations with friendly Muslim countries." See, "Islam in Tajikistan," Open Society in Central Eurasia Occasional Paper Series, no. 1, July 1996.

2 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, "Uzbekistan: Persistent Human Rights Violations and Prospects for Improvement" A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 8, no. 5, May 1996. For an account of human rights violations in the Tajik civil war, see,Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch), In the Wake of the Civil War (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993). See also, Barnett R. Rubin, "Russian Hegemony and State Breakdown in the Periphery: Causes and Consequences of the Civil War in Tajikistan," in Barnett R. Rubin and Jack Snyder (eds.), Post-Soviet Political Order: Conflict and State Building (New York and London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 128-161, and Olivier Roy, "Islam in Tajikistan."

3 It is believed that government security forces in Tashkent took Utaev into custody. As of September 1999, however, there was no new information available regarding his whereabouts. Prior to Utaev's "disappearance" in 1992, the government of Uzbekistan banned the IRP in accordance with article 57 of the constitution, which prohibits the establishment of "political parties with national or religious features." See Ibid.

4 Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch), Human Rights in Uzbekistan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993), pp. 2-3, 26, 39; also, letter from Abdumannob Pulatov to Human Rights Watch, April 21, 1999.

5 See Helsinki Watch, Human Rights in Uzbekistan; and Human Rights Watch, "Uzbekistan: Persistent Human Rights Violations and Prospects for Improvement."

6 On August 29, 1995, Sheikh Mirzo and his assistant Ramazanbek Matkarimov were reportedly detained by security agents at the Tashkent airport, as they prepared to go to Moscow to attend an international Islamic conference. For additional information on these and other "disappearances," allegedly by state officials, see: Human Rights Watch/Europe and Central Asia,"Crackdown in the Farghona Valley: Arbitrary Arrests and Religious Discrimination," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 10, no. 4, May 1998.

7 This phase of the campaign is documented in detail in Human Rights Watch, "Crackdown in the Farghona Valley."

8 In Central Asia, the term "Wahhabism" refers to "Islamic fundamentalism" and extremism. Discrepancy exists among the definitions of "Wahhabism," however. Historically, "Wahhabism" is a branch of Sunnism practiced in Saudi Arabia and named after its founder, Islamic scholar Muhammad ibin `Abd al-Wahhab. The eighteenth-century movement known as "Wahhabism" advocated a conservative agenda of purifying the Muslim faith and simultaneously encouraged independent thinking, a potentially liberal stance.

9 Leading independent Imam Obidkhon Nazarov was last seen on March 5, 1998. For more information on his case, see: "Crackdown in the Farghona Valley."

10 In cities in the Fergana Valley, including Margilan, police reportedly stopped bearded men on the street (both on foot and in cars), ordered them to shave, and threatened that if they did not shave within a certain amount of time, usually half an hour, they would be detained. Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, June 5, 1998. See also "Crackdown in the Farghona Valley."

11 During the period of research for this report, May through July 1998, police harassment of women in hijab appeared limited to intimidation of students and not to apply to the female population in general. For details on intimidation of female students, see "Intimidation and Threats of Arrest." As the report went to press, however, Human Rights Watch had learned of several cases of young women in hijab who were stopped on the street by Tashkent police and punished for their attire with an administrative fine under article 184 of the revised Administrative Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan, amended in accordance with the May 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.

12 The term mahallah refers to neighborhood councils whose heads are nominally elected by residents but are most often appointed by mayors or regional governments.

13 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Kokand, May 1998; and Central Asia Monitor, news and comments section vol. no. 5, 1998, p. 31.

14 The five-year civil war in Tajikistan ended when a peace accord was signed in June 1997. Political violence continued, however. Throughout the civil war and the subsequent peace negotiations, the government of Uzbekistan blamed the tragedy on that country's Islamic opposition and held Tajikistan up as a warning sign of the instability and clan violence that could wrack Uzbekistan if tight government control were ever lifted and the population were to cease its vigilance. The first stone that the government of Uzbekistan suggested would start the deadly avalanche of civil strife was "Islamic fundamentalism." Similarly, government officials continue to point to the disastrous fate of Afghanistan, warning that Uzbekistan could easily be next.

15 When students questioned Prorector Mannonov of the Institute about the closure, he reportedly said that it had been on an order from the Ministry of Higher Education, but would not show students the order. Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Mirabad District Court hearing, Tashkent, June 16, 1998.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Umida Asimova and Dilfuza Turdieva, Tashkent, May 23, 1998; and Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Mirabad District Court hearing, Tashkent, June 16, 1998.

17 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Mirabad District Court hearing, Tashkent, June 16, 1998.

18 Some scholars have referred to this policy as one of "forced liberation" that lacked popular support. Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva states: "The policy of `women's liberation' did not have social support from the grass roots, and like all policy measures ordered from above, was carried out against a background of quiet resistance on the part of the basic core of the population and the small armed opposition." (In an interview with Human Rights Watch, she noted, however, that "women played a leading role in the modernization of the Soviet empire. Soviet laws recognized women's legal rights, a step forward from the medieval reality of the past." Human Rights Watch telephone interview, August 17, 1999.) Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva, Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam (Lahore, Pakistan: Shirkat Gah Women's Resource Center, 1995), p. 63. Tokhtakhodjaeva is a founding member of the Women's Resource Center in Tashkent, a nongovernmental organization that promotes women's equality in Uzbekistan. Other scholars have posited that the campaign enjoyed indigenous support. See, for example, Bibi Pal'vanova, Emansipatsiia musulmanki (The Emancipation of the Muslim Women) (Moscow: Nauka, 1982) and Dilorom, Alimova, Resheniye zhenskogo voprosa v Uzbekistane, 1917-41 (Solving the Women's Question in Uzbekistan) (Tashkent: Fan, 1987).

19 Paranjas are long robes draped over the head, worn with a mesh veil over the face, covering the whole body, like the hijab worn today by expelled students.

20 See, Shirin Akiner, "Between Tradition and Modernity: The Dilemma Facing Contemporary Central Asian Women," in Mary Buckley (ed.), Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 261-304.
According to government statistics, there is a 98 percent literacy rate among women, and, as of 1996, women represented about 39 percent of all those with higher education. Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva notes, however, that the number of students overall has decreased and the number of women students has also declined. Human Rights Watch telephone interview, August 17, 1999. Ms. Tokhtakhodjaeva also pointed out the particular problems that rural women face: they have no access to the professional schools that have emerged in urban areas (translation schools and the like), and they generally have far less access to higher education now.

21 Human Rights Watch interview with Rector Turabek N. Dolimov, Tashkent, May 25, 1998. A number of Uzbekistan's most prominent educators and administrators are themselves members of government and showed a decided disinclination to go against or even question official policy. The rector of Tashkent State University, the preeminent university in Uzbekistan, is himself a member of Parliament, the governmental body that passed the discriminatory law banning "ritual" dress. Whenquestioned about his expulsion of religious students, as contrary to Uzbekistan's human rights obligations, Rector Dolimov referred to his dual role as university official and legislator, saying, "I am not only a rector, but also a member of Parliament, where we discussed this and came to a conclusion and thus there is no religious aspect in this." Ibid.

22 Iunusova, a member of the Committee on Religious Affairs attached to the Cabinet of Ministers, testified that she is an expert on religious issues. According to Iunusova, the committee was established in 1992 to provide expert consultation on questions regarding religion and to ensure freedom of conscience and religion. Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Mirabad District Court hearing, Tashkent, June 16, 1998. Article 6 of the law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations also names the Committee on Religious Affairs as the government body responsible for coordination of relations between government agencies and religious organizations and for supervising the implementation of legislation on freedom of religion. For additional testimony by Iunusova regarding religious dress, see below: "Laws and Rules Regulating Religious Attire."

23 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Mirabad District Court hearing, Tashkent, June 16, 1998.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with the Mufti and Chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, Abdurashid Qori Bahromov, and his deputy, Atakul Mablamulov, Tashkent, May 25, 1998. The chador is a type of covering worn by some Muslim women, usually made of one piece of cloth, which covers the whole body and leaves only a woman's eyes uncovered

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Rector Nematullo Ibrohimovich Ibrohimov, Tashkent, May 1998.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Rector Damin Abdurakhimovich Asadov, Tashkent, June 3, 1998.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Umida Asimova and Dilfuza Turdieva, Tashkent, June 11, 1998.

28 Written statement of Nilufar Ermatova, April 14, 1998. This is not her real name.

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