The term “mahalla” broadly translates from Uzbek as “neighborhood” or “local community.” However, in so far as the mahalla forms a part of the traditions of Uzbekistan, it has a rich layering of meanings. Among these, it can be seen as a physical location, a network of social relations, or a state administrative unit.3
The mahalla tradition can be traced to before the arrival of the Mongols, around the 11th or 12th centuries. Although the mahalla structure is often touted as something unique to Uzbekistan, it is a tradition found in other parts of the Muslim world.4
Before the Soviet period, the mahalla was usually a community of several hundred people, organized around Islamic rituals and social events. Most mahallas had their own mosque, teahouse, bazaar, and other facilities. The elders of the mahalla provided advice and direction for the local community. Some mahallas formed along ethnic, religious, or professional lines.5 Even now many mahallas are named after the profession that used to be practiced in that area.6
During the Soviet period a range of approaches was taken toward the mahalla. In the early period attempts were made to get rid of the mahalla as an institution altogether. Later, when it became obvious that this policy would produce enormous resistance, the Soviet government tried, with only limited success, to pull the mahalla into state and party structures, and use it as a means to ensure that all levels of society absorbed Soviet communist ideology.7 But this experiment failed, and in the years before Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, the mahalla ceased playing a role in the transmission of state ideology. It existed informally, running in parallel with government structures. Often the retired party leader would become the local aksakal or head of the mahalla. The mahalla served to protect and pass on Uzbek culture, including Muslim practices. It was tolerated but not sanctioned by the Soviet state.8
With Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, the mahalla committees began to be integrated into the structure of an increasingly authoritarian government. Soon after independence, civil and political movements that arose in the late perestroika period were crushed by President Karimov, with the banning of opposition political parties, censorship of the media, and later the crackdown against peaceful independent Muslims.
At the same time, the new Uzbek government began a campaign to restore the mahalla as the fundamental unit of Uzbek society. This campaign was a part of a larger movement to recreate a uniquely Uzbek history and set of symbols. The cult of Amir Timur as a historical figure, whose ideals and characteristics are represented as being reflected in the person of President Karimov, is an example of the overall reconstruction of Uzbek history that has taken place.9
The mahalla was promoted as a traditional institution with an emphasis on the rights and obligations of local communities within a nation-state. Slogans such as “Your homeland begins from your mahalla,” or “If your neighbor is tranquil, you are tranquil, if your mahalla is tranquil, your country is tranquil,” were displayed on the streets and quoted in the press.10
During this period, the government began to confer more authority upon the mahalla committees and to ensure that all areas of the country had mahalla units.11 Borders were redrawn and the entire country was divided up into administrative mahalla units. There are now approximately 12,000 mahallas in Uzbekistan, each containing between 150 and 1,500 households.12
In February 1999, five bombs exploded outside government buildings in Tashkent. The government immediately blamed the bombing on Islamic “extremists” and began a wave of arrests and persecution of independent Muslims. As part of this campaign, the government enacted a new law giving mahalla committees many more responsibilities, including repression of unregistered religious organizations.13 Another law commissioned civilian police assistants to work within the mahalla.14 By this stage the mahalla had been transformed into an arm of a repressive state.
In promoting the mahalla as a traditional institution, the government also promoted the mahalla committee as a form of decentralized governance, providing grass roots and community participation in local decision-making. By the late 1990s, some international donor organizations, wanting to promote democracy at the local level, began funding programs for mahalla committees, but in so doing, ended up supporting a government institution used to enforce repressive state policies.
On December 5, 2002, President Karimov declared 2003 the “Year of the Mahalla.” The government adopted a program of action, and announced its intent to adopt yet more regulations covering the activities of mahalla committees and to expand their powers.15 The local press began to print articles about mahallas, once again using promotional slogans such as “Mahalla—the stronghold of calm,” “Native mahalla… leading us peacefully to life’s mooring,” “Mahalla—the hearth of spirituality and up-bringing, and a place where everyone comes for help, and receives kind advice and real support.”16
3 David Mackenzie Abramson, From Soviet Mahalla: Community and Transition in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1998) p.30.
4 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Aziz Tatibaev, World History specialist, History Department, National University of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, June 5, 2002; and Human Rights Watch interview with Iskandar Ismailov, Open Society Institute, Tashkent, June 18, 2002.
5 Abramson, p. 27.
6 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Aziz Tatibaev, June 5, 2002.
7 Abramson, p. 29.
8 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Aziz Tatibaev, June 5, 2002.
9 Neil J. Melvin, Uzbekistan: Transition to Authoritarianism on the Silk Road, (the Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000) p.46. Timur, a fifteenth century Turkic conqueror and empire builder, is known in the west as Tamerlane.
10 Abramson, p. 191.
11 By the mid 1990s there were still areas of the country that were not broken down into mahallas and so did not have mahalla committees.
12 John Micklewright, Aline Coudouel, and Sheila Marnie, “Targeting and Self-Targeting in a Transition Economy: the Mahalla Social Assistance Scheme in Uzbekistan,” January 2001, http://www-cpr.maxwell.syr.edu/seminar/Spring01/micklewright_paper.pdf, p. 6.
13 Law on Institutions of Self-Government of Citizens, adopted April 14, 1999.
14 Second Addition to the Cabinet of Ministers’ decision number 180 of April 19, 1999, “About the ‘Neighborhood Guardians’ Public Organizations Statute.”
15 Narodnoe Slovo, February 8, 2003.
16 Narodnoe Slovo, December 19, 2002, December 10, 2002, and January 17, 2003.