The Economist (UK)
May 17-23, 2003
Islam in Central Asia
Religion, politics and moderation
DUSHANBE AND TASHKENT
Contrasts between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
DILOROM'S husband is behind bars, together with his two brothers. He was sentenced to 12 years, accused of being a member of Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT), a radical and anti-western Islamic movement that wants to recreate a caliphate in Central Asia. She maintains that the police planted HT leaflets on him, and that her family's only “crime” is to be religious. Earlier this year she protested at one of Tashkent's markets together with 40 other women who were demanding that their husbands be released; they were beaten up by the police and arrested.
An estimated 6,500 people are in jail in Uzbekistan because of their religious or political beliefs. More than half are accused of being HT members, while most of the others are branded as Wahhabis, who practise the Saudi brand of Sunni Islamic extremism. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a great revival of religious activity in Central Asia. Mosques mushroomed, partly supported by Pakistani and Saudi money. A brand of radical, internationalist Islam gave birth to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and HT. In 1999 and 2000 fighters of the IMU in Tajikistan attempted incursions into Uzbekistan. Terrorist attacks in Tashkent in 1999 were attributed by the authorities to Islamic radicals, and were dealt with ruthlessly.
The threat of Islamic extremism appears to have receded somewhat today, partly due to repression but also to the 2001 American-led invasion of Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban. HT, outlawed in Tajikistan, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, has been pushed further underground by repression, in particular in Uzbekistan. Most observers agree that the IMU is, for now, a spent force. Having set up bases in northern Afghanistan, it was largely wiped out during fighting around Kunduz and lost its Taliban and al-Qaeda sponsors. Its leader, Juma Namangani, is believed to have been killed, although rumours circulate that he survived. Fewer than 100 isolated remnants are thought to be somewhere between southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, as a foreign diplomat puts it, “sitting in a valley, licking their wounds and thinking what to do next”.
Although there are legitimate concerns about Islamic radicalism, authorities in the region have been accused of using the fight against terrorism to crack down on political opposition and justify their control over religious activity. According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, religion in Uzbekistan becomes criminal as soon as it strays out of official, state-controlled Islam.
In 2001, Muhammad Sadik, Uzbekistan's former chief mufti, returned after living abroad since 1993, when he had been threatened with arrest. Over tea, the stern Mr Sadik explains that the root of extremism is ignorance about the true teaching of Islam, and that the lack of proper dialogue and teaching in mosques is a serious problem. He has been allowed to publish some of his work and speak about moderate Islam. He receives visitors eager for his guidance on religious issues. But he says his activities are closely controlled. When asked about independent Islam in Uzbekistan, he says, “There is no room for the development of moderate, non-state-controlled Islam today.”
A form of moderate, nationalist Islam has emerged in Tajikistan, however. The Islamic Revival Party (IRP), the only legal religious party in Central Asia, was part of a coalition of anti-government forces during the civil war that engulfed Tajikistan in the 1990s. Following a peace agreement in 1997, members of the Islamic movement received government positions, to the dismay of neighbouring Uzbekistan.
The IRP appears to have maintained its commitment to give up weapons and work within the constitution. Muhiddin Kabiri, the IRP's deputy chairman, is the modern face of the party and the symbol of a new generation. In his jeans and a swanky black jacket, this political scientist, who joined the IRP in 1998, contrasts with the IRP's old guard, some members of which have been resisting the party's evolution. The IRP, he says, supports a secular democratic state but would like to inject more religious and traditional values into political life and the legal system. He points at Turkey as an example.
But the IRP has little political influence. President Imomali Rahmonov has gradually consolidated power in his hands. This has provided some guarantee against the disintegration of the country, but is stifling the development of a democratic political opposition. There is some concern among opposition politicians over proposed constitutional changes. Among other matters, there are plans to ease Mr Rahmonov's re-election, and to increase the president's power over the judiciary. The government is also seeking to formalise the influence of the state on religious affairs, but this is not a constitutional matter.
According to Mr Kabiri, the IRP now finds itself in the position of being too Islamic for the government, but is seen as a sell-out by more radical Muslims. He deplores the centralisation of power, yet insists that maintaining the country's stability and avoiding confrontation are important. This could benefit a more extreme form of Islam, however, as ordinary people do not have many ways to channel their discontent. HT's influence is thought to have branched out from the country's Uzbek minority in the north to disgruntled Tajiks trying to appease, as one foreign diplomat puts it, “their unsatisfied hunger for criticism”.