When the Muslim Central Asian countries became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their leaders — who had been regional heads of the KGB in most cases — promised prosperity and democracy. These have so far proved elusive, despite the end of Moscow’s direct control of the region, plus discovery of vast oil and gas reserves. Instead of working to implement their promises, however, the leaders have exploited the new wealth and the automatic respect for central authority inherited from centuries of despotic rule.
The sudden appearance of beards and headscarves in communities eager to return to a traditional Muslim way of life have rung alarm bells in Central Asian capitals. The mere return to Islamic roots seems, to such dictators as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurad Niyazov, a threat to the dual foundations of their absolute power — corruption and the psychological climate of utter respect for centralized secular authority.
In the eyes of these dictators, it is enough for a young man to grow a beard or for a woman to wear a headscarf to be considered a threat. Membership of any sort of Islamic group is unnecessary; merely being a devout Muslim is enough. Such a person could never be a party to the idolatrous adulation demanded by Central Asian despots, or resigned to corruption in high places. And since a beard or a headscarf is seen as the symbol of either an Islamic activist or a devout Muslim, the crackdown in Muslim Central Asia on those wearing them has become inevitable.
Young men with beards and women wearing headscarves are expelled from universities and vocational centres if they refuse to remove them. They are also routinely picked up in the streets of cities and villages and interrogated, often tortured and raped, and in many cases sentenced to long prison terms. Even their relatives are detained and subjected to similar treatment. Many of those detained are held incommunicado; some disappear without trace. The case of Karima Muhamedova’s two sons is typical. She described in a newspaper interview on May 27 how her two sons, one with a beard, had been arrested and tortured.
“My son was first picked by police and beaten because he had a beard”, said the Uzbek mother of two. “Then he was caught handing out a leaflet denouncing the death in custody of a friend. That was enough to get him 20 years. Then they took my other son and gave him 16 years. I saw them in jail. They could barely walk and their fingers were black with bruises. I don’t know where they are now.”
The crackdown on beards and headscarves is only part of a wider campaign against those advocating a return to Islamic values, even if they do not support the introduction of Islamic rule.
The crackdown is worst in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) carries out annual raids. IMU is campaigning for the overthrow of the Uzbek regime and the creation of an Islamic state in the Fergana Valley, which stretches across parts of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Last year IMU fighters invaded the valley from several directions, clashing with Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops and coming within 100km (60 miles) of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.
This summer, IMU is expected to strike with greater ferocity and achieve wider success. The countries that share the Fergana Valley are taking no chances, ordering a widespread crackdown on beard or scarf Muslims irrespective of whether or not they support IMU or any other Islamic group.
The 63-year-old president Islam Karimov, who claims to be fighting ‘Islamic terrorists’ in Uzbekistan, has ordered the arrest of thousands of devout Muslims in a sweeping drive of repression compared by some media reports to Stalin’s campaign of terror in the 1930s. Mosques are under routine surveillance by former members of the KGB, and police often frame those suspected of being devout Muslims by putting religious leaflets and drugs in their pockets. The practice is so frequent that, according to a newspaper report on May 26, “some Muslims have sewn up their pockets.”
As the recent crackdown on members of Hizb al-Tahrir indicates, show-trials are held almost daily, and it is common for scores of men and women to be sentenced to terms of up to 20 years simply for calling for Karimov’s overthrow. According to the newspaper report quoted above, “playing football has been presented as evidence that suspects were trying to acquire the fitness that fighters in a holy war would need.”
Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are held in a prison that was built recently on the site of a former Soviet chemical-warfare testing ground in Zhaslyk, which human-rights activists have called a ‘concentration camp’: an apt description , given the fact that at least 38 inmates died there last year. According to Vasilia Inoyatova, a human-rights campaigner, prisoners are compelled to remain in a squatting position throughout the day and are allowed to move only if they ask for permission and thank Karimov. They are also forced to sing the national anthem 50 times a day and “can relieve themselves only once a day when they have to run through two lines of guards beating them with batons”. Karima Muhamedova’s missing sons are probably in this prison if they are not already dead.
But the persecution is not limited to those suspected of being devout Muslims, although they are the main targets. Throughout the region, secular Muslims who resist the authorities’ efforts to bribe or browbeat them into supporting the leaders, or into at least refraining from criticizing them, are also subjected to repressive measures. Even the members of the harmless official opposition, who are tolerated to provide proof of the dictators’ pledges to create a democratic society, are often ‘disciplined’, as the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, found out during his recent visit to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Of the eight opposition representatives he met there in May, four told him that at some time they had been physically assaulted.
But western governments are already familiar with the extent of the persecution, and are not concerned as long as the despots whom they rely upon in order to exploit the region’s oil and gas resources are secure in power. Indeed they go beyond keeping silent, and support them. Not only western governments do so, as even institutions of so-called civil society do their bit. Last year, for instance, the European Academy of Information Sciences in Brussels awarded Niyazov, the Turkmenistani dictator, a doctorate of philosophy in recognition of his “significant contribution to the theory and practice of state structures”.
Niyazov is one of the world’s most corrupt and tyrannical rulers, in a world full of corrupt and tyrannical rulers, yet he seems to be secure at least for the time being. Which is a claim that Uzbekistan’s Karimov is not making at the moment, and cannot make.