Uzbekistan, which became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, is yet another Muslim country under a tyrannical and exploitative dictator, and mired in civil strife and economic deprivation as a result of the corrupt and ruthless exercise of power. President Islam Karimov, who has ruled his country since 1990, largely by the manipulation of constitutional and electoral laws, has banned privately-owned newspapers, and outlawed opposition parties he does not approve of (Islamic organisations in particular). In fact, his hostility to Islamic leaders, their families and supporters is such that he even bombs neighbouring countries, such as Tajikistan, where they are thought to take refuge, despite risking the outbreak of war by doing so. So oppressive is his rule that many Uzbeks, particularly journalists and newspaper-proprietors, believe that life under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s was less onerous.
Islam is Uzbekistan's main religion: the vast majority of its 25 million people (this figure is from the latest official estimates) are Muslims; yet the country's government and laws are strictly secular. The constitution (in place since December 8, 1992) stipulates firmly that there can be no state religion or ideology, although it concedes freedom of worship and expression. But one draconian law, adopted in 1998, restricts severely the activities of religious organisations, making nonsense of the constitutional freedom of worship and expression. The legislation is aimed mainly at Muslims, as government officials have publicly admitted; they claim that it is designed to stem the rising tide of "Islamic extremism" (including ‘terrorism') in the country.
This reference to terrorism alludes to the series of "suicide attacks" and other forms of military opposition to the government's state terrorism by Islamic activists and their supporters, and is specifically designed to discredit their brave and principled response. Typical of that response were the "suicide attacks" and clashes with members of the security forces in March and April, which led to the deaths of 47 people. But the regime is not succeeding in discrediting the justifiable response of the outraged Uzbeks. Western diplomats in Tashkent, the capital, for example, have attributed the events in March and April mainly to internal dissatisfaction with the regime. And diplomatic sources quoted in the Western media on July 16 say that the authorities have made things worse by the systematic arrest of Muslims who had not resorted to violence.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also criticised the serious violations of human rights by the Uzbek authorities, saying that they routinely use torture as an instrument of control throughout the country. HRW, other organisations, and western diplomats critical of the Uzbek government's repressive methods, all point out that the close relations between Washington and Tashkent will not only affect adversely the US's interests in the region, but will also drive Muslims to go underground and join "secret and violent groups". They warn that torture is so commonly and systematically used by the authorities to discourage opposition and to punish even peaceful Islamic groups, that the region could be even worse destabilised and vital western interests be damaged in a region that is very important (partly because of its enormous oil and gas resources).
Uzbekistan is contiguous with Afghanistan, and its cooperation is essential to US strategic and imperial interests in the region. Since September 11, 2001, Tashkent has been cooperating with the US's ‘war on terrorism', putting its airports at the disposal of the US air force in Afghanistan, for instance. The Uzbek regime's military and intelligence cooperation is so vital that US operations in Afghanistan would be gravely affected if it were to be withheld. The importance Washington attaches to this cooperation is reflected in the amount of US aid to Uzbekistan: US $86 million last year. But the US government has not yet renewed this year's aid, and is hinting that it might be cut if Tashkent does not improve its record on human rights. It is, however, probably only going through the motions to appear to be taking into account the warnings of human-rights groups, aid-agencies and diplomats, and is not likely to end its financial and other links with Karimov's government.
One reason that the US government is unlikely to take on board the warnings or advice offered to it is that it is basically not really at all interested in building a civil society in Uzbekistan, or in improving the standard of living of its people. One proposal it will therefore probably not implement is the one made by the International Crisis Group concerning the uses US aid is put to. The ICG has proposed that the aid funds be switched from projects directly under the control of the government, and applied instead to improve education and health services, and to establish independent media services.
The ICG, like the diplomats and human-rights organisations, has warned Washington that its continuing links with the Karimov regime are already having adverse effects on the image of the US among Muslims, not only in Uzbekistan but also in the rest of the region, and will eventually serve to terminate, or at least severely weaken, good relations between the two countries. But the US government appears to be interested more in planning for short-term gains than for long-term benefits, and is not likely to desert Muslim dictators, such as Karimov, who are ready to cooperate with its ‘war on terrorism' (i.e. the fight against Islamic organisations and activists). The neo-conservatives and evangelical groups that have a voice with Bush (who is a "born-again Christian") see the war on Islam as a policy that will secure and protect long-term US interests in the Muslim world.
Karimov will therefore continue to spend the aid he receives on fighting Islamic groups that, to their credit, are not intimidated and are putting up a strong and determined resistance. But this means civil war (though not wholly of the Islamic groups' making) that is not only costing many lives but has also reduced the majority of Uzbeks to poverty. Uzbekistan is not poor in natural resources; it has, for instance, the world's largest reserves of gas, and also significant petroleum reserves. It also has rich agricultural resources and is, for instance, the world's largest grower of cotton. Uzbeks should be left free to develop their rich human and natural resources, and deserve assistance from the Muslim world to rid themselves of their present oppressive government and dictator.