Twelve Uzbek Muslims were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five to eight years last month, after being found ‘guilty’ of belonging to illegal Islamic organizations and other charges. They were tried in Namangan, in the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan, between May 6-16, as part of an on-going crackdown on Islamic activities, particularly political activities, in the country.
Among those imprisoned was Imam Hassan Mirkamalov of the Atollah Khan mosque in Namangan. He was jailed for eight years after being found guilty of being a leader of a group called Tauba. Others were accused of membership of the Islamic Revival Party. Three of the jailed were also found guilty of belonging to Pakistan-based groups; the Uzbek government has repeatedly alleged that some Uzbek Muslims have received military and other training in Pakistani camps. However, five men charged with plotting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic State in the country were acquitted.
The men were charged and tried for breaching a new anti-Islam law passed only on May 1, even though most had been under arrest for months, since a crackdown in Namangan in December and January. The new law says that all religious groups must register with the State. In order to be considered, the group must have a minimum of 100 members. Any religious activity by an unregistered group is illegal. The law was passed in parliament following a fiery address by Uzbek president Islam Karimov, in which he called for Islamic activists to be shot. After protests from some deputies, Karimov said that he personally would shoot Islamic activists if the deputies lacked the courage to do so.
In fact, these are only the latest jailings of a long series in recent months, as the government - increasingly paranoid about Islamic activities - have cracked down on Muslims. Abdumalik Nazarov, the youngest brother of Shaikh Obidkhon Nazarov, one of Uzbekistan’s best-known Islamic leaders, was sentenced to nine years hard labour in April, after being convicted of drug possession and smuggling. Few people doubt that his real offence was Islamic. Shaikh Nazarov himself is wanted by the police. However, he was forewarned of their intentions and escaped from his home shortly before they arrived to arrest him on March 5. He is now thought to be in hiding. His family have been intensely harassed. They are presently under threat of
The Uzbek government’s present anti-Islam campaign began in December, following a series of alleged attacks on police and government installations and officials in Namangan, including the murder of a number of policemen. It is not clear whether all these attacks really took place, or, if they did, whether Islamic activists were actually responsible. Local people believe the murders to have been the work of organized criminal gangs. However, the government appears to have decided that the time was right for a anti-Islamic crackdown. Hundreds of ‘wahhabis’ were rounded up, many of them for no greater offence than being bearded. Many remain in custody awaiting charges or trial. Trials of Islamic activists in Tashkent are expected soon.
The campaign has also had other facets: the towns of Ferghana valley were silent during Ramadhan this year, when authorities forbade the broadcasting of adhaan from the masajid, and imposed a curfew. Muslim women wearing hijab were expelled from the country’s main university in Tashkent in April, even though there is no formal regulation forbidding the dress. Uzbeks have repeatedly appealed to international Islamic and human rights bodies for support, with little success. With the notable exception of Islamic Iran, which has repeatedly condemned Karimov’s anti-Islamic campaigns, and protested again last month following the passing of the recent legislation, they have received little outside backing.
This is, moreover, more than just a local campaign. On May 6, as the Namangan trials began, Uzbek president Karimov met Russian president Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. Following the meeting, they announced an agreement to co-ordinate their fight against Islamic groups throughout the former Soviet Union, including Russia itself, Central Asia and the Caucasus. President Imomali Rakhmanov of Tajikistan was also party to the accord. On May 23, the Tajik parliament passed a new law banning political parties based on religion. This is a direct attack on Tajikistan’s main opposition party, the Islamic Revival Party led by Said Abdullo Nuri, which last year signed a peace deal with Tajikistan’s secular government, supposedly ending five years of civil conflict. Members of the Islamic Revival Party are now part of the coalition planning for elections in which, according to the new law, they will not be able to participate.
Events in Tajikistan and Afghanistan are often cited as reasons for the ironically named Karimov’s paranoia about Islam. However, as a barely-reconstructed communist, who headed Uzbekistan’s communist party during the Soviet era, was elected president virtually unopposed in Uzbekistan’s first elections in December 1991, and had his term extended until the year 2000 by a referendum in March 1995 (in which 99.6 percent of the population supposedly supported him), he probably needed little excuse. In 1992, shortly after his election, he visited Namangan only to be given such a hard time by angry citizens that he was forced to promise significant concessions on religious matters before returning to Tashkent. Instead of keeping his promise, he sent special forces into the region to arrest hundreds of Islamic activists.
Relations have been strained, to say the least, ever since. The government has kept a close watch on Islamic groups, and ulama who appear to get too outspoken or popular have been known simply to disappear without trace. The town of Andijan, also in the Ferghana Valley, has seen several ulama vanish in this way, beginning with Shaikh Imam Abduvali Mirzoyev in 1995. He had become popular for his speeches on Islam and justice in the town’s famous central mosque. The most recent disappearance was in October last year, when Nehmat Parpiev, a student and successor of Shaikh Abduvali, vanished.
Until its gradual decline and ultimate fall to Russian domination (and Chinese in its east), Central Asia was regarded as the heartland of Islam. And the fertile and prosperous Ferghana Valley, under the glorious Bukhara and Khokand Khanates, was a heartland of this heartland. It was also a centre of Central Asian Islam, a centre of mosques and madrassahs, where Islamic movements, many led by Naqshbandi sufi groups, strongly resisted Russian encroachment.
When the region was carved into the present geo-political structure following the communist takeover, the Ferghana was deliberately and artificially divided between three Republics (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan being the others) to make local political organization harder. Nearly eightly years later, and despite the supposed end of the Russian empire, it appears that Karimov and others continue to fear the valley’s potential as a centre for future Islamic political activism in the region.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998