The bogey of Islamic fundamentalism is so popular these days that even Uzbekistan seems to have discovered its utility. Last month, Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov not only alleged that his government, besides others in Central Asia, was being undermined by Islamic ‘rebels’ (his choice of words) but that they were being trained in Pakistan.
A Pakistan foreign office spokesman dismissed the allegation on February 17 saying there are ‘no illegal military camps on Pakistani soil.’ The Uzbek foreign minister had painted a colourful picture of the alleged camps whose reports were carried by the Russian media.
He alleged that some 400 Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek rebels were undergoing training in illegal camps in Pakistan. According to Kamilov, the rebels being trained in Pakistan were responsible for a series of attacks in Uzbekistan’s Namangam region last year which resulted in the deaths of several government employees and police officers.
‘The training focuses on ideas of the jihad and the Wahabite extremist views,’ Kamilov said. The Uzbek foreign minister said the Pakistani government was not involved in the training and that Tashkent had formally requested Islamabad to crack down on such activities.
Kamilov’s allegations followed a month-long campaign in Uzbekistan at the end of last year in which hundreds of people were rounded up on mere suspicion. Heavily armed police have dismantled mosque loudspeakers used for the adhan and people with beards have been accused of subversive activities.
These include women putting the veil, a traditional dress that was widespread in this part of the world prior to the imposition of communist rule in Central Asia. Even during the communist era, women in rural areas maintained their traditional dress. This now seems to be making a comeback in major cities, such as Tashkent, as well. On January 23, hundreds of women were attacked by heavily armed police after they demanded the release of their loved ones arrested in the crackdown. They were all wearing the veil.
Zulfia Zia Khana, her face covered, said her husband Akhal, 47, had been arrested on January 18. ‘There are no charges,’ against him. ‘He has a beard so they accuse him of being a Wahabi,’ she said.
In a style reminscent of the communist days, Mirkhosil Mirkhajayev, assistant chief of the district police in Tashkent, denied that he was holding Akhala. He suggested that women take their complaint to the religious authorities. Why, he did not explain. When the women tried to hold a protest outside the presidential palace, the police commandeered their vehicles and detained them until nightfall.
Critics of president Islam Karimov charge him with using the murder of four policemen in Namangam to crackdown on those who are turning to Islam. They say that the four were most likely shot by criminals. There is no shortage of such elements in Central Asia. Thieves, smugglers and drug peddlers are on the loose with security forces unable to keep track in remote areas.
Namangam is the traditional stronghold of Adolat (Justice) Party, a one-time opponent but current ally of Karimov. Why he chose to strike there has not been adequately explained. It is clear that he is using the opportunity to clamp down hard under the pretext of a security problem.
Karimov’s heavy-handed tactics have aroused concern not only in Uzbekistan but also, ironically, abroad among those sympathetic to him and opposed to Islam. They view his tactics as short-sighted and likely to backfire. The crude manner in which he has attacked mosques and harassed people with beards will arouse the kind of sentiment he is trying to stifle.
Old habits, however, die hard. He is a communist apparatchuk. He uses the only method he knows best: the iron-fist. Karimov is particularly averse to any expressions of Islam using neighbouring Tajikistan and Afghanistan as examples where things have gone horribly wrong.
Tajikistan’s example is especially appropriate to Uzbekistan. It is precisely the kinds of policies Karimov has embarked upon that evoked the Islamic backlash in the neighbouring Republic. Efforts are now underway there to accommodate members of the Islamic Movement which is not properly organised or developed yet.
There is an additional factor relevant to Uzbekistan. It was the Ferghana Valley which in the twenties led the resistance to Soviet penetration. Karimov would be well advised not to provoke them.
But if history teaches any lesson, it is that people learn nothing from history. Karimov is no exception. And he is not even very bright.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1998