Bukharans Shun Radical Islam

Muslim militancy makes little headway in Bukhara, one of Islam's holiest cities

Bukharans Shun Radical Islam

Muslim militancy makes little headway in Bukhara, one of Islam's holiest cities

Bukhara the noble, fabled city of the Silk Route, is enjoying something of a religious revival after 70 years of communist imposed atheism.

Uzbekistan's independence in 1991 heralded a return to the observance of long forgotten religious holidays, mosques and Muslim colleges reopened with a flourish. Islam's second most holy city is once again open for business and pilgrims are flocking to its shrines and holy places - three visits are equivalent to one pilgrimage to Mecca.

But Bukhara is no place for zealots. The city, which prides itself on its ancient and devout spiritual heritage, is strangely silent on the issue most worrying to the Uzbek government - Islamic fundamentalism.

Radical Islam, which has gripped the Fergana Valley far to the north east of the country, is puzzlingly absent from this desert oasis - birthplace of Hadith scholar Islam al-Bukhari and the most revered Sufi saint Bahovaddin Nakshbandi.

There are few Bukharans willing to swell the ranks of the rogue Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or any of the three Islamic movements threatening to engulf the country with their version of a full-blown Muslim state governed by Shariah law.

There was a worrying moment in 1996 when a major surge of Taleban extremism near Uzbekistan's Termez border sent shock waves through the country. Coverage on Moscow news channels showing fanatics yelling war cries "We want Samarkand! We want Bukhara!" caused consternation in the city.

Three years earlier the antics of one Afghan mujahideen had sparked terror in the city. Armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, the gunman burst in on a mullah at the Sufi shrine claiming the Afghans were on their way. "By the autumn Bukhara will be ours!" he cried as police wrestled him to the ground.

The Afghan claim to Bukhara goes back centuries to when nomadic tribes roamed the steppes of former Turkistan. They claim their Persian, Tajik speaking ancestors settled the area first founding great cities and civilizations.

In 1996 many wondered whether the region, with its close ties to Afghanistan, would run with the Taleban, swelling the ranks of those struggling to establish an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia.

But Bukharans, far from joining the Taleban and their ilk, actively shied away from any kind of fundamentalist encounter. Bukharans have their own brand of Islam, which does not square with the fanatical tactics of the rebels.

"Bukhara would never collaborate with the fundamentalists. In fact they would be very disappointed in us," said Firuza, a graduate from Bukhara State University. Her mother is a spiritual healer who holds regular seances with the aid of a dead spirit.

"Pacifying dead spirits, consulting fortune tellers and mediums, the evil eye, cursing and being cursed, these are the norm for us. Strict Muslims in the [Fergana] valley don't even consider us Muslim."

For almost 900 years Bukharans have venerated the Sufi saint Bahovaddin Nakshbandi. His shrine, 12 kilometres outside Bukhara, attracts thousands of visitors each year and homage to Nakshbandi plays a pivotal role in the local Islamic traditions.

"We say we are Muslim, but we have no idea what that really means," said Dilafruz, a guide at the shrine. "People come here and kiss the tombs of the saints and pray to them and even though the mullahs here try to explain that is wrong, it will take generations before the people understand."

Dilafruz argued Bukhara's unique position as guardian of many of the nation's architectural and religious sites has paradoxically diluted these monuments' spiritual impact by encouraging a voyeuristic, rather than participatory atmosphere. "People like to look and to pay money for prayers, but no-one wants to pray five times a day or abandon ungodly ways," she said.

In Soviet times Bukhara was home to Uzbekistan's only Islamic college, but information and teaching was confined to within its walls. "We knew nothing about our Muslim heritage and many people who call themselves mullahs now were propagating atheism in those days," Firuza said. "Many people became very cynical because they saw first hand the hypocrisy of so-called 'holy' men."

The region's Tajik heritage and distance from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, has created a regional and linguistic pride, which separates Bukhara from the rest of the country. Tajiks have a tendency to consider themselves a cut above the rest, descendents of a superior Persian civilisation, blessed with the "most beautiful language on earth", to quote Firuza's father.

"The truth is, we have always been at the crossroads of major trading routes, we have been used to adapting, sharing ideas and living in peace with others," said Dilafruz. "Hindus, Jews, Arabs and Persians lived side by side for long periods in Bukhara, but it was never like that in Fergana. Much of our Islam has been superimposed on the old Buddhist and Zoroastrian practices. We leap over fires at weddings and we even calculate our birthdays by the Chinese zodiac."

Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov's dream of a Turkey-style secular state is rapidly fading. Bukhara and probably Samarkand appear safe from the fundamentalist enemy for the time being. But crippling poverty, mounting corruption and a spiralling economic crisis are fanning the flames of a purer form of Islam in the east.

Fergana, sandwiched in the mountains between Tadjikistan and Kyrgystan, is particularly vulnerable to the wiles of the opium-funded Taleban whose forays into the hills go largely unchallenged. Their ranks are being swollen with disenchanted and unemployed youths from the valley.

Critics of the government say Karimov's bullyboy tactics are driving genuine believers underground. People are tired of the atmosphere of suspicion and fear created after the Tashkent bombings last year when 5,000 people were arrested and dozens shot for so-called crimes against the state.

"Most people are afraid to admit to anything wherever they live," said Dilafruz. "But it doesn't mean they have stopped believing. Some are turning to desperate measures to regain the Islam they think they are losing. If Karimov is not careful he will lose everything."

Jennifer Balfour worked in education in Uzbekistan for much of the last decade.

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