Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Close Shave for Uzbek Men

The government's crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism is causing difficulties for men with beards.
By Umar Odil

Amid the noise and bustle of the family council, Nasir K, an observant Muslim, hung his head low as his relatives and friends issued pleas and threats, urging him to stop "betraying" them. His crime against the authorities in his Andijan hometown of Shakhrikhan was an unusual one - he has a beard.


In today's Uzbekistan, men are asking for trouble if they don't shave. To have a beard is to invite unwelcome intrusion not just into your affairs, but those of your family and friends.


As a result of a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalism, Uzbek officials now regard all bearded men with suspicion, and often point to facial hair as proof of affiliation to banned religious organisations, such as Hizb-ut Tahrir or the Wahhabi movement.


Nasir K had grown his beard for reasons of faith but, unwilling to put his family in danger, he compromised under pressure and shaved most of it off, leaving only a tiny strip on his chin. However, this wasn't enough for the law-enforcement agencies.


The harassment only stopped after he took to wearing spectacles with clear lenses. "Now I am being stopped much more rarely, since with these glasses I look more respectable and the police reckon that I'm a scholar," he told IWPR.


Others are not so determined to hang onto their principles in the face of the crackdown and it is now rare to see anyone other than the most elderly and thus respected Uzbek men wearing a beard.


These attitudes developed after a group of Muslim radicals was implicated in the violent murder of a high-ranking official in the Fergana valley town of Namangan in 1997.


They hardened after explosions ripped through the capital Tashkent in February 1999, killing 16 people and wounding more than 100. The government blamed the blasts on religious extremists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.


Long after the alleged plotters were caught and punished, mass arrests have become the norm as the authorities attempt to neutralise what they see as the biggest threat to national security - radical Islam.


This has brought the government into conflict with human rights organizations, which claim that many ordinary observant Muslims have been targeted. For some, the continuous suspicion and harassment can make their lives very difficult.


Khamid Kamalov, a bearded man from Namangan, told IWPR he is stopped by policemen on nearly every corner when he visits the capital or other large cities. "They ask 'Are you a member of Hizb-ut Tahrir?' or 'Are you a Wahhabi?', " he said.


"Then they start to check documents for hours and, finally, it only becomes possible to get rid of them with a bribe of around three thousand som - two US dollars."


Andijan resident Ilkhomjon Muminov was refused a new passport when his old one expired, because the photograph he submitted with his application showed him sporting a beard. "When workers of the passport department saw my picture, they told me, 'We will issue you new documents only when you shave'.


"When I said that having a beard is not against the law, the police told me that they have their own internal rules, instructions and directives."


An official in the anti-terrorism department of the interior ministry, who wanted to remain anonymous, told IWPR that grounds for "closer investigation" of a man suspected of involvement with an outlawed Islamic organisation include a beard, regular visits to the mosque and offering prayer.


"These people were a threat to our constitutional system. We had to prevent the possibility of further terrorist acts and the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan," the source said as justification.


Indeed, the message from the authorities that "beards are bad" seems to be getting more explicit. Imam Nusratulla Abdulla Khodji Ugli, again from Andijan, said that he believes having one is a "religious duty".


"Lately, because of religious movements such as the Wahhabists and Hizb-ut Tahrir, members of the national security service told us to stop preaching about the need for Muslims to wear a beard." he said.


Umar Odil is the pseudonym of an independent journalist from Andijan