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

Karimov U-turn on Islam

President Karimov is reversing his government's once tolerant attitude towards Islam
By IWPR Central Asia

Back in 1997, one of my students won a scholarship to an American University. He turned down the offer, on the grounds that he resented Western imperialism and would rather go to Cairo and be taught by other muslims.


I used to pass him regularly on his way to prayers. But he would hurry by, head fixed downwards to avoid my gaze. He saw me like he saw most foreigners - as a serious threat to Islam in his country.


Akbar never went to Egypt. Indeed, he is lucky to be a free man. The Uzbek government now sees Akbar and believers like him as endangering the stability of the country.


Uzbekistan is deeply divided over Islam. It has been hovering uneasily between secularism and fundamentalism since independence in 1991. Now, President Karimov is reversing the government's policy of religious tolerance. In 1998, the authorities initiated a campaign of mass arrests against suspected religious extremists.


A Human Rights Watch report released at the end of last year has accused the government of detaining thousands on "ill-defined charges of religious extremism", and closing hundreds of mosques and religious schools. The clampdown followed armed incursions by the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, a spate of bombings in Tashkent in 1999 and an attempt to assassinate Karimov.


All this is a far cry from the early days of independence when the government openly embraced Islam.


Karimov championed the Muslim faith for several reasons. Islamic heroes dovetailed religion and patriotic sentiment. Speaking at the opening of the Al-Bukhari monument in Samarkand in 1998, he said " To be proud of our spiritual heritage and humanistic values is to glorify our independence."


There was also an economic factor, no less important in his eyes. In the honeymoon period following independence, the Islamic world descended on Uzbekistan.


Iran made lavish donations for Islamic education projects; Pakistani tourists came laden with Korans; and Sufi mystics opened a Swiss bank account for their most revered shrine in Bukhara, into which tens of thousands of dollars have since continued to pour.


Sacred holidays and feast days, long observed behind closed doors, were celebrated publicly. Suddenly, it was the done thing to be seen studying the Koran in Arabic; to send one's children to religious classes; to parade one's devotion. As long as one could still enjoy the odd shot of vodka, that is. President Karimov gave the go-ahead for the introduction of religious holidays and ordered mosques and religious schools to be re-opened.


There was uncontainable joy during the first officially sanctioned Ramadan in 1993. Schoolchildren proudly struggled through the ordeal, most managing to fast at least the first and last three days - enough, they thought, to get them to the gates of paradise if not actually over the threshold.


Tens of thousands responded to the sunrise call to prayer at the end of the first fast, most snatching furtive glances at their neighbours, anxious to get the moves and words right.


But few, when questioned, actually knew the reasons for the observance of Ramadan, or how it should be kept. Many thought that by missing a few meals they would wash away their sins; many were doing it simply because it was now allowed. Only a small minority realised that observance of Ramadan was a strict Islamic requirement.


People held religious parties at home for good luck, celebrating the victory of Islam over Communism. Former unbelievers could now declare the real faith they had kept burning all the while "in their hearts". Such a lady was the headmistress I sat next to at an 'Ifthar' party which brought the day's fasting to an end. She was well known for her atheistic stance back in the days of communist rule but she claimed that, in reality, she had always believed.


"It was difficult," she said, "I was a headmistress and had to belong to the Party. I let the children believe in their hearts but could not allow them to do so openly. We had to declare our allegiance to the state, or we would have lost our jobs."


We all raised our hands for the opening prayer and she reproved me for having them apart instead of cupped together. "Your blessing will fall through," she warned, as if she had been doing it right all her life.


But in allowing the country to re-acquaint itself with Islam, Karimov has also opened the way for more radical interpretations of Islam.


Karimov has dealt with the problem as he has dealt with all those who have challenged his authority - by coming down hard on them. In doing so, he has failed to differentiate between extremists and true believers


"All we wanted was to practise our beliefs at last after decades of atheism - we wanted to teach our children and grandchildren and live in peace," said Gulnora, a grandmother in Tashkent. She complains of the ubiquitous police informers, fearing a return to the days of Stalinist terror.


By refusing dialogue with the extremists and using his bully-boy tactics, Karimov risks alienating even those who are on his side.


His refusal to use the new democratic tools at his disposal, his fear of openness and debate and his insistence on old-style indoctrination, is spawning ignorance and subversion which will in the end destroy him.


Jennifer Balfour is a regular IWPR contributor