Role of Islam in Uzbekistan Certain to Grow
Role of Islam in Uzbekistan Certain to Grow
A leading analyst says it is inevitable that Islam will gain ground as a political force in Uzbekistan, especially after the current president eventually leaves office.
In light of a report by the Tashkent-based Expert Working Group called “Ideology of Uzbek-Language Jihadist Movements”, NBCentralAsia asked Azhdar Kurtov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, to comment on the argument made in the paper that Islam is inexorably becoming a major force in Uzbekistan.
NBCentralAsia: Does such a thing as “Uzbek-language jihadism” really exist? If so, what is it?
Azhdar Kurtov: I don’t see anything unusual about the term itself. The Uzbek ethnic group lives not just in Uzbekistan, but also in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan. That’s a very large number of Uzbeks who might have aspirations to political status. All sorts of conflicts have arisen in this regard. One of the major players in the Afghan civil war [early 1990s] was General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek… Uzbeks played a significant role in the Northern Alliance, even though numerically, they could not aspire to leadership in Afghanistan.
Then there are the events of 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, when clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz resulted in bloodshed in Osh. One cause of the violence was said to be the Uzbeks’ desire for autonomy.
So the Uzbeks are an important population.
The Uzbeks of Central Asia are the most populous and most settled nation, they have a greater tradition of statehood than their neighbours, and greater claims to regional leadership. They haven’t achieved this leadership because they have fewer natural resources than Kazakstan, and this has created certain conflicts. Also, the Uzbeks have much more of an Islamic doctrine than the Turkmen, Kazaks or Kyrgyz.
NBCentralAsia: Organisations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, have been used as an instrument to intimidate the Uzbek people. There are many people in jail for involvement in the IMU.
Kurtov: That’s quite correct. After Uzbekistan became independent [in 1991], radicalism emerged as a major threat to the authorities…. In a traditional Muslim society, the banner of Islam can be raised against the ruling regime. President Islam Karimov and his circle understand this very well, and use the police to crush every opportunity for this, even though people are keen to practice their religion outside the strictures of the state.
The IMU really has made itself evident, with terrorist acts on central Tashkent squares and attempts to infiltrate Uzbekistan via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are indisputable facts.
The IMU’s actual situation, though, remains opaque – we don’t know the numbers involved, their location, who the leaders are, whether the IMU is in contact with al-Qaeda and what that relationship looks like, or whether it wants to create a kind of caliphate in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. No one knows for sure whether all this is true, or whether it’s been invented by Uzbekistan’s intelligence service. Because the Uzbek justice system is sui generis and the state is secretive and doesn’t allow freedom of speech, all these things need to be checked carefully.
NBCentralAsia: What are the real risks that Uzbekistan will face once coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan?
Kurtov: The American withdrawal could have a negative impact on Uzbekistan… it’s a serious security risk. If the might of the Americans and their NATO allies haven’t coped against the Taleban, who knows what will happen with a new [Afghan] government? It might simply be swept away, and the radicals could then take control of the whole of Afghanistan. No one can say how they would then act. The threat to Islam [Karimov] would increase. He understands this, and is trying to be part of various international initiatives on Afghanistan, and not to quarrel with the United States and Russia, as he realises doing so could leave him with no one to turn to for help.
NBCentralAsia: Despite its friendship with Russia and the US, will Uzbekistan remain true to older traditions such as Islam?
Kurtov: In today’s Uzbekistan… the Soviet past is ignored, history is rewritten, and reference points are being altered. I believe this a political mistake – it isn’t that easy to develop a new ideology based solely on Uzbek identity, by playing up certain historical periods such as [14th century ruler] Amir Timur.
In general, I believe Islamisation is inevitable for Uzbekistan, because it is part of the Islamic world. And because its trouble neighbours… Afghanistan and Iran are overflowing with radicalism, it’s inevitable this will spill over the borders.
Karimov has tried changing tack by assigning importance to the “mahalla”, local community assemblies. But secular institutions can rapidly change. Everything seems to be under control at the moment, just like the activities of religious groups. But Uzbekistan is on the threshold of leadership change, and it’s unclear who will take over from Karimov. His successor will most likely be younger man brought up within a different system of values. Hence, Islamisation of Uzbekistan will become inevitable.
Interview by Yulia Goryaynova, IWPR editor in Bishkek.
This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.