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

Uzbekistan: Former Mufti Criticises Anti-Islamic Campaign

A respected religious leader has warned that the government's crackdown on Islamic extremism will backfire, radicalising ordinary Muslims.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbekistan's most respected spiritual leader has publicly announced his views of the government's religious policy for the first time, describing the current situation as "totally absurd".


Sheikh Mukhammad Sodyk Mukhammad Yusuf expressed his concerns over the state's heavy-handed pressure on Islam, which he claims is leaving the population - 90 per cent of which is Sunni Muslim - with no access to religious materials or opportunities to study their traditional religion.


He warned that this lack of freedom and information could drive more people into the arms of the very outlawed Islamic groups that the authorities are seeking to wipe out.


"Young people wonder, 'If we are Muslims, then what should a Muslim be like, and what is the Islamic faith?' But they do not find answers at school, at institutes, or anywhere else," he told a press conference organised by IWPR's Uzbek office.


As the only source of information about Islam, outlawed fundamentalist groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir exploit this situation to encourage young recruits, and once they have joined, no one can convince them that the radical interpretation of Islam is not the correct one, he warned.


"President Islam Karimov said that the Uzbek state would fight ideas with ideas, and backward views with enlightenment. If his words had been acted upon, then the Hizb-ut Tahrir would no longer exist in the country. You can put a person in jail, but you can't lock up ideas," he said.


The Sheikh has a very low opinion of the people and organisations responsible for religious affairs in Uzbekistan, including the Muftiyat (the Religious Administration of Muslims), and the level of educational work that they are supposed to conduct among the population.


"Although it is persecuted, Hizb-ut Tahrir has published and distributed 50 books in Uzbekistan, and it publishes a magazine, distributes leaflets and conducts work with people every day, even though its members are in prison," he said.


"However, the people who are responsible for religious affairs in Uzbekistan have yet to publish a single book that challenges the ideas of Hizb-ut Tahrir. Maybe these people cannot write books themselves, but they could at least translate books from Arabic that prove that such ideas are incorrect."


"People who want to disseminate the true Islam cannot do so, as it is forbidden by current laws. This is the reality of this totally absurd situation," he continued.


The Sheikh, who now lives and works in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is a renowned theologian who was once mufti - the head of the Religious Administration of Muslims - in Uzbekistan, and commanded considerable authority and respect among the citizens of the country.


The present mufti, Abdurashid-kori Bakhromov, has published a fatwa, or religious decree, forbidding Muslims to have any contact with members of Hizb-ut Tahrir, but the Sheikh says this measure has not had any effect.


Restrictions on access to Islamic study and also to the teaching and dissemination of Islamic knowledge came after the post-independence growth of various fundamentalist organisations, which have been accused of anti-state activity and violent attempts at constitutional change.


A brutal murder in Namangan in the Fergana valley in 1998 and a fatal bomb attack in the capital a year later, have led to a series of harsh repressions against non-traditional religious groups across the country.


The former mufti believes it was then that the state changed the democratic laws that granted rights and liberties to religious organisations, and the rights of Muslims were severely restricted. Additionally, he alleged that the government tried to reduce the influence of high-profile Islamic figures.


The Sheikh himself left Uzbekistan in 1993 and not of his own free will. Many civil rights activists think he was forced to leave the country under pressure from the government, who accused him of selling copies of the Koran given as a gift by Saudi Arabia. A bomb was even thrown into his home, though he was not injured in the attack.


Independent analysts think he was driven out because the authorities feared his influence and regarded him as a potential rival for power.


He returned in 1999 after receiving an official invitation from the government, which was eager to refute allegations of intolerance to Islam.


However, even now that he is allowed to visit his homeland, the Sheikh does not feel the government wants to help him to work there. At the moment, he is not allowed to publish his enormous 39-volume work Khadis va khaet: The Sayings and Life of Prophet Muhammad, which is his commentary on the Koran.


"I've been asking permission to publish for two years, but they won't let me. When I ask them, they always say that publishing my books would be a good deed, but they don't give permission," he said.


Until he and his fellow scholars are allowed to preach Islam to Uzbekistan's population, the Sheikh warned, there will always be a danger that the country's young people will continue to learn about the Muslim faith from Hizb-ut Tahrir.


Galima Bukharbaeva is the director of IWPR in Uzbekistan.