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Uzbekistan: State-Run Pilgrimage Prompts Complaints

Secret police surveillance and extortion by officials mars the hajj experience.
By Salim Pulatov
The annual hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is always a sensitive time for the Uzbek government, which takes a dim view of anything that looks like religious zeal, even though most of its population is Muslim.

As the pilgrims return from Saudi Arabia – the first planeload arrived on December 12 and the last is due in on December 20 – some in the Muslim community are complaining that they had to bribe their way into taking part in this important religious rite.

The annual hajj, like the running of the country’s mosques and even the sermons preached in them, is carefully directed by the Uzbek state, through the security services and the Muftiate, the clerical body in charge of what is often termed “official” Islamic practice.

This tight control is motivated by fears that “unofficial” Islam might provide a channel for expressions of popular dissent, especially as there are no legal opposition parties.

President Islam Karimov began his time as post-Soviet leader in the early Nineties by eliminating popular Islamic clerics who did not share his vision of religion as an instrument of state policy. This clampdown led to the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which conducted armed guerrilla raids in 1999 and 2000 – resulting in mass arrests.

The radical Hizb-ut-Tahrir was dealt with similarly, although it continues to operate covertly despite indiscriminate arrests which saw members and non-members alike swept up and sentenced to long jail terms.

The government continues to see anything that looks like an uncontrolled expressions of Muslim faith as a threat, and tries to control this by maintaining a network of spies in the mosques and deciding who gets to go on the hajj.

“Karimov has always been worried about strong adherence to Islam among the population,” said Ikram Yakubov, a former intelligence officer in the National Security Service, SNB, now living in emigration. “He has therefore made it a priority to fight against practicing Muslims.”

Yakubov says the SNB service maintains control over all aspects of Islamic affairs and has a special office dealing with the hajj.

He says that appointments of imams, the clerics who lead prayers in the mosques, always have to be cleared by the security service. “In the big towns, the important imam-khatibs are regarded as SNB agents and get their main wage from the agency,” he said.

The same claim was made by Tashpulat Yoldashev, a former Uzbek diplomat now living abroad, who says that “there isn’t a single clerical figure from the mosque leader to the cleaner who doesn’t cooperate with the security service”.

When it comes to the hajj, the Uzbek government imposes a limit of 5,000 people who are allowed to perform the rite, a once-in-a-lifetime trip that counts as one of the five basic obligations of Muslims. The hajj falls during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and this year it took place from December 6 to 10.

The quota is far smaller than Uzbekistan could claim under rules laid down by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, designed to ensure that all countries have fair access to the hajj while preventing overcrowding.

Each country can send one person for every 1,000 resident Muslims. Kyrgyzstan, for example, is just about on target with 4,500 pilgrims out of a total population of five million, as is Tajikistan with 5,000 for a population of seven million. Uzbekistan sends the same number, yet it has a population of 27 million, the vast majority Muslim.

As well as controlling numbers and barring anyone they deem suspicious, the authorities require travellers to use only the state airline and charge them a fee of around 2,600 US dollars, which is 600 dollars more than pilgrims in Kyrgyzstan have to pay.

The selection process, travel and payment are dealt with by local “hajj centres” around the country, and people are not allowed either to make their own arrangements or to start off from a neighbouring country, which used to be possible.

Commenting on the 2008 hajj, the chief cleric of the official Muslim establishment, Mufti Usmonkhon Alemov, said it had gone particularly smoothly because the Uzbek foreign ministry had appointed a diplomat in Jeddah to deal with arrangements at that end, whereas before this used to be handled by foreign companies.

However, some pilgrims would not agree that the Uzbek end of the trip was trouble-free.

Because places on the hajj list are in such short supply, officials are able to extort illicit payments. In Uzbekistan, bribery is endemic as a way of securing things to which one is rightfully entitled.

“By restricting the quota, the authorities create an artificial shortage,” commented a travel agent in the eastern city of Namangan. “So those wishing to go on the hajj seek to increase their chances by [using] middlemen to get onto the list of pilgrims and fulfill their dream.”

According one imam in Namangan, the going rate for a bribe there was 3,000 dollars this year, while in the capital Tashkent it reached 5,000 dollars.

On the trip, the pilgrims are accompanied by SNB officers disguised as devout believers. Yakubov says their job is to watch the others, gather information and deal with any trouble that might arise, such as an anti-Karimov protest action.

Yoldashev said that in addition to the hand-picked imams appointed “group leaders”, each group of Uzbek pilgrims is accompanied by “a certain number of SNB people who keep a close eye on the pilgrims’ conduct in Mecca and Medina”.

Both Yoldashev and a staff member of an official hajj centre said the reason why Uzbek pilgrims are charged so much for the trip is to cover the costs of the SNB men accompanying them.

These elaborate precautions might seem excessive given that the authorities have already had a chance to weed out any would-be pilgrim they view unfavourably. But commentators say the authorities do not want the travellers to be subjected to any kind of foreign influence.

As Yoldashev put it, the Karimov administration “restricts travel abroad [for devout Muslims] so that they won’t gain much of an impression and won’t say there are people elsewhere living better than those in Uzbekistan”.

Although the Uzbek economy is in poor shape, and things are likely to get worse as the effects of global financial crisis kick in, there is no shortage of people wanting to perform the hajj.

According to an RFE/RL radio report in November, people who failed to get on this year’s list are already queuing up for an opportunity to make the trip in the next three years.

Salim Pulatov is a pseudonym for a journalist based in Kyrgyzstan.

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