IN THE WAKE of the bloody suppression of a popular uprising in Fergana
Valley of Uzbekistan, many observers fear that indiscriminate religious
persecution is on the increase.
Sadykjan Kamaluddin, the former mufti of Kyrgyzstan, told the Forum 18 News
Service: “These events will undoubtedly increase state control over believers
in Uzbekistan considerably. The actions of the Uzbek authorities very clearly
show their intention to restore order with an iron fist.”
The focus of government action has been militant Islam, but, under the
umbrella of anti-terrorist operations, all unregistered religious groups appear
to be coming under suspicion.
Protestants in the capital, Tashkent, who preferred not to be named, told
us: “Purges are already under way. Religious organisations have immediately
fallen under suspicion. Local authority and secret-police officials are
visiting and inspecting churches.”
The assistant pastor of Bethany Protestant Church in Tashkent told us that
his church had been visited after the service last Sunday. “Local authority
officials were investigating whether we were a proper religious group or a
‘sect’. They talked to us for an hour, before taking away copies of all our
correspondence with government agencies.”
The church has been repeatedly denied registration, and two members,
including the pastor, have been fined for leading an unregistered religious
Other Protestants have confirmed official visits to congregations across the
country since the unrest broke out in Andijan on 13 May. Jehovah’s Witnesses
say that: “Almost weekly there are new cases of fines or interrogations.
However, unlike earlier occasions, since the events in Andijan there are no
accusations that our people are linked to terrorism.”
PRESIDENT Islam Karimov has been haunted by memories of 1991, when he was
paraded and humiliated in front of the crowds in the Fergana Valley city of
Namangan — then in the hands of a radical Islamic group, Adolat. Forced to
endure a torrent of complaints about poverty, corruption, and official
indifference, his feeble defence was answered with jeers. Adolat’s calls for an
Islamic state under shariah law terrified the president. He was determined he
would never face such humiliation again.
Since then, President Karimov has identified his main opponents as
Hizb-ut-Tahrir — an extremist anti-Semitic group that wants to see the whole
world under Islamic rule — and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist
movement that has gone quiet in recent years.
Karimov’s regime now holds more than 7000 political prisoners, says Human
Rights Watch, but the regime has successfully presented its human-rights abuses
as part of the global “war on terror” — even though they pre-date 2001.
Despite this represssion, the Andijan demonstrations showed that the Uzbek
government has failed to stamp out independent forms of Islam. The trials of
real or alleged Islamists are increasingly causing mass protests.
It is reported, however, that the protesters fired on by government
troops were driven on to the streets largely by economic grievances. It is
highly unlikely that the uprising would have occurred had the local economy
been stronger. Living standards in Uzbekistan are among the lowest in Central
Uzbekistan does have a small minority working to overthrow the current
regime and install an Islamic regime, but blanket government accusations
against its opponents have angered many.
As democratic opposition movements have been crushed, many see Islamist
solutions to the crisis as the only available option, despite widespread
reservations about an Islamic regime. By tarring all opponents of the regime
with the same brush (Uzbek officials have even accused Jehovah’s Witnesses of
being Islamic fundamentalists), President Karimov has alienated moderate
opinion. Government actions have driven peaceful Muslims into the arms of
This will continue as long as Islam and other faiths remain tightly
controlled, thus causing fundamentalist Islam to be seen as the only valid
alternative to the current political structure.
RELIGIOUS MINORITIES, including Christians, have cause to fear a future
Islamic regime, since it might remove the few rights they have now. But one
Protestant was optimistic about the future under Karimov. “It’s my personal
view that the crackdown on Muslim extremists will be harsher, but perhaps we
might even see an eventual liberalisation towards others. After all, we weren’t
involved in the unrest.”
Nevertheless, there are no signs that the present regime intends to halt its
widespread human-rights abuses against all religious communities, including
Muslims. The government seems determined that no independent political or
social entities, including religious communities, will be allowed to flourish.
The massacre of men, women, and children is no basis for optimism. Uzbekistan’s
future looks bleak.
Felix Corley and Igor Rotar, are correspondents for the Forum 18 News
Service, which monitors religious freedom;