After the Uzbek massacre

02 November 2006

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 organisation.

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 Asia.

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 radical Islamists.

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;

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