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Analysis: Religion, State, And Fear In Central Asia

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Central Asia is a region known throughout history for its diversity of devotion. Settled populations produced some of the greatest scholars of the Muslim medieval period, nomads retained age-old shamanistic rituals beneath a veneer of Islamic piety, and the mystical currents of Sufi brotherhoods ebbed and flowed beneath the structures and strictures of orthodoxy. However, the true depth and breadth of belief is difficult to categorize.

The habits of officialdom are more uniform. Although they now profess variations on an Islamic identity, today's Central Asian leaders are still cards drawn from a Soviet deck, ever mindful of alternative sources of authority that might rival their own. They rule states that are top-heavy with mechanisms of control, and religion, with its frank recognition of a higher authority, can serve as the flashpoint for conflict. The cases of two very different religious figures who now find themselves behind bars show, however, that the road to confrontation always winds through local terrain.


At first glance, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah would seem to be an improbable candidate for the role of religious dissident. An ethnic Uzbek, Ibadullah rose to prominence in Turkmenistan, where he served as kazi, or judge, of the Turkmen SSR in the late Soviet period. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became the newly independent country's chief mufti, or highest religious authority with the power to issue rulings on questions of Islamic law. Even as Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov constructed an increasingly idiosyncratic system of one-man rule throughout the 1990s, Ibadullah remained the nominal leader of Turkmenistan's Muslims. One can only guess at the qualities that allowed the chief mufti to survive for so long under a ruler who revived Stalin's cult of personality as a farce of renamed months and rotating gold statuary, but an independent streak is unlikely to have been among them.

As the 21st century began, Niyazov metamorphosed irreversibly into Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, head of all the Turkmen and president for life. With the country's earthly affairs firmly under his sway, he turned his gaze inward, penning a spiritual guide for his subjects. In October 2001, the People's Council pronounced Turkmenbashi's "Rukhnama," or book of the spirit, "the holy book of the Turkmen people."

By early 2003, Ibadullah had fallen from grace. In January, he was removed as chief mufti; and in March 2004 he received a 22-year prison sentence. In the absence of an official clarification, observers have cast about for explanations, citing the former mufti's ethnicity, his resistance to the imposition of the "Rukhnama" as "the holy book of the Turkmen people," or the mundane missteps that can seal the fate of any courtier unlucky enough to anger his overlord.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18 News Service, which focuses on religious freedom issues in the post-Soviet world and has provided extensive coverage of events in Central Asia. He told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on 18 March 2004 that "reports say that [Ibadullah] was removed as chief mufti because of his resistance to Niyazov's desire to see his book 'Rukhnama' have a prominent place in Muslim worship, something offensive -- if not blasphemous -- to Muslims." Forum 18 reported on 4 March 2004 that a copy of the "Rukhnama" is now displayed "at the entrance to every mosque and believers have to touch it as if it were a sacred object." Moreover, Forum 18's April 2004 survey of religious freedom in Turkmenistan noted that at least one mosque had been shut down after its imam "refused to put the 'Rukhnama' in a place of honor."
The government charges extremism, usually buttressing its case with the discovery of weapons or propaganda materials.

Peter Zalmayev, a representative of the New York-based International League for Human Rights (ILHR), told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 19 March 2004 that Ibadullah may have fallen victim to a combination of factors. "Most analysts and regional specialists, including the ILHR, believe that Ibadullah was imprisoned both for his opposition to the forced use of President Niyazov's 'Rukhnama' as a holy book in the country's mosques, and for criticizing Niyazov's policies toward Muslims," he said. "Over the past few years, Niyazov has conducted a campaign of repression not only against ethnic Uzbeks, but also against representatives of other ethnic minorities. Ethnic Uzbeks suffered repressions last year, and Ibadullah's imprisonment was the biggest event on this count."

Khudaiberdy Orazov, former president of the Central Bank and now a vocal exiled opponent of President Niyazov, told Forum 18 on 25 June 2004 that Ibadullah paved the way for his downfall with a 2002 booklet on prayer. "There was nothing political in the booklet," Orazov said, "but Niyazov was angry that someone else was giving orders to the people." According to Orazov, Niyazov told religious officials in August 2002 to remove copies of Ibadullah's booklet from mosques and start looking for a new chief mufti.

Accurate information about Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi is so difficult to come by that we simply cannot say which of the explanations for Ibadullah's fall is closest to the truth. But the incident shows how the travails of a single religious figure open a window on the larger concerns of the state. In Turkmenistan, they include control over society down to the particulars of prayer; the unquestioned personal authority of President Niyazov to inculcate his spiritual ruminations as a sacred text on a par with the Koran; and the promotion of nationalism through the marginalization of ethnic minorities.


The concerns of state power are different in Uzbekistan, but religion is no less a flashpoint. Unlike the former chief imam, Alo Eshonkhujaev (spelled "Alokhon Ishankhojayev" in some reports) was a minor regional figure, yet he was also a product of his country's religious establishment. A graduate of a Tashkent religious school, the 28-year-old was to have become on 1 April 2004 the imam of the central mosque in Margelan, a town in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley. The date proved inauspicious, and the National Security Service (SNB) arrested Eshonkhujaev on 31 March at his home against a backdrop of bombings and shoot-outs in Tashkent.

He went on trial in mid-June on charges of illegal weapons possession and sedition, Forum 18 reported on 29 June 2004. As described by Forum 18 and the Uzbek opposition site Erkinyurt, the trial was a rather bewildering spectacle. Witnesses recanted their earlier testimony. In a marked departure from the norm in Uzbek trials of alleged fundamentalists, the region's chief imam, Sobir hoja Eminov, testified that he had personally recommended Eshonkhujaev for the post of imam and that the young man had never held extremist views. For his part, Eshonkhujaev proclaimed his innocence, telling the court, "I obtained a religious education in accordance with the laws of Uzbekistan and have never done anything against the state." Nevertheless, the court found Eshonkhujaev guilty, and on 6 July the judge sentenced him to six years' imprisonment. Akhmajon Madmarov, a local human rights activist, told Forum 18 that bedlam ensued after the verdict was announced, as the defendant's mother fainted amid cries of outrage from onlookers.

Despite the unusual plea on Eshonkhujaev's behalf from a representative of the Muslim establishment, the would-be imam's case is in many ways similar to other trials that have taken place in Uzbekistan. The government charges extremism, usually buttressing its case with the discovery of weapons or propaganda materials. Human rights activists allege that a militantly secular and repressive government is merely targeting devout Muslims, framing them and often compelling them to confess under duress. When they are granted access to trials, Western observers have often found them flawed and suspect, as Human Rights Watch recently detailed in a 10 September statement about the Supreme Court trial of 15 defendants on charges stemming from March-April violence. For their part, Uzbek authorities have retorted that human rights activists ignore a genuine threat to the nation's stability and coddle potential terrorists by calling them "Muslim dissidents."

Although the cases of Nusrullah ibn Ibadullah and Alo Eshonkhujaev are hardly similar, they demonstrate that the treatment of religious figures can shine a light on the fears of the state. In Turkmenistan, the fear is that the presence of any leader in any area detracts from the golden aura of the supreme leader. Not surprisingly, Ibadullah's successor as chief mufti has already been replaced. In Uzbekistan, the fear is that religion can serve as a vehicle for sedition and antistate violence. For critically minded observers, the question in both cases is whether the state in fact compounds its fear even as it strives to eliminate its sources.