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An Unbelievable Turn In Uzbekistan's Campaign Against Suspect Islamic Groups

  • Bruce Pannier

Many Uzbek followers of the Sufi Naqshbandi order come from the region around the Silk Road city of Bukhara, (file photo)

Many Uzbek followers of the Sufi Naqshbandi order come from the region around the Silk Road city of Bukhara, (file photo)

Authorities in Uzbekistan appear to have found a new Islamic group to worry about, and it happens to be one of the oldest Islamic groups in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reports that, at the start of June, police in western Uzbekistan arrested a group people illegally gathering in a private home to conduct religious services (Zikr). The people arrested are Sufis from the Naqshbandi order.

Eleven people were taken into custody: Four are already in jail, sentenced to four years for a crime; the other seven were given stiff fines on charges that Ozodlik could not discern. It appears to have something to do with alleged ties to a Turkish group.

Given the opaque nature of the Uzbek government, it is difficult to get additional information about this case.

But if these people were arrested and some imprisoned, it marks a drastic departure from the Uzbek government's policy toward the Naqshbandi.

Certainly from the point of view of Tashkent, the Naqshbandi have been a useful order. As they are a Sufi order, purist Islamic groups such as Wahhabis or Salafis consider them heretics, so the Naqshbandi are, or at least have been, above suspicion in matters of Islamic extremism.

But the Naqshbandi are also a uniquely Central Asian Islamic group.

Bahauddin Naqshband was born in 1318 in a village near the ancient Silk Road of Bukhara, in current-day Uzbekistan. Except for two, some record three, pilgrimages to Mecca, Naqshband spent his entire life in the Bukhara and Merv -- near Mary City in present day Turkmenistan -- until he died in 1389.

There are far more interesting facts about Bahauddin Naqshband and the Naqshbandi order. But for the purposes of this story, and for the authorities in Uzbekistan, one of the important things is that Naqshbandi are an indigenous Central Asian group (though the order is among the most popular of Sufi groups and it has spread far beyond Central Asia's borders).

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said in 1993 during a celebration marking the 675th anniversary of Naqshband's birth that it was a suitable order for Uzbekistan to follow.

And the Naqshbandi have another important and more recent place in Central Asia's history.

The people living in the area between Bukhara and Merv today remember the Naqshbandi as the preservers of Islam during the Soviet era.* The Naqshbandi were persecuted before the arrival of the Russians in the 19th century and developed methods of clandestine communications. The experience helped the Naqshbandi to hide sacred books and quietly transmit scripture and proper means of worshipping from generation-to-generation. After the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, members of the Naqshbandi order, as Sunnis, were highly esteemed for their knowledge of Islam.

With all this, the Naqshbandi have been valuable to Uzbek authorities as the latter campaigns against the influence of "foreign" Islamic groups. That makes this information about arrests of Naqshbandi members very interesting, and possibly very problematic for the Uzbek government if it is true.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

*The Naqshbandi were a favorite topic in conversations with people in southeastern Turkmenistan and southwestern Uzbekistan when I was roaming the area in 1991-1993. I do not know how the Naqshbandi are viewed in Turkmenistan today.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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