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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.

A police officer responds in Almaty after a gunman targeted police and left seven people dead.

Kazakhstan has been going through some tough times recently.

There were widespread protests against government land-reform plans in late April that culminated in countrywide rallies against government policies on May 21. Hundreds of people were arrested in the days leading up to and on the day of that protest.

Then in June, an armed group roamed the streets of the northwestern city of Aqtobe in an incident that left 28 people dead, most of them from the armed group, and that has just been followed by a killing spree by a lone gunman in the commercial capital, Almaty.

Certainly, these are occurrences the general population would like to be informed about, especially when the situation is evolving rapidly. But it has been difficult to receive accurate information -- or sometimes even any information -- from media and officials, especially from the country’s president, while these events unfolded.

In this most recent incident, on the morning of July 18, reports said policemen in Almaty had been shot, that attacks might be happening at three places in the city simultaneously, and that people should stay indoors.

Some local television channels “decided” to suspend broadcasting. So many of those who heeded the warning to stay indoors were left to use cell phones or the Internet to receive information about what was happening in Almaty. Kazakh officials have warned repeatedly against relying on information spread via social networks.

Some of those television channels that went off the air explained they had planned to do maintenance at that time and stuck to their schedules, despite the crisis situation unfolding in Almaty. When they did resume broadcasting, many of the channels had prepared reports about events in Almaty. The Khabar channel had a reporting team at the scene when it came back on the air in the early afternoon.

The temporary suspension of broadcasting is actually to be expected. Regulations adopted in 2014 obligate owners of media outlets -- print, radio, or television -- to hand over texts of their reports to the local "komendatura," the officials in charge of preserving order during a state of emergency, 24 hours before the reports are published or broadcast.

No one at the television stations said that was the reason for being off the air, but management is surely aware of these rules.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

After the suspect in the attacks was apprehended in Almaty, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said, “It is important to rigidly suppress panicky rumors…and inform the public about Almaty events.”

It was a quick response from Nazarbaev, since he remained silent and out of the public eye for several days in the wake of the June 5 attack in Aqtobe and after the unsanctioned demonstrations on May 21.

The Kazakh president seems lately to prefer allowing top officials to speak when crises break out, but this, too, has led to some confusion, mainly due to what appears to be a rift between the Interior Ministry and the National Security Committee (KNB).

Commenting on the Almaty attacker, KNB chief Vladimir Zhumakanov, who was appointed to his position at the end of last year, said the assailant was a terrorist who had been imprisoned for robbery and had fallen under the influence of Islamic radicals while incarcerated.

The Interior Ministry later portrayed the Almaty attacker as a petty criminal who, having been released from jail, decided to target police in revenge for being imprisoned. Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov said on July 19 that the gunman said during questioning that his initial plan had been to attack judges and employees of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

Following the June 5 violence in Aqtobe, when police were still searching for fugitives, KNB chief Zhumankanov was shown on television on June 7 briefing President Nazarbaev about the situation. Zhumakanov told Nazarbaev there was information earlier that day about an attack on a kindergarten and children’s summer camp. But shortly after that, the Interior Ministry released a statement denying there were attacks at either place.

Kazakhstan has been relatively free from acts of violence, mass killings, terrorism, and large-scale unrest throughout its nearly 25 years as an independent country. Incidents so far in 2016 have shown authorities still need to learn some things about how to respond to such crises when they occur.

But part of that response should be assigning some official or officials to keep a steady line of communication open to the public through the country’s media.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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