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Uzbekistan: Wahhabis -- Fundamentalists of the Fergana Valley

Prague, 23 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan's government last week officially laid the blame for the murders of four members of the militia in the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan on members of the Wahhabi sect.

It's not the first time the Wahhabis have been accused of causing problems in the Fergana Valley region -- not even the first time in December. Kyrgyzstan, too, is watching the activities of Wahhabis in its own section of the Fergana Valley.

But the Uzbek government's allegations against Wahhabis go beyond the undesirable presence of a "fundamentalist" religious group proselytizing on its soil. This time the charge is murder. But the case, as presented so far, is rather weak, and events in neighboring Tajikistan likely play a much as a role in the campaign against the Wahhabis as any crimes in Namangan.

The Fergana Valley has the richest agricultural land in the area once called Russian Turkestan and later Soviet Central Asia. It is also the location of many of the region's oldest cities: Osh in Kyrgyzstan, Khujand in Tajikistan and Andijan and Namangan in Uzbekistan.

Khujand for example was once known as "Alexandria the Far" named for Alexander the Great, whose troops made their way well into the Fergana Valley. When Islam arrived with Arab invaders in the eighth century, it rooted deeply in the cultures of the area and has since maintained a strong influence on the peoples of the valley. This made the region a natural starting point for religious groups who appeared to spread their word in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. One such group is the Wahhabis.

The Uzbek government has kept a close eye on the Wahhabis who have arrived in the Fergana Valley. The sect's insistence on total adherence to its' interpretation of the Koran has earned it the label "fundamentalist."

Kyrgyz Security Minister Feliks Kulov termed the Wahhabis as fundamentalists only yesterday, and warned of the groups growth in southern Kyrgyzstan near the Tajik border. Since the sect is usually traced to Saudi Arabia, the governments of the Central Asian states are put in a difficult situation of monitoring the sect's activities without doing anything which may offend Saudi Arabia, a leader in the Islamic world and home to the holiest shrines of Islam.

At the beginning of December, a group of masked men killed a highly placed official of the automotive inspection committee (GAI), decapitated him and hung his head in a bag outside the apartment of another police official with a note reading "you are next."

The government in Tashkent responded by sending troops from elite security units to the area. Hundreds of people were brought to militia headquarters for questioning, but no one was held. Then, December 17, security forces located a suspect, Sohib Kholmatov, a Wahhabi, and a gunfight broke out in which three members of the security force were killed, along with Kholmatov.

In the aftermath of the gun battle, the militia and security forces detained hundreds of people again, but were targeting Wahhabis.

There are alternative explanations for the recent events in eastern Uzbekistan. First, while the Wahhabis may be undesirable elements to the governments of the region, they are not known to resort to violence and certainly not the kind of violence seen in the first murder. But, why a group, which knows it is being watched, would kill an official of the automotive inspection committee would seem to call for an explanation eventually.

The decapitation and death threat are more consistent with mafia activities, and Namangan does indeed lie on a well-known drug route. The Uzbek government has always portrayed the country as the most stable in the region, so a mafia war or fight for control of power between local officials, would not be publicized by Tashkent.

Another possible explanation; the upcoming transfer of some government positions in Tajikistan to the government's former enemies -- among whom are members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) -- long banned in Uzbekistan.

The power-sharing deal, part of the peace accord signed in July, has never been to the Uzbek government's liking. Tajik-Uzbek relations have soured this past year, and the introduction of IRP members to the Tajik government is not likely to improve the Dushanbe government's view of its western neighbor. Nor will the government, which has been in power through the Tajik civil conflict -- mostly former Communists -- be in a position to keep Islamic activity in check within Tajikistan. Once they were fighting the "Islamists" -- now, they must govern with them.

The Fergana Valley is a vast area where the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all meet and ideas spread quickly across these borders. For both the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments, this may be the last chance to bring perceived opposition groups, and not only religious groups, under some form of control, before these new influences make their way to the northern areas of Tajikistan.

Other observers have raised the possibility that the problems in Namangan are the work of "someone in the north," meaning Russia. This would seem to be rather far fetched but still, Uzbekistan has done much to keep some distance between itself and Russia, in every way possible. Uzbekistan's success at doing just this has been noticed by the neighboring countries, who often are in conflict with Moscow's policies in the region.

There is a virtual news blackout in Namangan now. The Uzbek government's censorship of the media leaves little hope for obtaining the facts through official channels.

Beyond the killings, the only sure thing is that "hundreds of people" have been taken into custody by the authorities. Wahhabis are the stated target, but no reports qualify who comprises these hundreds of people arrested.

In the meantime, the Uzbek government has poured special troops into its eastern area, and Kyrgyzstan is creating a special committee to deal with "extreme religious groups" in its southern area -- in both cases, regions far from the capitals -- which have already proven troublesome for the two countries' governments.