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Uzbekistan: Government Invokes Islamic Threat To Justify Repression

By Zamira Eshanova and Furqatbek Yakvalhodjayev

Uzbekistan has responded to religious militancy by cracking down on religious expression in general. In an analysis, Uzbek Service correspondents Zamira Eshanova and Furqatbek Yakvalhodjayev argue that the country's laws repressing Islam have backfired.

Prague, 21 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since gaining its independence, Uzbekistan has frequently invoked the threat of Islamic extremism to justify a harsh authoritarianism directed at all groups. In the past year since the February bombings in Tashkent that killed and wounded dozens of people, the Uzbek government has been doing so with renewed vigor.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Islamic scholar Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf expressed his deep regret about Tashkent's suggestions that Islam and Islamic ideas were somehow involved in the Tashkent blasts. The mufti said one of the reasons that the Uzbek government was making this charge is that it has not allowed people in Uzbekistan to explore Islam and to learn its true meaning. Some groups may be using Islamic language, the mufti said, but they should not be confused with genuine Muslims.

"So-called Islamic leaders never studied Islam thoroughly, they don't have a complete idea about its basic principles. But their ambitions are very high."

And to make matters worse, the mufti said, the authorities are now attacking all Muslim groups except those which are totally dependent on the state, an approach that tends to radicalize all of them but does little to build social cohesion. Muhammad Yusuf said that until democratic institutions are in place in Uzbekistan to guarantee religious and other basic freedoms, extremist groups will attract followers.

In a recent speech in Tashkent, U.S. State Department official John Beyrle expressed Washington's concerns about Uzbekistan's repression of Islam. Beyrle called for the modification or cancellation of the country's harsh law on religion. Some may think it is stupid to liberalize laws on religion when it is religious extremist groups that threaten the country's security, he said, but such a view would be mistaken.

In Beyrle's words: "Combating terrorism is very serious. But restrictions on religious freedom don't help Uzbekistan in this fight. When there is no way to express religious belief legally, people have to violate the law. When people have to gather secretly and to find out the ways to spread their literature by illegal ways, they start feeling themselves to be criminals. They start to look at the government as a threat, later as an enemy."

So far, the Uzbek authorities do not seem to be listening. Interior Minister Zokir Almatov recently exhorted a group of imams to rise up against Islamic groups who oppose the state.

"Why, dear imams, have they declared war, in their words, a holy war against you and us? Why you are sitting without acting and keeping silence? Why you are not declaring war against them? If independence of Uzbekistan is sacred to you, you should declare the war from today on! The people of Uzbekistan will be with you!"

His reference to "the people of Uzbekistan" can be interpreted as a populist invocation for another authoritarian crackdown.

President Islam Karimov opened the recently elected (Jan. 22) parliament last month with a speech praising tolerance. He said society cannot move forward without the liberalization and democratization of all aspects of life.

But Karimov has said such things many times before, and Uzbekistan has yet to see any deeds to match those words.