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Uzbekistan: Analysis From Washington -- Fighting Fundamentalism With Sufism

Washington, 11 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Tashkent is actively promoting the ideas of an Islamic sect with deep roots in Uzbek society in order to inoculate its citizens against the appeals of Islamic fundamentalism.

This use of a mystical trend in Islam to fight an inherently political one appears to have achieved some success, but it may ultimately backfire on the Uzbek authorities.

Najmiddin Kamilov, a senior Uzbek official who has written widely about Sufism, said last week that by promoting the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which has promoted the adoption of Sunni Islamic precepts to local popular practices, "our people and our army will be stronger and better able to defend the homeland."

Kamilov's views were echoed by Vernon Schubel, a Western specialist on Islam who teaches at Ohio's Kenyon College. He noted that Islamic fundamentalists "see Sufism as a pollution of Islam, so to put Sufism forth as the real Central Asian Islam is a way of combating other forms of political Islam." He added that he believes the Uzbek government views this approach "as a kind of inoculation."

Among the steps taken by the Uzbek authorities are the promotion of scholars who advocate Naqshbandi ideas, the erection of billboards featuring quotations from the 14th century founder of that mystical group, and renaming the main street in Bukhara. In Soviet times, that avenue bore the name of Vladimir Lenin. Now, it is called Bahauddin Naqshbandi Prospect in honor of the order's founder.

What makes these actions stand out is that the Uzbek authorities, from President Islam Karimov on down, have repeatedly attacked fundamentalist Islam as a threat to stability there. They have banned fundamentalist religious literature and arrested Islamic activists. And in recent weeks, they have suggested that fundamentalism is behind the current military insurgency across Central Asia.

During 1970s and 1980s, many Soviet officials and Western scholars identified Sufism in general and the Naqshbandi order in particular as a threat to stability in Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Historically, they noted, many of the most committed opponents of Russian rule in these areas were Naqshbandi followers, and consequently, they suggested, the spread of Sufism within "underground" Islam pointed toward a revolution.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many officials in the new Central Asian countries initially adopted a rather undifferentiated approach to any kind of Islamic belief beyond the officially approved religion that they felt they could control.

But during the past few years, the governments of these countries have begun to make some critical distinctions, most importantly between fundamentalists who seek to create a theocratic state and thus challenge current political arrangements and others, such as at least some followers of the Naqshbandi order, who in the words of Kamilov, has "adapted to local circumstances."

Followers of this group, Kamilov argues and Schubel concurs, are less likely to be attracted by the political program of fundamentalist groups who reject the veneration of local saints, object to special local pilgrimages, and abhor the respect the Naqshbandi followers have for many pre- or non-Islamic practices. Indeed, in Uzbekistan at least, they argue, Naqshbandi beliefs can serve almost as a national faith.

But in many respects, this attempt to use Sufism to combat fundamentalism is fighting fire with fire. While followers of the two trends dislike one another and disagree on many theological and practical points, they share in common a distaste for many of the actions and corruption of the successor regimes in Tashkent and elsewhere in Central Asia.

Moreover, the two groups have in common an underground kind of organization, fundamentalism because of its radical rejection of all civil authorities and the Naqshbandi Sufi order because its propagation has always been based on groups of the followers of a particular saintly leader. By their very nature, such organizations are often beyond the control of the state.

Not surprisingly, the Uzbek government has tried to block the formation of such orders lest they become a threat to the regime. But in promoting the ideas of the Naqshbandi order, Tashkent may find that its success in inoculating its citizens against fundamentalism will not provide the guarantee it seeks to allow it to control an increasingly numerous, impoverished, and restive population.