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'Reforming' Uzbekistan Makes Big Additions To List Of Banned Material, Websites

Since coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoev has taken some steps to ease restrictions introduced by his predecessor.

Authorities in Muslim-majority Uzbekistan have extensively updated their list of banned religious literature, websites, and other material that officials believe contain extremist content and present a security risk to the nation.

A copy of the draft document obtained by RFE/RL shows that dozens of books, websites, videos, as well as the social-media accounts of religious figures, preachers, and outlawed organizations have been added to the new list.

The majority of the blacklisted material focuses on interpretations of Islam, political Islam, jihad or holy war, and criticism of how Islam is being regulated by the Uzbek government.

Some of the newly banned items, however, will raise some eyebrows: the document bans a book by renowned Pakistani author Ahmad Rashid and a video report by U.S.-based Vice News.

The state Religious Affairs Committee confirmed to RFE/RL on January 20 that the so-called blacklist has been updated and submitted to the Interior Ministry.

An excerpt from the new draft document of banned materials
An excerpt from the new draft document of banned materials

The committee said the list is reviewed regularly but didn’t provide further details. It remains unclear when the list, approved by the committee on December 25, will be made public.

The 40-page document is significantly more extensive than the 2019 version, which was just two pages and included only 40 social-media profiles, pages, and television channels.

The new list reiterates the existing ban on all material by all outlawed groups and movements, such as Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, Nurchilik, Akramiya, and Katiba Tawhid wal-Jihad.

The document says all of the materials on the list are prohibited from being produced and disseminated in Uzbekistan or brought to the country from abroad.

What's New On The List?

One banned article -- Democracy, An Infidel System -- claims that democracy is being imposed by the West on “Islamic” countries and that democracy has no relation to Islam.

A poem -- The World Is Being Filled With Corruption, by an unknown author -- is among numerous works banned on the new list.

The poem describes how “the faithful are coming under pressure, Muslim women are seeing off their husbands to prisons...and the loyal are being martyred,” the document says.

One banned poem criticizes Uzbek authorities for celebrating the pre-Islamic new year, Norouz, while not paying attention to Islamic celebrations.

It says Uzbeks are now afraid of attending mosque prayers, young men can’t grow beards, and women are unable to wear Islamic clothing because of pressure by the authorities.

Another poem on the banned list condemns Uzbeks for celebrating the modern New Year. Also on the blacklist is a Sufi book of poems compiled by an Uzbek editor.

Among other things, the list prohibits the book On Greeting Jummah Mubarak, which refers to a tradition of congratulating someone with "Happy Friday."

The book, according to the government document, claims that greeting each other with "Jummah Mubarak" is a practice that doesn’t exist in Islam. Its inclusion on the list is also unusual because such a greeting is uncommon in Central Asia.

The list bans numerous materials that promote jihad and the creation of an Islamic state system. The banned list includes several poems that call on Uzbeks to remember their Islamic duties.

Social-media accounts and videos of several imams and religious preachers -- including Uzbek, Russian, and Arabic speakers -- that have been accused of promoting extremist ideologies were also added to the list.

Beheadings And Karimov Criticism

Ahmad Rashid’s book Jihad: The Rise Of Militant Islam In Central Asia has also been declared to be banned “extremist” material.

The document claims the book “contains biased opinion about the situation on religion” that “could lead to misunderstandings and division.”

The new list also includes a 56-second, English-language video by Vice News that shows “militants from Central Asia fighting in Syria to create an Islamic caliphate.” The unnamed report allegedly includes a beheading scene by militants speaking Uzbek.

A book by Uzbek writer and government critic Nulillo Otakhonov -- aka Nurillo Muhammad Raufkhon -- has also made a surprising comeback to the new list.

Titled These Days, the religiously themed memoir harshly criticizes the policies of former authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who was in power from 1989 until his death in 2016. It also condemns Karimov’s crackdown on Islam.

The book, published in 2016, had previously landed its author on the Uzbek authorities’ blacklist of potential extremists.

He was charged with undermining the state and spreading material that endangers public security and order.

Otakhonov returned to Tashkent from a two-year exile in Turkey in September 2017 after it was reported that his name -- along with thousands of others -- was removed from the blacklist under a decree by President Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Uzbek media reported at the time that These Days was added to the list of banned material, but it didn’t appear on the 2019 list, published by the Justice Ministry.

A 2018 law on battling extremism bans the export, production, publication, sharing, and promotion of all material, content, and symbols deemed extremist.

Sources in Uzbekistan’s law enforcement agencies told RFE/RL that those detained with banned material usually face charges of “production, storage, distribution, and promotion of materials containing a threat to public security and public order” and “smuggling...materials that promote religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

Since coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoev has taken some steps to ease restrictions introduced by Karimov, who took an extremely harsh stance on religion.

Mirziyoev released hundreds of Muslims believed to have been imprisoned on trumped-up, extremism-related charges. About 16,000 more were removed from the some 17,000-strong blacklist of potential extremists.

Despite the measures, religion in Uzbekistan remains strictly controlled by the government.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.