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Ban On Turkish Soap Opera Reflects Uzbek President's New Approach To Islam

The banning of a racy soap opera that offended Muslim sensibilities would have been unheard of under the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov. (illustrative photo)
The banning of a racy soap opera that offended Muslim sensibilities would have been unheard of under the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov. (illustrative photo)

Endless Love may seem like a harmless television series about forbidden romance to millions of fans in more than 70 countries.

But in Uzbekistan, where religion has been tightly controlled for decades by the state security services under the guise of combating Islamic extremism, a controversy over the Turkish soap opera has signaled an unprecedented turn of events.

Uzbekistan's government has heeded calls from both radical Islamists and moderate Muslims to ban the program.

Such a development was inconceivable before the death in 2016 of President Islam Karimov, the autocrat who had kept Uzbekistan under a tight rein since 1989 and was highly suspicious of devout Muslims.

But a year and a half after Karimov's death, the banning of Endless Love shows that President Shavkat Mirziyoev is taking a new tack toward Islam.

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)

Annette Bohr, associate fellow of the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House, notes that the ban comes precisely as Mirziyoev "is attempting to upgrade the role of moderate Islam and the face of moderate Islam."

Rather than capitulating to radical Islamists who complained about Endless Love, Bohn concludes that the move shows "a willingness by authorities to placate" moderates from the state's official Islamic establishment, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan.

Love Tragedy

Endless Love is about a woman who resists her parents' attempts to arrange her marriage to a wealthy, obsessive businessman. Instead, she chooses a romantic relationship with a man she loves -- the son of a poor barber.

In addition to the theme that love triumphs over arranged marriages, the program also addresses issues like forced marriage, sex out of wedlock, adulterous affairs, unwanted pregnancy, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and suicide.

Produced since 2015 in Istanbul, the series has won an International Emmy Award and has been translated and dubbed into more than 50 languages -- including Persian and Arabic.

It has high ratings in Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Latin America, and much of the Middle East as well as Balkan countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro.

But in Uzbekistan, where it is called Sevgi Iztirobi, or Love Tragedy, the program has rubbed Islamists the wrong way since it began airing in August 2017.

The radical Islamist website published five articles in a February campaign to get the program off the air, claiming that viewers of the show "commit sins with their eyes" and the earnings of voiceover artists who dub the program into Uzbek are "haram" -- forbidden by the Koran.

"We have one choice in front of us," author Said Islam wrote. "Either we will abandon our religion or we will live by Allah's rules."

But Bohr notes that moderate imams from the state-run Muslim Spiritual Directorate have also criticized Endless Love as entertainment "under the sway of Western influence."

"It's not only the [radical] Islamists in Uzbekistan who had problems with that television series," Bohr stresses.

On February 14, Uzbekistan's Qalampir newspaper reported that Prime Minister Abdullah Aripov ordered state authorities to "investigate the nature" of the program to ensure that it doesn't threaten the role of the family in Uzbek society.

By the end of the week, twice-a-day broadcasts of Sevgi Iztirobi by the private channel Zo'r TV came to an abrupt end.

A representative of Zo'r TV, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the channel was ordered by the government to stop broadcasting the program.

"That's why we stopped it," the Zo'r TV employee said. "At this point, we don't know what will happen next. We don't know if it will be a permanent ban or if they will later allow us to continue. We just don't have a clear answer."

Promised Change

President Mirziyoev has repeatedly promised to reverse Karimov's repressive policies and put his government "at the service" of the Uzbek people.

For Muslim worshippers, change has accelerated since January 31, when Mirziyoev dismissed the director of the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

Since then, Mirziyoev has been dismantling the powers of the security service -- calling its agents "mad dogs" and comparing their activity during the past decade with the Stalinist Great Terror of the late 1930s.

Inoyatov's repressive security apparatus had been responsible for reining in radical Islamists during Karimov's rule and preventing the spread of religious extremism.

But Inoyatov was accused of massive overreach by grouping devout moderate Muslims together with radicalized Islamists in a crackdown that included the blacklisting of 17,000 alleged "extremists."

The U.S. State Department lists Uzbekistan as a country of "particular concern" on religious freedom because of the rigid controls the state's Religious Committee, part of Inoyatov's security apparatus, exercised over all religious activities.

Inoyatov's agents were also criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for imprisoning and torturing Islamists, as well as journalists, members of the political opposition, and rights activists.

Since dismissing Inoyatov, Mirziyoev has removed 16,000 names from Uzbekistan's list of alleged extremist Islamists.

Islamic Academy

On February 20, Mirziyoev disempowered the security service's Religious Committee -- halting its activities, ending its oversight authority for all religious education, publications, and gatherings, and sacking its supervisor Aydarbek Tulepov without replacing him.

Mirziyoev has also recently created a specialized academy of higher learning devoted to Islamic studies -- an institution overseen by moderates in the state-run Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan.

Uzbek Muslims attend Friday Prayers at the Hazrati Imom mosque in Tashkent. (file photo)
Uzbek Muslims attend Friday Prayers at the Hazrati Imom mosque in Tashkent. (file photo)

The country's oldest madrasah in Bukhara has also been upgraded to a higher educational institution.

"The idea here is to properly train theologians as a partial antidote to extremists and offer a more educated vision of Islam," Bohr tells RFE/RL.

"There are many other steps that have been taken" recently, some major and some minor, "that show an opening to Islam and a wish to channel Islam more toward a moderate version" with a broadened Islamic hierarchy and institutions within the country," Bohr says.

Another notable development involves Uzbekistan's first mufti after independence from the Soviet Union -- Islamic scholar Sheik Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf.

When Sheik Muhammad Sodiq died in February 2015, state newspapers from the Karimov era did not even bother to report his death.

On the third anniversary of his death, those same publications have been praising him as an important Uzbek religious figure who remained devout even under communism.

On February 9, Mirziyoev signed a decree dedicating a newly built mosque in Tashkent to Sheik Muhammad Sodiq and ordering a documentary to be made that praises his achievements.

Uzbekistan's government in January also began staging a nationwide competition of young people reciting verses from the Koran -- a contest that has been overshadowed by allegations of corruption.

Risky Business

Although Islam has strong roots in Uzbekistan, some Uzbeks are troubled by changes to the country's notorious policies of restricting the religious practices of its majority Muslim population.

Critics warn that Mirziyoev is not a renowned liberal democrat and that his promises to put his government "at the service" of the people should be viewed cautiously.

Ultimately, critics say, Mirziyoev's real motivation is a broader economic goal of attracting more foreign investment to the country to enrich his allies.

Although Uzbek human rights activist Dilorom Ishoqova has worked for years defending the rights of persecuted religious people in the country, she tells RFE/RL she is "very concerned" about the long-term ramifications of strengthening moderate Muslims in state institutions.

"If you remember, President Karimov also started by giving more freedoms for religion," Ishoqova says. "Then he had to roll everything back after seeing where it was all going."

"Now, if things continue like this, Shavkat Mirziyoev may end the same way," she says. "As soon as [radicals] are given more freedom, they start attacking television shows" like Endless Love.

"Later, they will attack television channels, newspapers, and women rights will be their targets," Ishoqova warns. "I am afraid Mirziyoev will not be able to control that."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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