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Qishloq Ovozi

A combo photo of Uzbek national Abdulkadir Masharipov, suspected of being the gunman who killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub.

The words "terrorist attack" and "Uzbek" have appeared together several times in 2017 -- starting just minutes into the new year with a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub. Turkish police said the suspect was born in Uzbekistan and had trained in Afghanistan. In early April, when the St. Petersburg subway was bombed, Russian investigators said the attack was carried out by a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek with Russian citizenship. Just weeks after that, in Stockholm, a truck attack that left four dead was admitted to by an Uzbek national.

Now, in New York, the October 31 pickup-truck attack that left eight dead is being pinned on a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan.

It is obvious that the alleged actions of four people do not speak for a worldwide Uzbek population of some 30 million, but to a global news audience that is generally unfamiliar with the closeted and predominantly Muslim state and its people, the question inevitably arises: When it comes to Central Asians and terrorist attacks, why is it that Uzbeks are so often linked to the violence?

In the case of each of these four attacks, the suspects had been outside Uzbekistan (or, in the case of the St. Petersburg attack, Kyrgyzstan) for several years.

This, at least according to recent studies, would place them at greater risk of being radicalized. Open Democracy, for example, concluded that Central Asian migrants in general are more susceptible to the ideas of radical Islamic groups once away from their homelands.

For most Central Asian migrants, this means Russia, where several million take up work as seasonal laborers. Some are exposed to the propaganda of Islamic extremist groups while there. Some become radicalized, and of those who do nearly all are believed to travel on to conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

Strangely enough, while there have been reported cases of groups -- and, in some cases, communities -- of people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan picking up and leaving to fight in those conflict areas, there have been no documented cases of a group from Uzbekistan doing so.

Yet, it is not individual Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, or Turkmen whose names become tied to terrorist attacks abroad, further raising the question of "why Uzbeks"?

Part of the answer may lie in the repressive and turbulent environment of post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

Under President Islam Karimov, who died last year after ruling Uzbekistan since the country became independent in 1991, dissenting voices -- especially Islamist ones -- were viewed as challenges to the regime, and muted.

Anyone who criticized the Uzbek government was immediately branded as an enemy of the state, as was the case with one of the first to criticize Karimov’s rule, a group called Adolat (Justice).

Adolat was an Islamic group that advocated in the first weeks of independence that Uzbekistan move toward an Islamic form of government.

When the Uzbek government tried in late 1991 to exert more control on the eastern region of Namangan, where Adolat was active, by ordering the replacement of local clerics, it didn't go as planned. Tens of thousands of people turned out to protest, prompting Karimov to travel to the area to try to calm the situation. Instead, he was made to sit and listen while a young would-be cleric named Tohir Yuldash lectured the Uzbek president about good governance.

Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the deadly New York City attack on October 31
Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the deadly New York City attack on October 31

It was the last lecture Karimov would ever listen to from an Islamic group.

From then on, the Uzbek state held sway on all things Islam in the country, regulating what could be preached in mosques, what could be taught in madrasahs, even what was considered acceptable clothing and appearance for Muslims.

It left many of Uzbekistan’s Muslims pondering whether their faith was being tailored to serve the state, and led to questions about the role of Islam in society and personal obligations to the religion.

Of those who left, some turned to alternative sources of information, such as the teachings of foreign mosques or radical Islamic voices disseminated on the Internet.

This alone does not answer the question as to why Uzbek names appear to have been more commonly associated with terrorism attacks of late, but it helps paint a picture of repression that could help foment enmity.

In Uzbekistan, quite simply, Islam emerged as a force of resistance to the government.

Uzbek authorities stamped out secular opposition within the first few years of independence, despite warnings at the time that they would drive the opposition underground, where it could be radicalized. That is exactly what happened.

The same Tohir Yuldash who lectured President Karimov in Namangan in December 1991 reemerged in 1999 as the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose initial goals were to overthrow Karimov’s government and establish an Islamic caliphate in its place.

The IMU never came close to achieving its goal, though it did continue to worry the Uzbek government from lairs in Afghanistan, where the group joined with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But the IMU did plant the idea that, when it came to Uzbekistan, Islamic-based resistance might be the most effective resistance to the Uzbek government, specifically, and to repression in general.

The reality is that there are now many Uzbeks far from Uzbekistan, in foreign countries, in alien cultures. Some have experienced difficulties assimilating; some are isolated; many struggle financially.

Of these, some seek solace in the guidance they receive via their computers; they search Internet websites seeking answers, acceptance, and a purpose.

The specific incident or moment that transforms them is always different, but the chosen response -- resorting to violence -- is often the same and, at least to some extent, may be explained by their experience growing up in post-independence Uzbekistan.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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