“Karimov is a ruthless tyrant. He is not interested in the welfare of the people – he is just concerned with maintaining his own power…. He has done all this with complete US support…. The attempt by the Uzbek regime and the White House to dismiss the opposition as ‘Islamic extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ is despicable.” Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan

“We don’t care if 200, 300, or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway.” – Zakir Almatov, Uzbek Interior Minister (“Unrest Spreads”)

The past two weeks saw international attention shift from the Middle East to Central Asia as the crisis between the brutal regime of Islam Karimov and angry protesters in the city of Andijan unfolded. In the process, hundreds of Uzbek protesters, mostly women and children, were killed at the hands of regime security forces and thousands of Uzbek refugees took to the Kyrgyz border. The carnage—the worst since the former Soviet republic won independence in 1991—started on Friday, May 13 when government troops brutally put down a prison uprising by alleged Islamic militants and a demonstration by citizens complaining of dire economic conditions (“Unrest Continues”).

Protestors against Karimov’s tyranny

The protests began when a group of local citizens, angered by the arrest of several Islamist business owners, stormed the prison where they had been held. As events rolled on, about 10,000 protesters gathered in the city to demand the resignation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his government. Some eyewitness accounts suggest that army columns arriving to the scene of unrest randomly opened fire on the crowds, firing round after round without even slowing down to take aim (Bukharbaeva). Other eyewitnesses mentioned that on May 14, soldiers loaded scores of bodies onto four trucks after preventing friends and relatives from collecting them. In order to conceal their crimes, Uzbek authorities imposed a total news blackout on the beleaguered city of Andijan, effectively sealing it off by trucks and armored vehicles and expelling local and international reporters (“Uzbek Opposition”). An Uzbek opposition leader says her party has compiled a list of 745 people allegedly killed by government troops in Uzbekistan—542 in Andijan and 203 in Pakhtabad, another city in the Fergana Valley (“Uzbek Opposition”).

As the conflict extended to other cities, an Islamist rebel leader by the name of Bakhtiyor Rahimov announced that his forces are firmly in control of Korasuv, a town in eastern Uzbekistan with a population of 20,000 (“Muslim Rebels”). In turn, Karimov, seeking to tap in US support for his crimes, immediately blamed Islamic extremists for the entire uprising, claiming that it was organized by members of the pan-Islamic Hizb-ut-Tahrir. While US officials have been inexorably criticizing even the most superfluous human rights violations in states it considers “rogue,” their criticism of the Uzbek regime in this crisis was noticeably mild. In fact, it took the United States four days to react to events on the ground. Eventually, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to put the blame on either side, saying on Monday, May 16 that the United States was “still trying to understand” what happened in Andijan, encouraging the Uzbek regime to pursue more reforms, but suggesting that the Uzbek regime need not “tolerate terrorists or terrorist groups” (“Uzbek Opposition”). Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concerns that Central Asia could be destabilized by recent fighting. Karimov, hoping to prevent the recurrence of the Kyrgyzstan crisis where Askar Akayev’s government was overthrown in March by popular protests, was keen on reassuring Putin concerning the latest events and enlisting him on his side.

In many ways, the events of the past two weeks are a grim reminder of the tyranny and oppression that Uzbeks have to endure under the regime of Islam Karimov, a regime that hosts US military bases and continues to be courted by the West and receives almost $100 million annually from the US government, according to some estimates (Salih). The current crisis represents the ultimate culmination of years of failed state policies, tyrannical leadership, economic desperation, and the United States’ support of “friendly tyrants” in its quest for stability and the control of regional resources.

Islam in Uzbekistan: The Relentless Quest for Survival

The Uzbeks occupy Central Asia’s Islamic heartland of Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley and make up the oldest urban civilization in the region. In fact, the Fergana Valley has always hosted the largest concentration of population in the region and historically functioned as the cultural center of both Islamic piety and Islamic rebellion (Rashid 78). Islam first arrived in Central Asia by the mid-seventh century. By the early eighth century, it was the dominant religion, at least for the elites, throughout most of the region (Gunn 389). From the ninth century onwards, Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, had become one of the Muslim world’s leading centers of enlightenment, hosting famous hadith compiler Al-Bukhari, in addition to renowned philosopher and scientist Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Bahauddin Naqshaband, the 14th-century founder of one of the most influential Sufi orders. Not only was Bukhara a magnet for scholars of many disciplines, but the city housed one of the world’s most extensive libraries of Arabic, Persian, and Greek manuscripts (Gunn 390).

In the Soviet period, Islam was particularly targeted by the Communists because it was considered “backward” and “reactionary” and, most of all, capable of creating nationalist and religious resistance to Communist rule (Rashid 38). As a result, Islamic mosques and schools that had previously contributed to an Islamic renaissance were either closed, destroyed, or converted into

museums and factories. In fact, many Muslim scholars and imams were executed, women were forbidden to wear hijab, and children were not allowed to read the Qur’an. Since the 1960s, the Communist authorities tried to appeal to the Muslim world by loosening some of the restrictions they had previously imposed on the Muslim inhabitants. Even then, however, only an “official” Islam was allowed to thrive throughout Central Asia, where Islamic literature was carefully monitored and “state-approved mullahs” would be appointed to a few local mosques. Seventy years of Soviet repression resulted in a situation where Uzbeks and other regional inhabitants became unaware of the details of Muslim belief and practice, but were still emotionally attached to their Islamic identity and were conscious of the richness of their Islamic heritage. “Unofficial” Islam, manifested in unregistered mosques, independent mullahs, and clandestine home-based religious schools, were able to sustain Muslim faith during the period of Communist persecution.

Karimov’s Era: The Reign of Injustice and Inequality

In the post-Soviet period, Uzbekistan, just like the majority of Central Asian republics, was headed by a former high official in the Soviet Communist Party who owed his allegiance to Moscow. In fact, Islam Karimov, a first secretary of the ruling Communist Party, used his position to gain access to the presidency before and after the 1991 independence. In order to legitimize his rule and to discredit Marxism-Leninism and the steadily rising Islamic discourse, Karimov imposed a new “national ideology” that was published in a series of texts that were heavily propagated through mass media, state institutions, and cultural associations and which eventually became required reading throughout all levels of education (March 371). The so-called “Ideology of National Independence” revolves around themes of state-building and national independence, in which Karimov portrays himself as the last in a long line of Uzbek “state-builders” and “leader-ideologues” (March 374). In the meantime, the Uzbek leader sought to abolish all explicit forms of Islamic religiosity and dissent by arresting thousands of ordinary pious Muslims for alleged links with Wahhabis, closing down mosques and Islamic schools, and imprisoning or exiling religious leaders or mullahs.

The goal of the Uzbek leadership was to transform any independent Islamic organizations into appendages of the president’s ideological department, thereby virtually monopolizing all forms of religious expression. Human rights groups have also documented thousands of cases of torture and religious persecution against even non-violent Muslim dissidents who practice their faith outside state-controlled religious institutions. A 319-page report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan contends that Uzbek security officials have been systematically engaged in inhumane torture methods that involve beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation, suspension from wrists or ankles, rape, and burning with cigarettes or lit newspapers (“Creating Enemies”). Ahmed Rashid vividly describes Karimov’s autocratic style:

He has run an authoritarian state … crushing dissent, banning all political parties (except for a brief period of freedom), exerting complete control of the media—even going so far as to have political opponents kidnapped by his fearsome security agencies from neighboring Central Asian states. … In presidential elections he allows one other candidate to stand against him to give the impression that voters have a choice, but these candidates have either been denied a chance to air their views or are themselves Karimov’s loyalists. A dour, uninspiring, and extremely autocratic figure … he has become increasingly isolated from the public and from political activity over the years, surrounding himself with openly corrupt sycophants. (80-81).

In addition to political repression, the economy of Uzbekistan is one of the primary reasons for discontent and popular anger. Uzbekistan is among the world’s top ten gold producers and the number five cotton producer. The Central Asian republic also possesses huge oil and gas reserves and is self-sufficient in energy. The richness of Uzbekistan’s resources has attracted Russia, China, and the United States—powers that are currently engaged in fierce competition over control of Central Asia and are interested in carving spheres of influence in the Eurasian landmass. Despite Uzbekistan’s natural wealth, its economy continues to suffer from severe economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and steadily declining living standards. In 2003, statistics suggest, the economy only grew by a meager 0.3 percent, and GDP per capita has fallen every year since 1998, reaching $350 per capita in 2003 (“The Failure”). Moreover, Uzbekistan suffers from a burgeoning lack of economic equity, as the country’s multiple exchange-rate system for foreign currency ensures that access to US dollars is possible only for a handful of government-affiliated businessmen who, in turn, also are in full control of the country’s key export sectors (“Uzbekistan’s Reform”).

The result of Karimov’s policies has been the exact opposite of what he had intended: the steady rise of Islamist movements bent upon challenging the regime. Two Islamist movements are worthy of mentioning in this regard: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The former explicitly calls for the overthrow of Karimov’s government and the establishment of an Islamic state. The IMU was created in the late 1990s, and it has allegedly been responsible for a series of sensational raids and kidnappings and the bombing of several government buildings in Tashkent in 1999. On the other hand, Hizb-ut-Tahrir aims at the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate ruled according to Shari`ah (Islamic Law) but proposes the achievement of such a task through non-violence. The group’s main tenants are “the just distribution of resources, profits, and property, just governance, the elimination of corruption and the common ‘brotherhood’ of the entire Muslim World” (Gunn 400). The movement propagates its message by the distribution of confrontational and highly sensational literature that portrays current regimes as corrupt, pro-Western, anti-Islamic entities that need to be removed from power. However, the movement does not explicitly demand of its supporters the use of violence to achieve its goals.

A Troubled People Abandoned

The catastrophic events that have been unfolding in Uzbekistan over the past two weeks are not only indicative of Karimov’s dictatorial style and his tyrannical leadership, but are also a test of America’s self- proclaimed goals of freedom and democracy in the Muslim World. Since 9/11, governments across the region have exploited America’s myopic preoccupation with the need to fight “terrorism” for the purposes of strengthening their grip on power and ignoring international pleas for reform. Since they have now become America’s valued partners, regional regimes see no need to reverse course.

In fact, they have reached an implicit understanding that they have a “green light” in persecuting their opposition and crushing domestic rebellion in cold blood and still be immune from prosecution or even inquiry. The silence with which the world and, in particular, the United States has dealt with this crisis will undoubtedly heighten the sense of abandonment and disillusionment that the local population will feel towards a superpower that relentlessly claims to support freedom and democracy, yet constantly sacrifices the interests of the poor and the destitute on the altar of strategic interest and economic gain.

*Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian analyst based in Cairo, Egypt. He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision-making, nuclear politics, and Middle East politics. He is currently a PhD candidate at the American University in London, and a teaching assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.

Source: MuslimUzbekistan

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