Rising Islamization in Uzbekistan worries progressives and ethnic Russians
TASHKENT – Sergei grew up in Namangan, the city in eastern Uzbekistan where Islamic traditions have persisted despite decades of atheistic Soviet rule.
As a young communist in high school in the 1980s, Sergei was ordered to a nearby bazaar to forcibly remove the burqa – locally known as “paranjas” – from any Uzbek woman who dared to wear one. a.
Authorities demonized and ridiculed heavy, black, shapeless paranjas with horsehair veils that made women appear eyeless as a sign of “medieval obscurantism”.
State campaigns against these Islamic garments have gone hand in hand with efforts to give women access to higher education and economic independence – and have been hailed as “the awakening of the Eastern woman”. .
“There was a lot of shouting and protests,” Sergei, a scrawny, mustachioed bookseller, said in his apartment in Tashkent. “I never thought they would come back.”
But some four decades later, they are the starkest visual example of the dizzying speed of Islamization taking place in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country with some 36 million people.
Coupled with the real or perceived threat of a resurgence of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, Islamization has alarmed many people and sown panic among the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking community of Uzbekistan.
Some of them, including Sergei, who owns a small bookstore and who for decades rejected the idea of moving to Russia or elsewhere, want to leave because of this.
Renaissance or radicalization?
While paranjas are rare in the capital, Tashkent, many women, including teenage girls, wear the hijab and dress conservatively. Their numbers have multiplied several times since the government of President Shavkat Mirziyoev lifted a ban on the wearing of headscarves in public places in July.
And many men have full beards, which was deemed impossible and even perilous during the reign of Uzbek’s first president Islam Karimov from 1991 to 2016, a former Communist Party apparatchik who initially resisted the dissolution of the government. ‘Soviet Union.
His government even ordered the police to arrest and forcibly shave the bearded men and question them about their alleged “Islamic radicalism”. Thousands of Muslims who practiced their faith outside of government-approved mosques have been jailed, rights groups and Western observers say.
After coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoev first granted amnesty to many imprisoned Muslims and secular dissidents and gradually relaxed religious freedoms – a policy that was recently reversed with the imprisonment of suspected Islamists, as reported in a report for the American Council on International Religious Freedom.
These actions are no doubt taken because of the speed of Islamization in the country. “You can see the growing number of young radicals, and the government [indirectly] encourages him [with its policies]Nigara Khidoyutova, who was expelled from Uzbekistan after co-founding the opposition Free Farmers Party in 2005, told RFE/RL.
“Coupled with growing corruption, a weak civil society, youth illiteracy, and pervasive lawlessness and injustice, this creates an explosive mix that only needs a spark,” he said. she declared.
Inspired by the Taliban
Another recent event – the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August – has made Islamization more worrying for the ethnic Russian community of around 720,000 people in Uzbekistan (there were around 1.65 million Russians groups in the Uzbekistan SSR in 1989).
Some Uzbek clerics hailed the Taliban’s triumph, saying on Telegram channels and social media that they were inspired by the “expulsion” of Americans from the war-torn country and argued that Afghan society was based on sharia.
Timir Karpov, human rights defender and founder of the 139 Documentary Center art gallery, told RFE/RL that “the ideas of the Taliban” have gained popularity in Uzbekistan. “That is why [so many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers] are tense and have their suitcases ready,” he said.
The Taliban have sent delegations to Central Asian countries and Moscow to assure them that their ethnic Pashtun movement no longer embraces international jihadists such as Osama bin Laden and will treat Afghan minorities, including Uzbeks and Tajiks.
But many Uzbeks remember the panic caused in 1999, when a squad of Taliban-backed Uzbek Islamists briefly seized a village in southern Kyrgyzstan and demanded passage to the Uzbek side of the valley. from Fergana.
Even though Bishkek and Tashkent said the insurgents were eventually “liquidated”, the raid spurred a small exodus of ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers and even progressive ethnic Uzbeks.
Renowned Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov coined the term “mankurt” for his 1980 novel The Day Lasts Over A Hundred Years to describe a thoughtless slave – a condition created by a form of torture involving shrunken camel skin tied around the head shaved.
Nationalists across Central Asia use the macabre term to describe their ethnic relatives – Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbeks – who grew up speaking Russian. And the Communists have done everything to create generations of “mankurts”.
Soviet Uzbekistan absorbed several mass migrations, including the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Jews who were evacuated to its warmer, war-free climes during the Nazi invasion of the USSR during the Second World War.
Many chose to stay – and witnessed the arrival of entire deported ethnic groups – Crimean Tatars, Pontic Greeks, Volga Germans and Koreans from the Russian Far East. After the 1966 earthquake leveled parts of Tashkent, tens of thousands more people arrived from across the Soviet Union to help rebuild the city.
“Sovietization” equaled the Russification of locals and newcomers. Many urban Uzbeks sent their children to Russian-language schools, while nearly all Uzbek men completed two years of compulsory military service during which they were required to speak Russian.
Another major factor that robbed Uzbeks of their immense cultural heritage was when Moscow replaced their Arabic-based alphabet in the 1920s with a Latin alphabet and then a Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s.
Arabic education in Uzbekistan was reduced to a single university, while the only theological school in the USSR operated in the ancient city of Bukhara – and was shown to foreign Muslim dignitaries such as the Prime Minister Indian Lal Bahadur Shastri or boxing champion Muhammad Ali as proof of “Freedom of Religion.”
The theological works of Muslim renaissance men such as Avicenna were no longer available to generations of Uzbeks, and their religiosity was reduced to knowledge of basic prayers and rituals.
But in places like the densely populated Ferghana Valley, Islam has remained entrenched in many areas of life. One of the main towns in the valley, Namangan, played a crucial role in the birth of Uzbek jihadism.
The 1981-91 Soviet-Afghan War gave thousands of Central Asian conscripts a chance to see a deeply religious Muslim society.
Two ex-fighters and natives of Namangan, Tohir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, declared sharia law in Namangan – their hometown – in 1991 and publicly humiliated President Karimov when he arrived for interviews and made mistakes in the ritual Islamic prayer.
Yuldash and Namangani then fled to Afghanistan to launch the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (MIO) which staged the 1999 incursion into Kyrgyzstan and later fought the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Years after the death of the founders of the MIO, many of its members pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and transformed it into the Islamic State-Khorasan group which currently fights the Taliban.
Russians in Uzbekistan aren’t always familiar with the intricacies of their fight in Afghanistan – but see how that influences religious Uzbeks. “The Taliban may not come here today, but they are affecting the spirit of the locals,” Fyodor, Sergei’s son-in-law, told RFE/RL. He is also preparing his luggage to go to Russia, citing Islamization as the main reason. He is ready to sell his small publishing house and his apartment in a luxurious building.
Fedor worries about the future of his 5-year-old daughter, Polina, who is the only ethnic Russian in her kindergarten class. “She has no one to play with,” he said as she quietly watched a Russian cartoon on her phone.