By Igor Rotar
“Members of the Uzbek special forces and Interior Ministry not only record video footage in local so-called Wahhabite mosques and search and interrogate Kyrgyz citizens suspected of adherence to Wahhabism, but also forcibly abduct them to Uzbekistan,” Prism was told by Valery Uleev, the coordinator of the human rights organization “Justice” in the Dzhalal-Abad Oblast of Kyrgyzstan. “In the past year we have recorded ten cases of the abduction of Kyrgyz citizens by the Uzbek authorities. In reality the number of people kidnapped is much greater, because by no means everybody turns to our organization for assistance.”
Wahhabism is a doctrine of Sunni Islam which appeared in Arabia in the mid 18th century based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated strict observance of the principle of monotheism, rejecting the veneration of saints and holy places, and ridding Islam of popular cults and innovations. Wahhabism is close to the official ideology of Saudi Arabia. However, the term Wahhabites can only be applied to Central Asian believers with serious reservations. The Uzbek authorities, for example, attach the label “Wahhabite” to any Moslem who attempts strict observance of the canons of Islam and wears traditional clothes. In this respect, it is interesting to note the opinion of Mahmud hadja Nuritdinov, the head of the International Center for the Study of Islam, officially supported by Tashkent: “Wahhabites believe that it is compulsory to pray five times a day and to fast, and that those who do not do this are not real Moslems. They believe that women should wear clothes which cover their entire body and face. Meanwhile, even most Islamic scholars admit that a woman’s body should only be entirely covered at prayer, and that in everyday life her face and hands may be bare.”
“Today the word “Wahhabite” is no more than a label in Central Asia,” Prism was told by the president of the Islamic Center of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan Sadikdjan hadji Kamaluddin, who is often described by the local press as the leader of Kyrgyz Wahhabites. “The label is actively used not only by statesmen but also by believers themselves to discredit their opponents. For example, when a disagreement arises between two Imams they immediately start calling each other Wahhabites, although neither of them have any idea what the word really means. Some believers in Central Asia really do try to follow the original laws of Islam, unburdened by later cultural developments. However, it would be fundamentally wrong to call such people Wahhabites.”
Having suppressed the Islamic fundamentalists (the so-called Wahhabites) in his own country, Uzbek President Islam Karimov quickly encountered a new problem. Religious dissidents transferred their centers to the neighboring oblasts of Kyrgyzstan. “We are constantly confiscating fanatical religious literature coming into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan, and there is a center for sending pilgrims to Mecca whose services are actively used by Wahhabites from Uzbekistan. So the authorities here are forced to take certain steps,” Mahmud hadja Nuritdinov said.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect is that the Uzbek “power structures” (employees of the special forces and police) are particularly active in the south of Kyrgyzstan–in Osh and Dzhalal-Abad Oblasts. This region is in the renowned Ferghana basin, where the population density is one of the highest in the world and certainly the highest in Central Asia. There is a theory popular among political scientists specializing in Central Asia that the main catalyst for all conflicts in the region is the shortage of irrigable land, and so the Ferghana basin is a potential source of instability for the whole region. In 1990 there were bloody clashes in Osh Oblast between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz which claimed many victims. The consequences of the conflict are still felt today; relations between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the south of the republic remain tense. Local Uzbeks, who make up around 25 percent of the population of the region, are unhappy at Kyrgyz domination of the authorities. For example, in Dzhalal-Abad oblast, where the proportion of Uzbeks is about 25 percent, of the 56 leading town and regional officials there is just one Uzbek, of the 58 leaders of oblast bodies there are just two Uzbeks, and the titular nation make up about 90 percent of police officers.
Of particular concern is the fact that attempts are being made to attach religious significance to the potential interethnic conflict. “Most of the so-called Wahhabites in Kyrgyzstan are Uzbeks by nationality,” says the president of the Islamic Center of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan Sadikdjan hadji Kamaluddin. “And the Kyrgyz media are already publishing articles indiscriminately describing all Uzbeks in the republic as Wahhabites. One might think that certain forces want to see a repetition of the Osh tragedy, but this time with a new religious overtone.”
Kamaluddin’s view is not unfounded. Indeed, one forms the impression that someone is deliberately trying to provoke a new interethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. Last summer a minibus was blown up in the town of Osh, and then a few months later an immigrant from the Uzbek town of Namangana left a package which turned out to contain a bomb in one of the traditional (non-Wahhabite) mosques. Articles immediately appeared in the local media claiming that the investigators had information suggesting that both terrorist acts were the work of Uzbek fundamentalists. However, there is another possibility. According to Uleev, Dzhalal-Abad Uzbeks noticed that the Uzbek special forces were accompanied around southern Kyrgyzstan by criminals who had been involved in pogroms during the 1990 events. “This is very dangerous,” Uleev believes. “There have been many examples of criminals being released from prison just before mass interethnic conflicts. It cannot be ruled out that Tashkent is deliberately trying to provoke an interethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.”
“The threat of Wahhabism in our republic is greatly exaggerated,” Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev said in conversation with Prism: “Incidentally, the word Wahhabism itself does not have negative connotations: It is used to describe those Moslems who aspire to a pure faith. It seems to me fundamentally incorrect to equate extremism with one concrete religious tendency. There are extremists in any religion, certainly not only in one particular tendency in Islam. Exerting pressure on one particular group of believers may have negative consequences: It may drive them underground and effectively push them towards terrorism. I personally have a great deal of respect for many of our Wahhabites: There are many intelligent and educated people among them, such as Sadikdjan hadji Kamaluddin. It was he, by the way, who once nominated me as a candidate for president of the republic! I think that our Wahhabites also want peace in the republic, just like other Kyrgyz people. In this respect, it seems wrong to me to compare the situation in our republic with that in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In those republics religious extremism is not only an issue today–it was also a problem back in Soviet times. If I don’t have problems with religious extremism, why would I want to create them artificially?”
Given that Bishkek is reacting barely at all to the activities of Uzbek special forces in the republic, such a tolerant attitude on the part of the Kyrgyz leader towards Islamic fundamentalism cannot give rise to surprise. One might suspect that Askar Akaev has no desire to irritate the regional superpower unless it is unavoidable, and for this reason turns a blind eye to the activities of the Uzbek special forces in southern Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan regularly cuts off the gas supply to southern Kyrgyzstan (which results in a real humanitarian disaster every time), making it demonstrably clear to Bishkek who the real boss is. Yet at the same time, the economic dependence of Bishkek may not even be Tashkent’s most effective means of putting pressure on its neighbor. The main threat may be that of a potential recurrence of the events in Osh.
Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.