Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 13

By Igor Rotar

The Fergana valley is a special region of Uzbekistan. Cut off from the rest of the republic by mountains, it is more closely economically linked with the parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also located in the valley. The population density here is the highest in Central Asia, and one of the highest in the world. One village melts into another, and it goes on like that, all through the valley. In the opinion of many scholars specializing in Central Asia, there are no purely religious or ethnic conflicts here. The main and only factor which could provoke bloody unrest here is the shortage of arable land. Following this popular theory, one may say that the Fergana valley is the most dangerous zone in Central Asia.

The cities in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley have long been praised as the largest theological centers independent of the government in the former USSR. The official clergy had been closely connected with the government, and in essence, became a stratum of the party nomenklatura, and consequently, could not inspire the trust of the Islamic dissidents. In the early 1990s, hundreds of “alternative” mosques and madrassahs [Islamic seminaries], independent of the official clergy, were created in the Fergana valley. The city of Namangan, located in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley, became the center of “alternative Islam,” and soon, this city became widely known in religious circles outside the republic as well.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has rather unpleasant memories of the Fergana valley. In 1992, the Adolat (“Justice”) movement appeared in Namangan. The Adolat-ists had created something like the Iranian “Islamic Revolutionary Guards.” Young people with green armbands appeared in the most unexpected places in the city, “punishing” those who, in their opinion, had violated the law.

The punishment of captured thieves and prostitutes was rather exotic, from the point of view of Western jurisprudence: they were made to sit backwards on a donkey and led through the city, while pedestrians spat in their faces. They were also flogged in the mosques. Crime in the city was virtually liquidated. Even today, residents of Namangan recall, not without nostalgia, that at that time, people could leave their cars unlocked, and traders in the market did not have to hide their goods for the night.

At first, Islam Karimov looked on Adolat’s activities favorably, but soon, he began to understand that he was no longer the master in Namangan. The showdown came when Karimov visited the city. The Uzbek president was met by a huge crowd. He was so intimidated by this unexpected reception that he not only agreed to hand over the former Namangan oblast party committee building, to be used as a Muslim women’s hospital, he also vowed to create an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek president could not forgive this humiliation. Several weeks later, the Adolat activists were arrested and received long prison sentences.

The situation in the Fergana valley was further complicated last December, when several high-ranking officials were killed in Namangan region. The government blamed the murders on “Wahhabis.”

The police and the security service made mass arrests in the Fergana valley. And, as the executive director of the Europe and Central Asia branch of Human Rights Watch, Holly Cartner, and the coordinator for the CIS countries for the same organization, Aleksandr Petrov, who had just made an inspection trip through Uzbekistan, told Prism: “The police detained and arrested suspects, as a rule, without warrants. Frequently, small quantities of narcotics or bullets [in Uzbekistan, possession of bullets is forbidden by an article of the Criminal Code] are planted on them, or they are simply beaten until they sign a confession.”

“Clearly, there are Wahhabis in Uzbekistan, above all, in the Fergana valley — Namangan and Andijan. I can’t deny that many of those arrested were, in fact, adherents of that branch of Islam. But there is no doubt that this trial was fabricated by the government. I can’t help noticing a strange coincidence: as soon as the conflict in Tajikistan died down, these events took place in the Fergana valley. I guess that Karimov simply needed to find a new ‘threat’ to justify the necessity of his dictatorship. New presidential elections will be held in the year 2000. And our president, Islam Karimov, has already begun to prepare for them. He understands quite well that the Islamists are his main rival. If the elections were held now, their candidate would undoubtedly get about 70 percent of the vote. Therefore, Karimov simply has to get rid of this dangerous rival before it’s too late,” Mikhail Ardzinov, the chairman of the unregistered independent human rights community in Uzbekistan, told Prism.


In a Muslim country, declaring war on Islam directly is more than just a risky undertaking. Tashkent has therefore camouflaged its goals. Officially, in Uzbekistan, they are not fighting against Islam, but against “Wahhabism.” But, as Prism’s correspondent has been able to observe over his trip to the Fergana valley, in practice, it is not simply adherents of that sect, but all Muslims who try to observe the canons of Islam undeviatingly, who are subjected to persecution.

“The Wahhabis say that you have to pray five times a day, that you have to fast, and that anyone who doesn’t do that isn’t a real Muslim. In their opinion, a woman has to wear clothes which cover all of her body and face. But even the majority of Islamic scholars admit that a woman only has to have her body completely covered during prayers, and that in everyday life, she can go about with her face and hands uncovered,” Makhmud hadji Nuritdinov, the head of the International Center for the Study of Islam, told Prism. To an outsider, Nuritdinov’s arguments sound paradoxical: an Islamic theologian trying to prove that some of the main canons of Islam are not obligatory.

But it all becomes clear, if one understands how the institution Nuritdinov heads was formed. The Center was created by an order of Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers, and is financed 50 percent by the government and 50 percent by the muftiate (the Spiritual Administration of Muslims).

It is quite significant that in a conversation with Prism’s correspondent which lasted more than two hours, Nuritdinov made practically no mention of the theological disagreements between the “Wahhabis” and the branch of Islam traditional for Uzbekistan. The Center’s director only spoke of how the “Wahhabis” were fanatics. Nuritdinov himself, and consequently, the official authorities, advocated a so-called “enlightened Islam.” What is meant by this term is not exactly clear. But in practice, it is hard to characterize the actions of the “enlightened Islamists” as anything else than a fight against religion.

By a special order of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims, it is forbidden to broadcast the call to prayer over a loudspeaker. After a verification of registration, more than half of the mosques in the country were closed. In Uzbekistan, it is forbidden to appear in government buildings in religious attire. Twenty-one students have been expelled, and another 58 are under threat of expulsion, for wearing religious attire (for female students, this means wearing a khijab [a long dress and a scarf covering the head], and for young men, wearing a beard). A special amendment to the Criminal Code has been introduced, banning the use of religion for the purposes of: disturbing the peace, disseminating slanderous and destabilizing fabrications, or committing other acts directed against the rules of behavior in society and social security. Violators may be punished with a prison term up to five years.

And as often happens, people who implement a policy are frequently overzealous in enforcing the law. Today, on the streets of the republic’s cities and villages, you will not see any man younger than forty with a beard — such people are taken to the police immediately.

Average citizens are scared. A taxi driver was terrified because I had taken his picture: “But what if you write a ‘bad’ article about Uzbekistan? They could put me away for the rest of my life!” My question about what would happen to someone who criticized Karimov openly scared an old man so much that he grimaced: “I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy. The poor devil would simply disappear.”

At trials in Uzbekistan, “Wahhabis” are being accused of trying to overthrow the constitutional order. But these trials look like a clumsily prepared show. The bent heads of the defendants are ready to confess to any crime the investigators suggest.

“The ‘Wahhabis'” guilt has been proven convincingly — they criticized the actions of the authorities and called on the people to live according to the laws of the Shariah,” Marat Zakhidov, the chairman of the Human Rights Committee — the only human rights organization officially registered in Uzbekistan — told Prism.

Unsurprisingly, this argument has not found support among Western human rights activists. “The government is tarring all Muslims with the same brush — both those who may have criminal intentions and peaceful believers who simply have beards and go to the mosque,” says Holly Cartner, the executive director of the Europe and Central Asia branch of Human Rights Watch.


But after neutralizing the Islamic dissidents in his own country, Islam Karimov had to confront another problem. The Uzbek dissidents, in essence, moved their centers to the bordering regions of Kyrgyzstan. “We are constantly confiscating fanatical religious literature coming to us from Kyrgyzstan. … So our government has simply been forced to take certain measures,” Nuritdinov told Prism.

In the Kyrgyz city of Kara-Suu, which is located near the border with Uzbekistan, a crowd of locals almost tore Prism’s correspondent limb from limb when he tried to take pictures. “The people thought you were an agent of the Uzbek security services. These days, they are making themselves at home here. Virtually all the Uzbek religious dissidents hiding in our republic have already been arrested by the Uzbek security services. But, perhaps by mistake, they have also arrested several citizens of Kyrgyzstan and taken them off to Uzbekistan,” Sadikdjan hadji Kamaluddin, the president of the Islamic Center of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, told Prism.

Kamaluddin is a well-known figure in Kyrgyzstan. From 1987 to 1990, he was the Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, and from 1990 to 1994, he was a deputy in the Kyrgyz parliament. Kamaluddin is an ethnic Uzbek (Uzbeks are compactly settled in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region and make up about 25 percent of the republic’s population) and is one of the most authoritative figures in the local Uzbek community. In the Kyrgyz press, he is periodically called a “Wahhabi” and is accused of receiving money from Saudi Arabia.

“Today, the word ‘Wahhabi’ is nothing more than a pejorative term. Whenever two imams argue among themselves, they start calling each other ‘Wahhabis.’ But neither knows the real meaning of the word. Some of Kyrgyzstan’s believers do try to follow all the canons of original Islam, without its later accretions. But to call such people ‘Wahhabis’ would be fundamentally incorrect,” says Kamaluddin.

In Kamaluddin’s opinion, the religious disagreements in Kyrgyzstan are now so dangerous that they will inevitably grow into a Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict. “Most of the so-called ‘Wahhabis’ in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Uzbeks. And articles have already appeared in the Kyrgyz mass media in which all Uzbeks are loosely called ‘Wahhabis.’ The impression is being created that certain forces want a repetition of the Osh tragedy [in 1990, there were bloody confrontations between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Osh region, in which numerous lives were lost — see “Interethnic Tensions in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh Region, by “Sadji,” in Prism, April 17, 1998], but this time, with new religious overtones.”

The situation in Osh has been complicated still further after the arrest of three residents of the city, whom the authorities accuse of organizing terrorist acts. The authorities say that the detainees are Islamic fundamentalists, and that “Wahhabi” literature was found on them. Additional police patrols have been ordered in the city and the surrounding area. (See the Jamestown Foundation Monitor, June 15, 1998)

But according to the director of the Kyrgyz bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law, Natalya Ablova, there is no real “Wahhabi” underground in Kyrgyzstan. “One can speak of the presence of religious dissidents in Kyrgyzstan, but the overwhelming majority of such people are not engaged in illegal activities. But Islam Karimov has succeeded in putting pressure on Askar Akaev (one may suppose that he threatened him with a repetition of the 1990 events in Osh) to launch a campaign of persecution of religious dissidents here in Kyrgyzstan,” Ablova told Prism.


Translated by Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.