The Uzbek regime of Islam Karimov held parliamentary elections in December, simultaneously with the contested second round of voting in Ukraine. As a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Tashkent government is openly anxious about the possibility of rapid and extensive democratic reform spreading throughout the former Soviet republics, at the same time as it focuses on the global war on terrorism and its military alliance with the U.S., which commenced after September 11, 2001.
The effectiveness of Uzbekistan in the anti-terror alliance has not, however, been reinforced by the authoritarian stance assumed by Karimov’s government. While the Uzbek regime has used severe repression against the adherents of radical Islam since the early 1990s, the U.S. government has not turned a blind eye against blatant abuses. Moreover a variety of interests in the country—in particular democracy activists and the followers of traditional Islam—are lobbying hard for more openness.
Meanwhile, the Islamist website Muslim Uzbekistan denounced the electoral process as “at least as crooked and bogus as Iraq’s in 2002 or Ukraine’s in 2004.”  When the parliamentary vote was held, memories were still fresh of the murky terrorist incidents of spring 2004, followed by the trials of the 15 accused, and a new round of attacks, in July 2004. Responsibility for both waves of terror was at first ascribed by Uzbek authorities and other sources to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), more recently known as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), as well as the Pan-Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), and a shadowy entity called Uzbekistan Islamic Jihad. During the trial, however, the Uzbek government charged defendants with belonging to a new movement, Jamoat, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda; all 15 of the accused were found guilty and received prison sentences of six to 18 years.
Despite criticism of it, the parliamentary vote was conducted in an atmosphere of notable tranquility. For observers on the ground, the absence of disruption indicated that the IMU/IMT is moribund, if not dead, as an organization. The IMU/IMT is generally reported to have been established in 1996 by two Islamic militants, Tahir Yuldashev, formerly a political leader in Uzbekistan, and Jumabai Ahmadzhanovich Khojiyev, alias Juma Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper with experience in the Afghan war and in the civil war that convulsed Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997.
The relationship of Yuldashev and Namangani long predates the formation of the IMU. In December 1991, both men led an assault on the Communist Party headquarters in the city of Namangan after the mayor refused to give them land upon which to build a mosque. In the following year Yuldashev and Namangani joined the newly established Islamic Renaissance Party of Uzbekistan. However, in a move that pointed towards growing radicalization, they quickly left that organization claiming that it was not genuinely dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. They subsequently formed their own organization, calling it Adolat (Justice) and openly called for the overthrow of the Uzbek regime. The Uzbek government initiated a crackdown against Adolat, detaining nearly the entire membership which led to the inevitable disintegration of the organization.
However, Yuldashev and Namangani managed to escape repression in Uzbekistan and settled in Tajikistan, where they quickly joined the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party. While Namangani participated in the Tajik civil war on the side of the Islamists, Yuldashev traveled to Afghanistan from where he established strong connections with Islamic movements across the region and beyond.
Yuldashev also cultivated links with the Taliban movement which apparently encouraged the embryonic IMU to relocate to Afghanistan. Consequently almost the entire membership of the organization was moved to Afghanistan and inevitably fell under the sway of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In 1999, Yuldashev is said to have been authorized by the Taliban regime in Kabul to establish training facilities in Afghanistan for jihadist fighters. Namangani, who had remained in Tajikistan, began raids into Uzbek territory.
While by all accounts the IMU had become an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, the size and impact of the organization have, however, been exaggerated. While it is true that Muslim discontent characterized the early post-Soviet period of Karimov’s rule, it is also observable that much of the energy of the Islamist upsurge was depleted by the war in Tajikistan.
The appeal and effectiveness of the IMU was also severely undermined by the concentration of its forces in Afghanistan. This became glaringly apparent after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Indeed, following the U.S. led assault on the Taliban regime, IMU forces were scattered, and Namangani was reported killed in November 2001.
The IMU suffered major losses as a result of American bombing and joined Taliban remnants as they retreated to the Afghan-Pakistani border. Yuldashev has been reported alive in Tajikistan and Pakistan. In October 2003 the U.S. State Department reaffirmed its listing of the IMU as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law. IMU had been previously so designated in 2001 and 2002. The U.S authorities described IMU as having “kidnapped foreigners, including four American mountain climbers who were held hostage in 2000 before being able to escape. In 1999, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan took a group of Japanese geologists hostage.”
The renaming of the IMU as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan expresses an interest by remaining cadres of the organization in broadening its activity to the large Uzbek minority in southern Kazakhstan and the Uighur community of western China. The latter territory is known to Muslims as Eastern Turkestan. The Uighur language is close to Uzbek, and the two peoples share Hanafi Sunni and Sufi traditions. The IMU (or what is left of it) is also said to have reoriented itself toward the aggrieved Uzbek minorities scattered throughout Central Asia. IMU infiltration of Kazakhstan is charged by both Kazakh and Uzbek officials. Some Uzbek sources claim that IMU jihadists have traveled to Iraq to fight the multinational forces and the emerging Iraqi regime. A very small number of Uzbeks are reported present at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo.
The central area for IMU activity has been the Ferghana Valley, which is divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzia, and continues to be an area of instability in the region. In November 2004 it was reported that some thousands of people demonstrated in Qoqand against higher taxes and new government policies on trade. The Qoqand protests spread to Ferghana City and Margilon, and then to Karshi in southern Kashkadarya Province. However even the notoriously prolific HuT failed to capitalize on these protests.
In early December, similar events occurred in the towns of Bakht in Syrdarya province and Shakhrikhan in Andizhan province. On December 10 a mass meeting was held near the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, where suicide bombings took place last March. Neighborhood residents were angry at a government decision to demolish local housing for the construction of a road. Once again Islamic groups failed to capitalize on these protests to advance their agendas.
Further proof of the decline of Islamic radicalism in Uzbekistan came at a meeting in Tashkent during the recent balloting. During the meeting the Jewish Chief Rabbi of Central Asia Abraham David Gurevitch announced the opening of a new synagogue in the Ferghana Valley. This detail eloquently speaks to the massive decline of the terrorist threat on Uzbek territory, since anti-Jewish propaganda is a central feature in the discourse of both the IMU/IMT and HuT.
However the situation in Uzbekistan is more complex than it is often made out to be. Karimov is reported to be ill. A succession struggle in the former Soviet republic would be complicated by existing problems: the slow transition from Soviet-style governance, uneven economic growth, and the concentration of power in the present regime. In addition, it is difficult to imagine that the continuing spread of democratizing movements in the former Soviet republics will not reach Central Asia sooner, rather than later.
Notwithstanding these uncertainties, the probability of the IMU/IMT being a serious force in future events in Uzbekistan is very low. The organization’s leadership structure has apparently been permanently impaired by the disaster of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, the failure of Uzbeks and Uighurs to rally to its cause in large numbers, and the broader success of the global war on terror in breaking down the al-Qaeda networks. The time of the IMU, and its particular brand of Islamic radicalism, has passed, and the organization has failed to establish a permanent presence in Central Asia.
Furthermore, allegations that the Uzbek government represses independent and moderate Muslim intellectuals and clerics – the main grievance that, in the past, impelled recruitment to IMU – remain largely unsubstantiated on the ground. Officials of the Ministry of Security Affairs in Tashkent admitted in an interview that the government proposes teaching traditional Islam as a counterforce to HuT, and stated that exclusively security measures against Islamic extremism are insufficient. Ministry agents said they continue to identify and encourage potential defectors from extremist ranks, and that four hundred former radicals were amnestied in 2004, with 2,500 still in jail.
However, using traditional Central Asian Islam as a counter-weight against radicalism and terrorism poses its own unique set of problems. A Yesevi (Turkic) Sufi lodge operates freely in downtown Tashkent, but a mainstream cleric known for his independence from the authorities, Muhammad Yusuf Muhammad Sadiq, the former chief mufti of Uzbekistan, secretary of a network of Sufis throughout the CIS, and operator of the Uzbek-language website www.islam.uz, complained in an interview that most Sufi shaykhs are uneducated and superficial in their religious knowledge. He ascribed this problem to the more general lack of adequate Islamic education in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek authorities need to address these problems in order to prevent the continued disruption of Islamic life in the country by radicals claiming to represent authentic Islam.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent commentator on terrorism and related issues in national periodicals and websites. He is also the author of nine books on political history, the most recent being The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror (Doubleday Anchor paperback).