This year, Uzbekistan is organizing its first ever nation-wide al-Quran reciters competition (Muslim.uz, December 22, 2017). Perhaps this kind of competition would be a run-of-the-mill event in any other Muslim majority country; but for Uzbekistan, which is trying to unshackle itself from the repressive policies of the past, it signals a major change in the government’s policy and carries a special meaning for the majority of its Muslim citizens (see EDM, February 27, 2018).
Under the late Islam Karimov, the first president of Uzbekistan, who ruled with an iron fist for more than 25 years until his sudden death in September 2016, the country had a reputation for restrictive and suppressive policies toward the pious segments of its Muslim population. Harrowing stories abound of overtly religious Muslims being blacklisted as antisocial elements, jailed for choosing to wear a hijab or growing a beard, or undergoing even worse for having publicly complained about the state’s restrictions on their constitutional rights to freely practice their religion (Fergananews.com, August 8, 2002).
Karimov, who is officially portrayed as the founder of Uzbekistan’s independence and is revered by state propaganda (Islomkarimov.uz, accessed April 12, 2018), had a complicated relationship with Islam throughout his time in power. He was suspicious of Islamic clerics, especially those who refused to follow his will. In fact, many accused his government of using the threat of Islamic radicalism and extremism as a convenient pretext to suppress all kinds of opposition in the country (Aljazeera.com, January 8, 2016).
Over the years, all famous Muslim clerics with large followings inside the country were either jailed, eliminated or had to flee. Official propaganda still defends Islam Karimov’s record and heavy-handed tactics by highlighting the difficult domestic political situation in the country in the early years of independence. Moreover, the state narrative credits him for not allowing Uzbekistan to fall into chaos like in neighboring Tajikistan in the 1990s, where a civil war broke out between the United Islamic Opposition and Soviet-era secularist elites.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s current head of state, President Shavkat Mirziyaev, who has gained the reputation of a reformer, has likened the various injustices and sufferings unleashed by the Uzbekistani law enforcement bodies toward their own people under Karimov’s rule to Soviet NKVD repressions of the 1930s. He has vowed that, under his watch, they will not be repeated (YouTube, December 25, 2017).
Many senior officials and generals of the penitentiary system, the National Security Service (NSS) of Uzbekistan, and the Attorney General’s Office, who were responsible for creating the repressive state machinery, are now on trial. They face charges of jailing innocent people, subjecting inmates to torture and killings, extorting businessmen, or taking bribes (Ozodlik.org, March 1, 2018).
The overall situation indeed seems to be moderating and liberalizing, albeit not without hiccups. On the one hand, the government is doing away with many ill-considered exigencies that proved useless in tackling radical Islamic ideologies and often damaged the country’s image abroad. On the other hand, overzealous Youth Union activists are still reportedly forcing female students to remove their headscarves when entering universities (Kun.uz, February 26) and banning bearded male students from attending classes (Kun.uz, February 26). Moreover, reports persist of authorities turning to torture to extract confessions from Muslim individuals suspected of being members of extremist groups, in the absence of solid incriminating evidence. This has raised some doubts about the sincerity of the government’s reform efforts (BBC—Uzbek service, March 14).
Nevertheless, the broader trend indicates that Uzbekistani officials are increasingly realizing that allowing access to traditional Islamic education is a necessary precondition to prevent the spread of radical Islamist ideologies as well as to uphold traditional Uzbek values. The citizens of Uzbekistan who carried out terrorist attacks in New York and Stockholm in 2017 were easily radicalized while abroad as they did not receive any Islamic education while living in their home country (Reuters, November 2, 2017). Unlike Karimov, who restricted Islamic education in the country, President Mirziyaev could be truly following his predecessor’s grandiloquent motto that “negligence should be fought with enlightenment.”
In fact, last year was unprecedented for the number of restrictions on Muslim religious practice that were lifted by the authorities. Mirziyaev reopened several Islamic educational institutions and ordered that evening Islamic religious schools be opened across the country. His government also boosted the annual Hajj pilgrimage quotas from 5,000 to 7,000 and promised more increases in the future. Additionally, Mirziyaev initiated legal procedures to pardon thousands of Muslim inmates who were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of religious extremism and conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order—two signature accusations widely used against troublesome citizens and critics of the government (see EDM, February 27, 2018).
Moreover, various conveniences are being instated for Muslims to be able to fulfil their religious duties. Mosques in Uzbekistan are now permitted to use loudspeakers for calls to prayer; prayer rooms are being opened along inter-city highways, at airports and in other public places; restrictions for public servants to attend Friday prayers have been lifted; the NSS no longer controls mosque activities; the Islamic Board of Uzbekistan’s State Standardization Agency has adopted the Halal standard; and finally, the government has started promoting Islamic religious tourism to its historic cities by allowing visa-free travel for citizens of large Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia (Xabar.uz, March 2).
With Mirziyaev’s prodding, local Islamic scholars were also stirred to lead efforts to remove thousands of Muslim believers and their families from the government’s blacklist. As Mirziyaev admitted earlier this year, many of the individuals on the blacklist suspected of radicalism were added based on gossip or rumors. All restrictions imposed on these individuals and their family members, such as bans on access to higher education or employment in public service, were lifted (Azon.uz, January 29)
Despite various reforms and liberalization taking place in all spheres of life in Uzbekistan these days, the questions still remain whether those changes are sincere and will be continued in the future. Recurrent mismatches between President Mirziyaev’s rhetoric and various cases of repressive actions by some officials and law enforcement bodies have been a characteristic feature of Mirziyaev’ first year and a half in power. This fact, therefore, justifies a certain degree of caution regarding the future of Uzbekistan’s reforms (Xabar.uz, April 4).