Uzbekistan and the War on Terror: A View from the Field

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 5

The republic of Uzbekistan, with a Muslim population of 23 million, is the key state in the Central Asian political landscape. Having survived a significant confrontation with terrorism in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and despite the presence of the “non-violent” Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), the country boasts an Islamic university and a roster of legal religious groups including Russian Orthodox, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and sixty-two congregations of Korean Protestants. [1] The question remains, however, can the West look to Uzbekistan as a model for a moderate Islamic polity?


Founded by Juma Namangani, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was known for its ruthlessness, including atrocities against its own members. Namangani, whose real name was Djumbai Khojiyev, aligned the IMU with al Qaeda and was reportedly killed in Afghanistan during the U.S. offensive following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Thirty-four-year-old Hoyaberda Aripov, a defected IMU member, told me in a recent interview that recruits who grew disillusioned with the atmosphere in the movement’s training camps were simply killed. “Seventeen young men wanted to go home to Uzbekistan,” Aripov said. The camp commander, alias Abd al-Aziz, personally murdered them. Their bodies were thrown in a mass grave without any Islamic funeral. Local Tajiks found the bodies because of the odor and reburied them. “The Tajiks told the IMU, ‘You are not Muslims–you killed your brothers.'” Aripov himself was threatened with execution by Namangani after his group of defectors sought to escape.

Uzbekistan has also been targeted by the “non-violent” Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), which rather absurdly claims to have some 100,000 members in the country. HuT has adopted the methods and mentality of conspiratorial Leninism, which was known for inflating its membership and support, and it would be surprising if confirmed HuT membership reached even one percent of that figure in its Uzbek ranks–that is, 1,000 cadres.

And though Saudi-backed Wahhabis have tried to use Uzbekistan as a springboard for the conquest of millions of otherwise ignored Muslims in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, also known as Eastern Turkestan, the Uzbek “jihad” has failed. U.S. troops stationed in Uzbekistan maintain bases far from urban residents. Iraq excites no interest among Uzbeks, and many view Afghanistan as a disaster area. However, Tashkent continues to be criticized for its commitment to the war on terror. Routinely described in Washington as a hellish dictatorship where anyone expressing Muslim piety is tortured to death, many foreigners might view Uzbek support for the United States, and the indifference of the populace to the terrorist “jihad” in Baghdad, as an expression of post-Soviet torpor, reinforced by the personal rule of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

But I saw rural mosques filled for Friday prayers, and while it is hardly a Western democratic state, people do not noticeably tremble in fear of the authorities. Thus, while many foreigners might presume that Uzbek success in repelling terror is entirely a consequence of harsh measures by the Karimov government, the evidence indicates that the majority of Uzbeks have proven impervious to radical ideologies because of the nature of their Islam and sociology.


Uzbek Muslims define themselves as traditionalists and Sufis–their Islam is personal and based on purity of heart. In their majority, they have no sense of Islamic grievance and certainly no belief in the superiority of Arabs, or of any other non-Uzbek Muslims. Historic figures whose names ring through the halls of Western philosophy departments and programs in the history of science include sons of the Uzbek steppes: Muhammad al-Khwarezmi (783-850), from whose name the word “algorithm” is derived; Ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the classic Western curriculum as Avicenna; and an impressive list of theological figures better known to Muslims.

It seems to be the policy of the Karimov regime to use the rich history of Uzbekistan, coupled with political repression, to combat Islamic extremism. Karimov’s government has been criticized for erecting a “historical cult,” praising figures such as Timur (1336-1405, also known as Tamerlane), ruler of Samarkand, and others such as the astronomer Mirza Ulugbeg (1394-1449), whose tables of celestial observation were used in Europe. Similarly, the regime has been accused of fostering a “state Islam” based on promotion of the “great ancestors” in Islamic history who were born or lived in the country. Authorities constructed a large and opulent memorial complex to Imam al-Bukhari (810-870), compiler of hadith (oral sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and a smaller and more elegant tomb to Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (870-944), a leading philosopher of Islam. The government has also inaugurated a memorial to the outstanding Sufi, Bahaud’din Naqshband (1317-1389).

A publication explicitly titled Our Great Ancestors, issued in 2002 by the Islamic University of Tashkent, includes short biographies of al-Bukhari, Muhammad al-Khwarezmi, Ibn Sina, Hakim at-Tirmidhi and numerous other such figures. The Islamic University’s promotional literature clearly expresses the intentions of the government to foster local traditions, Sufism and moderate Islam, in support of stability and order: “Our dear President[,] deciding to set up the University here intended that the teachers and students would be under the auspices of the spirits of these famous persons.”

The Tashkent Islamic University offers a striking example of an alternative to the extremist madrassahs found in Pakistan and other countries. Its programs include faculties in Islamic history, philosophy, law and theology, with young men and women mingling on the student benches. But the University also offers courses in international economic relations, computer science and information technology.


Uzbekistan, with its sense of calm and its victory over extremism, poses important questions for Westerners. What lessons can be learned from the Uzbek example, and more importantly, can those lessons be exported for the purposes of creating moderate Muslim governments? Has the apparent defeat of Islamic radicalism been the result of the brutality of the Karimov regime, or the traditions of religious moderation fostered by the dictator?

Uzbekistan, the jewel of Soviet Central Asia, presents a relatively prosperous face of development inherited from the Soviet era, unlike its southern neighbor Afghanistan or more distant Pakistan. By contrast, Tajikistan, which was notably poorer under Soviet rule, has seen continuing unrest, exploited by Islamist radicals during and after that country’s civil war, from 1992 to 1997. The first thing that strikes a visitor to Uzbekistan is the cleanliness of the streets. Other details also leap to one’s attention: Uzbekistan is a country of jaywalkers, because it has wide roads but few cars, and people have become used to casually crossing the pavement like bull fighters teasing a lazy animal. Islamic societies elsewhere may have more vehicles, but also suffer from narrow, clogged thoroughfares.

The immediate post-Soviet period was indeed one of Islamic effervescence. Hoyaberda Aripov, the above-mentioned IMU defector, candidly stated his original motives for joining the “jihad:” A student of Islam for eleven years, Aripov had been accused by the Karimov regime of supporting Wahhabism. Numerous ordinary Uzbeks I met similarly condemned the government for its heavy-handed approach to religious revival immediately after Communism’s fall. Farkhad Tolipov, a lecturer at the Uzbek University of World Economy and Diplomacy, openly criticized the “party line” in Uzbek society and the general absence of intellectual and political pluralism under Karimov. He described the lack of such diversity as an “obstacle to education of the Uzbek public in the struggle against terrorism.”

It would seem, then, that the general appearance of tranquility and order, the absence of a widespread sense of insecurity, and the notable indifference of the population to the appeal of the IMU, cannot simply be ascribed to repression by Karimov and his associates. Uzbekistan seems an island of self-possessed folk mainly absorbed with day-to-day tasks, with an Islam that fortifies them in their personal concern. Add to this the difficulty in determining the real perspectives and intentions of the IMU, and one finds that no mass Islamist movement has emerged in Uzbekistan that would fuel recruitment and militancy. Despite the threats and boasts of its leaders–Namangani’s deputy Tahir Yuldash repeatedly alleged that the IMU would conquer Tashkent during the 2001 Afghan war–no serious conflict was launched on Uzbek soil. Instead, the IMU drew post-Soviet Uzbeks off to combat in territories where they were cultural interlopers.


The defeat of the IMU, the isolation of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and the endurance of Uzbekistan as a broadly peaceful society may therefore be ascribed to a combination of circumstances that define the country sui generis. Notwithstanding harsh measures by Karimov, these include its mainstream, moderate Islamic traditions; its relative prosperity under Sovietism; the marginal nature of the Islamist movement, and the role of Afghanistan as a “magnet” drawing radicals away from the struggle in their own land. Unfortunately for policymakers, however, it would seem that the Uzbek model has emerged from a confluence of historical and societal factors that cannot easily be exported to other regions of the world.


1. Founded by the descendants of Soviet Koreans deported from the Pacific coast to Uzbekistan by Stalin in 1937.