On the occasion of Uzbekistan’s tenth anniversary and in its aftermath, various groups of the political opposition have made themselves heard. Their respective messages differ from each other in crucial ways. The underground movement Hezb-e Tahrir [Islamic Party of Liberation] issued a manifesto challenging not only the president and government, but also the existence of the Uzbek state as such. The document asserts that authentic Islam–which Hezb-e Tahrir claims to represent–recognizes only a single universal state of all Muslims, ruling out any “fragmentation” into “statelets.” It posits an “obligation” for Uzbeks to join a single Islamic state, “under the flag of one Caliphate,” so as to unify the Ummah [putatively a universal community of Muslims]. And it asserts that leaders responsible for the division of the Ummah into the existing states may legitimately be killed.
The group describes Uzbek President Islam Karimov as an agent of “Kufr” [unbelievers, deemed inherently hostile] and specifically of the United States, tasked to “misguide the Muslims away from Islam.” It portrays Karimov as Jewish and his government as a “mixture of Russians, Jews, Chinese and some Uzbeks who apostatized from Islam.” It asserts that the governing elite draws its inspiration from “America, the Jews and the rulers of some Muslim countries” in order to splinter the Muslims–an allusion by Hezb-e Tahrir to the nation state model and nation-building in the Muslim world. The attempt to discredit political adversaries as “Jewish” reflects Hezb-e Tahrir’s Palestinian-Jordanian origins; such a tactic almost certainly falls flat in Central Asia.
In passing, the document asserts that the United States and Uzbekistan are secretly complicit with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities and their Pakistani supporters. Such a claim confirms the rift between these brands of fundamentalist Islam, contrary to myths propagated by Russian and some Central Asian security services about an all-encompassing alliance among all “terrorist” groups.
Hezb-e Tahrir’s manifesto concludes with an emotional appeal to the Muslims of Uzbekistan to “remove the Kufr ruling faction” and “return to applying Islam in all of life’s affairs.” The group stops short of a direct call to violence. At this stage in its strategy, Hezb-e Tahrir relies on nonviolent methods, hoping to develop its underground system of cells and to increase its following through persuasion.
A secular opposition group, the Birlik [Unity] People’s Movement, which is banned in Uzbekistan, used Iranian state radio to address the country on the occasion of the anniversary. Abdurahim Polatov, introduced as chairman of Birlik’s central council, stated that Birlik’s “main aim [since 1990-91] has been implemented: Uzbekistan is independent.” However, Polatov went on, the situation with human rights and personal and religious freedoms has deteriorated in the last few years, compared to the pre-1991 perestroika period. He decried the closure of mosques, imprisonment of thousands of innocent believers, curbs on the freedom of expression and what he described as lower living standards, compared to the late Soviet period. Polatov warned that this situation leaves Uzbekistan “economically, militarily and morally dependent on Russia.” He claimed that the country “is still at Moscow’s beck and call.”
On September 6, eight delegates of the banned Birlik, from various parts of Uzbekistan, met in Tashkent with Gancho Ganchev, permanent representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The delegates faulted the OSCE for what they termed “indifference” to appeals from Birlik and the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). Birlik seeks the OSCE’s support for a dialog between the authorities and political opposition groups. The HRSU seeks support for its legal registration. The OSCE representative was cited as promising to intercede with the head of state in favor of the HRSU.
Birlik, a secular and pro-Western group that campaigned for national independence in 1990-91, was banned shortly afterward and has since splintered. One of its veteran leaders, the Washington-based Abdumannob Polat, used the independence anniversary to renew earlier calls to Karimov for a dialog, based on a partial acceptance of Karimov’s policies as well as expectations for change. Polat wrote that he “considers some of Karimov’s policies generally right and welcomes them.” He listed “preservation and strengthening of independence and of secular government,” “some among the measures taken to ensure peace and stability” and government grants to hundreds of young Uzbeks for study in the West. At the same time Polat criticized the arbitrary arrest of hundreds or even thousands of alleged “extremists,” the practice of torture in detention, political use of the justice system and the authorities’ “highly disproportionate reaction to existing threats.”
Polat cited his long-standing opposition to Islamic fundamentalism in general and Hezb-e Tahrir in particular, with its “utopian and dangerous idea of establishing Islamic rule in Uzbekistan [and] going back to medieval times.” He similarly condemned Hezb-e Tahrir’s “dirty and insulting remarks” about Karimov. Polat agreed that the ban on “religiously based political parties and ultra-radical groups is a necessary [measure] during the painful transition to a freer economy and a more open society.” But he advised the head of state to stop the unwarranted and counterproductive persecution of family members of Islamist activists, and to use only legal methods in dealing with the activists themselves.
Urging the president to listen to “broader circles of society than is presently the case,” Polat called for dialog based on a common understanding that “liberal reforms should be introduced cautiously, step by step. Hasty, hurried actions could be wrong or even dangerous.” Hoping to help start such a dialog with the authorities in Tashkent, Polat has recently applied for an Uzbek visa.
On the state’s tenth anniversary, Karimov has decreed an amnesty that covers some 25,000 prison inmates, including an estimated 1,000 religious or “political” detainees. Of these, the great majority had been convicted for affiliation with Hezb-e Tahrir or as “Wahhabis”–a term loosely applied by authorities to groups of believers not controlled by the officially approved clergy. The amnesty decree also covers convicted terrorists, for example, of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), if they repent (Central Asia News Digest, Nos. 483, 486, September 8, 9; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad, in Uzbek), August 30; Birlik website, September 7; Halima Buharbaeva, “Karimov Pardon Under Fire,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, no. 67, August 31; Uzbek Television, “Forgiveness” program, September 4).
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