As the trial of Akramiya members entered its fifth week in Tashkent, the court heard testimony from Akram Yuldashev, the “spiritual force” allegedly behind the May uprising in Andijan.
The testimony came via an amateurish videotape with poor sound quality that was reportedly made on July 27, some two months after the Andijan massacre. According to statements made at the trial, Yuldashev could not be brought to the courtroom as he is being treated for tuberculosis at a prison hospital.
On the tape Yuldashev talks about his desire to create small Muslim enterprises throughout the Fergana Valley, in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and eventually develop them into a greater Muslim community. Yuldashev claims that he issued a fatwah (religious decree) to release 23 of his friends from jail and so that they could leave for Kyrgyzstan, “in case the court returns an unfavorable verdict for them.” Yuldashev states that he transmitted the fatwah over a cell phone brought to him by prison doctors in exchange for a bribe. However, Yuldashev does not say anything about plans to start an uprising in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan (fergana.ru, October 20).
It is difficult to analyze Yuldashev’s testimony because there is no way to ascertain whether he was tortured to give this version of events. But in the portions of the tape played in court, Yuldashev does not say anything about his plans to build a caliphate by violent means, and that is exactly the type of information that the Uzbek Special Services would most desire to beat out of him. Therefore, we may reasonably believe that Yuldashev is speaking the truth. If that is really the case, then observers can assemble a reasonable picture of what the Akramiya members stand for. To date, experts have propounded totally opposite versions about the organization and its goals. Some considered it to be a purely enlightening (educational) organization and others a well-concealed terrorist group (see EDM, May 13).
The Akramiya Movement takes its name from its founder, Akram Yuldashev, a math teacher from Andijan. In 1992 Yuldashev wrote a short philosophical treatise, “The Path to True Faith,” in which he calls upon people to do good and improve themselves. The pamphlet does not touch upon politics at all. In fact, the only document to even indirectly discuss the political intentions of Akramiya members is an “addendum” to “The Path to True Faith” by Uzbek professor Bakhtiet Babadjanov and published in Central Asia and Caucasus, a Russian- and English-language journal from Sweden’s Center for Social and Political Studies. The supplement describes five phases of activity: education, fund raising, spiritual communication, legalization, and ultimately the Islamization of society (for more details on these stages, see EDM, May 9).
Based on this addendum — if it is not a forgery — in reality the members of Akramiya were not planning a violent seizure of power. Instead, they were trying to create an Islamic state by peaceful methods. Approximately one year before the Andijan tragedy a group of businessmen who considered themselves to be students of Yuldashev’s spiritual teachings were arrested in the city. As one of them explained, “The Uzbek authorities put the label ‘Akramiya’ on us. We did not think that we belonged to such an organization. It was rather a club of friends with similar views made up of wealthy and pious businessmen. Our main idea was that all Muslims must help each other. There must not be poor people among the righteous! We constantly transferred money to orphanages, boarding houses… The minimum salary in Uzbekistan is $8 per month – you cannot even buy bread for that much money.” Bahram Shakirov, father of one of the arrested businessmen, told Jamestown, “We computed the real standard of living in Andijan – it was $50.”
Prior to the May events, followers of Yuldashev emerged across the Uzbek border. According to Sadikdjan Mahmudov, chair of the Osh-based organization “The Rays of Solomon,” “By all appearances, Akramiya cells appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan several years ago. A day before the Andijan tragedy, someone called our Akramiya members to Andijan” (see EDM, May 13).
Yuldashev likely has created his own interpretation of Islam, which would explain why his followers are called “Akramists,” suggesting a new school of thought (mazkhab) in Islam. “I think this teaching is heresy,” Sadik Muhammad Yusuf, the former mufti of Uzbekistan, told Jamestown. “For example, Akramists do not believe that a Muslim must pray five times a day and fast in the month of Ramadan.” Similarly, Samsabek Zakirov, a representative of the Committee for Religious Affairs in southern Kyrgyzstan, told Jamestown, “Akramiya cells popped up in Osh district several years ago. The members of the organization interpreted Islam in their own way. They, for example, believed that is was not obligatory to go to mosque.”
In sum, Akram Yuldashev has indeed created his own version of Islam that differs significantly from mainstream, classical Islamic concepts. Yuldashev has favored creating an Islamic state that would be ruled by Sharia. But no theoretical works by any Akramiya member that justifies the seizure of power by violent means has ever been discovered.