ISLAMIST GROUPS IN UZBEKISTAN
Underground Islamic groups—both nonviolent and armed—are believed to be active in Uzbekistan. The groups are very secretive and it is difficult to gauge their strength or size. Many of the groups have a utopian, almost hippish, aspect to them. A follower of one group told the Times of London. “We must live by the Korean. We will establish a paradise growing orchards working the fields and making natural products.”
In the mid 1990s, Taliban-style Muslim extremists emerged in the Fergana Valley. One government official told the Los Angeles Times, "They used to beat women for coming home late. They used to beat and punish teenagers for smoking. If they saw a couple walking down the street and found they were unmarried, they would beat then as well. They wanted to force Sharia law on the Fergana Valley with their wild and unlawful ways." Many Local residents don’t recall such activities.
Explaining how Islam has taken the form it has in Uzbekistan, Mohammed Sadyk Yusuf, a top Islamic leader in Tashkent, told the Los Angeles Times, “When the regime collapsed, many people began to naturally grow interested in their religious roots. Bt there were not enough teachers and schools to teach them the true Orthodox Islam. The spiritual vacuum was quickly filled with foreign emissaries, who created cells in their houses and called upon the people to come and learn their Islam, but their ideas amounted to terrorism and whimsical plans to build a pan-Islamic state...A majority of them don’t know the most ordinary prayers,”
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberations, is the most widespread radical Islamic group in Central Asia and also has a strong base in Europe and elsewhere. Believed to have hundreds of thousands of followers, it wants to create utopian Muslim society called a caliphate that it hopes will take root in Central Asia and then spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa too. Uzbek authorities accuse the group of inspiring attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara that killed more than 50 people.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is active in over 40 countries. Founded in the Middle East in 1952 as a Leninist, anti-royalist revolutionary party and as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it made inroads into Central Asia after the after the collapse of the Soviet Union perhaps because it was Islamic with socialist leanings. The group's founder Abdul Qadeen Zallon died in the 2003 and was replaced by the Palestinian Ata Abu-i-Rushta. One of its leaders in Uzbekistan is a smooth-taking, Arabic-speaking religious leader named Abdurashid, who began his faction as a study group in the 1980s. Another leader, Yusuf Kasimakhunov, was detained in Russia in 2004.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is outlawed in Uzbekistan and has been accused by the Uzbekistan government of inspiring terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan that have left dozens dead. More than 4,000 members of the group have been imprisoned there. The Uzbekistan government has accused the group of operating terrorist cells in Tashkent and Bukhara and said it has members who trained at Al-Qaida camps. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan but operated fairly open in the Osh area of Kyrgyzstan. Authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have tried to suppress it.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Restoring the Caliphate and Other Beliefs
Among Hizb ut-Tahrir's goals are founding utopian communities, establishing strict Islamic law that requires segregation between men and women, and requiring a return to the gold standard. The group calls for jihad against Israel and non-believers even though it insists it is non-violent. Hizb ut-Tahrir is the group most directly focused on the push for a new caliphate.
Many Western analysts accept Hizb-ut-Tahrir's claim that it is non-violent. The group claims it can establish a Islamic state in three stages: 1) educates Muslims about its ideology; 2) spread these views into the government; and 3) topple secular regimes from the inside. In Uzbekistan the group is believed to have achieved the first stage and won many followers by focusing on poverty and corruption.
Carl Vick, wrote in Washington Post: “The group has a rigid, cellular, secretive structure and a bookish set of beliefs describing its utopian vision for a future caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir insists it has renounced violence.".When young Muslims raised largely without religious instruction in European cities begin asking questions, radical groups stand ready with answers. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which promotes conspiracy theories and a potent anti-Semitism, is toward the moderate end of a spectrum of groups promoting unnuanced interpretations of Islam calling for confrontation. "An ideology must perpetuate itself," said Ahmet Arslankaya, an Hizb ut-Tahrir member in Turkey, where the organization faces harassment by security services. "Our final strategic aim will be to expand the Islamic thought to the world and carry the Islamic banner to the White House, of course." [Source: Carl Vick, Washington Post, January 14, 2006]
“The system Hizb ut-Tahrir wants to create “includes a caliphate, revived after national governments are subverted by Hizb ut-Tahrir members working in their highest levels, according to the plan. Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been charged with planning such coups in Jordan and Egypt. Zeyno Baran, an analyst at the Washington-based Nixon Center who has written extensively on the group, said it could "usefully be thought of as a conveyor belt for terrorists."” [Ibid]
Akramia is a group that is said to have links to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The 23 businessmen involved in the trial on events that triggered the Andijan massacre — which left hundreds dead in March 2005 — were accused of being members of Akramia. See Andijan Massacre, History.
Akramia was founded by Akram Yuldashev, a middle-aged mathematics teacher who spent two year writing a religious self-help pamphlet called The Path to Faith that encouraged readers to put spiritual matters ahead of material concerns and encouraged businessmen in the Andijan area to try and use their money and influence to create a utopian community based in Islamic principals. In 1998, Yuldashev was arrested for heroin possession after the heroin was allegedly planted on him. After the terrorist bombing in Tashkent in 1999 he was sentence to 17 years in jail on terrorism charges and has hardly been seen since.
Before the Andijan Massacre, Akramia had set up a community of businesses—including a hair dresser, cafeteria, bakery and shoe factory—that operated under principals outlined by Yuldashev, offered workers salaries and pensions ten times higher than the government’s and donated much of its profits to charity. Money from their charity was used to sponsor sports teams and pay for medical treatment for those who couldn’t go afford it. The businessmen also paid for weddings, built houses, and provided food for the elderly and poor during Muslim holidays.
According to the U.S. Department of State: The authorities continued a campaign of harassment and repression against members of Akromiya (Akromiylar), an informal association promoting business according to Islamic principles. The government-controlled media continued to publish negative personal attacks against the group and its members. According to authorities, the group had attempted to overthrow the government through armed rebellion in Andijon in 2005. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
Repression of Islamists
Uzbekistan has a secular government which represses anything that smacks of Muslim extremism. Islamic radicals are often referred to as Wahhabis. This term has been expanded to included prayer leaders and people who teach their children to read the Koran. Muslims not associated the terrorists groups or extremist groups who simply want to practice their religion in ways not sanctioned by the Uzbekistan government have suffered. Campaign against terrorism and extremism have included the closure of mosques and restrictions on expression of devout Islam.
There are no muezzins in Uzbekistan. Mullahs have to praises the government in their services. Men arouse suspicion if they grow a beard or belong to a religion family. Women are kicked out of universities for covering their faces. People have been arrested for wearing religious clothing. Men have been ordered to shave off their beards. Fear has caused mosque attendance to drop. Some people don't wear a seatbelt because they think police will interpret this as a sign they are Muslim terrorists.
The grand mufti of Tashkent has a large portrait of President Karimov in his office and defends the government position on the crackdown of Muslim extremists. His staff distributes the sermons read in every mosque in Uzbekistan on Friday. A popular Muslim leader from the Fergana Valley named Abduquddus Mirzoev was arrested in Tashkent while trying to fly to Moscow for a conference, He reportedly was imprisoned because he refused to genuflect to an image of Karimov.
Laws Related to Religious Extremism in Uzbekistan
According to the U.S. Department of State: According to human rights sources, the government remained deeply suspicious of Muslims who worshipped outside state-approved institutions, were educated at madrassahs abroad, gathered socially to discuss religious issues, or were tied to known “Wahhabi” imams, a term the government and the press periodically used to describe Muslims whose intellectual or religious roots derived from the strict teachings of prominent imams of the early 1990s. In April the website Fergana.ru reported the arrest on, March 19, of six Muslims in Tashkent – Sobirjon, Tursunov, Ikrom, Abdulaziz, Ulugbek, and Doniyor – who were accused of “making or spreading materials that contain a threat to public security and public order.” According to the website, another Muslim, Zohiddin Imomov, was arrested a month earlier. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
“The criminal and administrative codes contain severe penalties for violating the law and other statutes on religious activities. The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are those not registered properly, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” The government classifies as religious extremists those groups or individuals advocating replacement of the current secular government and laws with a government and laws based on strictly sectarian religious principles. It describes religious extremism as a threat to domestic security and stability. The government’s policy is to ban Islamic groups it broadly defines as extremist and to criminalize membership in such groups, which include Akromiya, Tabligh Jamoat, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. The government also bans Nur, founded by Kurdish Mullah Said Nursi and associated with the religious teachings of Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen, despite the group’s condemnations of violent extremism. *^*
“The government states that its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism are not a matter of religious freedom, but rather of preventing overthrow of the secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious and ethnic instability and hatred in a multi-ethnic, multiconfessional society. Article 244 of the criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups.” *^*
Crackdowns on Islamists
In December 1997, a police officer was beheaded and his head was placed on a stake at the office of the chief of police. A few weeks later a chairman of a collective farm and his wife were beheaded Although the incidents were most likely the result of disputes between gangs over money, the government blamed them on Muslim extremists.
Police used the incident to crackdown on Muslim activity, particularly in the Fergana Valley. More than 900 mosques were closed, religious organizations were required to register. More than a thousand people were arrested. Imams were required to praise the Karimov in their prayers. Some feared arrest and fled the country. With them gone, their male relatives were arrested and wives and mothers were forced to attend "hate rallies" in which they were denounced by neighbors.
People are arrested and sent to prison on charges of “extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism” under articles 150 and 216 of a 1998 law on “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” A woman named Latifat Nabieva told the Times of London, ten police broke into her house in the middle of the night and began beating her and her husband as they lay in his bed. “They didn’t show us any papers. Four of the men laid into my husband for about 15 minutes until there was blood everywhere.” He was then taken to a police station and beat up some more. In a trial a couple of months later he was sentenced to seven years in prison under articles 150 and 216
Police have arrested grandmothers, women and children and accused them of being terrorists and Muslim extremists. Often if one members of a family is arrested for being Muslim extremists other family members are also harassed or arrested. Not only was Nabieva’s husband arrested but her three sons were arrested too. Her oldest son was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her middle son was arrested while taking a bus home and sentenced to eight years in prison. Her youngest son was severely tortured (See Below). She said, “There are many families with five sons in jail. If I had ten they would have have taken all ten.”
Crackdowns on Muslim Extremists in Uzbekistan
According to the U.S. Department of State: The government continued to formally ban several less well known religiously-based groups and informally ban other Muslim groups it considered “extremist.” The government often accused defendants of being “jihadists,” but it was unclear whether the government considered them members of the terrorist Islamic Jihad Union or whether the government used the term generically to mean “extremist.” [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
“Sources reported the government continued to instruct mahalla (neighborhood) committees and imams to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion. According to the CRA, it registered two mosques during the year, as well as 13 regional representatives of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. Anecdotally, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” still functioned in some areas for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live in close proximity to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques were limited in their functions, and registered imams were not assigned to them. *^*
“The government continued to pursue the extradition of suspected “religious extremists” from other countries, including those from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as those who reportedly had sought asylum. Lawyers for Mirsobir Hamidkariev, who left Uzbekistan to escape accusations that he was associated with banned religious organizations, reported to the press that, although a Russian court had on May 12 granted asylum to their client, he was kidnapped June 9 from a taxi in Moscow and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, three days before the court decision entered into force. *^*
“Hamidkariev’s lawyers stated he was kidnapped by Uzbek security services. He was subsequently put on trial in Tashkent on September 22 as an alleged member of a fundamentalist Islamic organization. The government, however, stated that Hamidkariev voluntarily turned himself in to the police on June 17, following an in absentia charge of participation in an extremist organization. On November 18, according to press reports, the Tashkent City Criminal Court convicted Hamidkariev of organizing and participating in the banned organization Islom Jihochilari and sentenced him to eight years in prison; however, as of December 29, the government stated that his case was still with the Tashkent Criminal Court awaiting disposition.” *^*
Human Rights Abuses Involving Islamists
Human rights groups estimated in the early 2000s that more than 7,700 people, nearly all of them Muslims, had been imprisoned for their religious beliefs in Uzbekistan. Muslims have been arrested for things like praying at unregistered mosques, holdings meetings in homes, and reading or distributing religious materials. The most intense crackdowns have occurred in the Fergana Valley. Many have been arrested in trumped up charges.
Muslims have reportedly been hung by their feet or wrists, beaten, given electric shocks and raped. One Muslim devotee died in his prison bed at the age of 32 after being arrested for attending Koran discussion meeting that was not officially sanctioned. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. His family believed he was starved and tortured because of his belief in Islam. In another case a man was arrested for being connected with an Islamic group and his body was sent home with a broken neck the next day.
Many arrested on religious charged are taken to Jaslyk prison in western Uzbekistan, 800 kilometers northwest of Tashkent, described as “the most horrible prison” in Uzbekistan. A woman whose husband was kept there said, “My husband had become very thin. He said the guards humiliate and beat prisoners routinely. But the worst thing is that don’t allow them to perform prayers. He is suffering a lot, but they didn’t break his conviction.”
According to the U.S. Department of State: Most prisons reportedly had special areas set aside for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible. Family members of prisoners reported, however, that prison authorities did not allow some prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion freely, including reading the Quran or praying privately. Restrictions included not permitting inmates to pray five times a day or refusing to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast. There were also reports that authorities punished prisoners for “violating internal prison regulations” if they prayed at certain times of the day. In addition, there were reports that authorities at the prisons in Koson and Navoi isolated and punished inmates who wished to fast during Ramadan. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
Deaths of People Arrested on Muslim Extremism Charges
According to the U.S. Department of State: Family members reported that prisoners serving sentences on charges related to what the government considered religious extremism died in custody. They also stated that the bodies of the prisoners showed signs of beatings or other abuse. Authorities reportedly pressured the families to bury the bodies before medical professionals could examine them. Reported cases that fit this pattern included the death of Abdurakhim Tukhtasinov, a prisoner charged with membership and leadership in the banned religious organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, in June. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
On September 13, Nilufar Rahimjanova, sentenced in 2011 to 10 years’ imprisonment for connections to terrorism, died in a female labor camp near Tashkent. According to her husband, she was imprisoned as a rebuke to her Iran-based husband and Tajikistan-based father, both Muslim theologians who drew the ire of Uzbek authorities. Authorities returned Rahimjanova’s body to her brother in Tashkent, with the admonition that he should bury her quickly in Uzbekistan, without a post-mortem examination. Rahimjanova’s husband stated that her family in Uzbekistan did not cooperate in establishing the facts of her death due to fear of authorities, and has avoided all contact with him since her death.
Islamists in Uzbekistan Tortured and Boiled to Death
One elderly mother who was sought by police told the Los Angeles Times her husband and two sons were arrested. When she was detained she said she was stripped in front of her sons by police who threatened to rape her and their wives if they didn’t confesses to being Wahabbis. She said her sons were ultimately sentenced to death for being religious extremists but she was never told whether the sentence was carried out.
The Islamic activist and Hizb ut-Tahrir member, Muzafar Avazov was reportedly boiled to death after he was beaten severely and had his fingernails pulled out. His mother, Fatima Mukhadirova, was sentenced to six years of hard labor for reporting the death of her son to the international press. The government said Avazov died in a fight with another prisoner at Jaslyq prison were he was kept. Mukhadirova received letters from other inmates at the prison that he was tortured.
After being shown pictures of her son with huge bruise covering his entire back, Mukhadirova told the Time of London, “He didn’t want to confess to praying five times a day because he didn’t consider it a crime, so they put long metal spikes in a canvas bag and beat him with it. Still he didn’t confess, so they attached electrodes to his abdomen, he didn’t die. So he was put into 25 liters of boiling water, in a bath. When his skin was off they poured disinfectant on him. They removed his fingernails and broke his nose and teeth. There was nowhere on his bod that was not covered with bruising or signs of torture.”
Nabieva’s middle son was arrested and sent to Jaslyq prison after refusing to stick his hand in excrement . He was forced to breath through a urine-soaked clothe until he passed out and was subjected to a maneuver designed to break his ribs, called the “bird,” in which he was dropped from a height by four men onto a cement floor.
Recent Arrests and Torture Of Accused Muslim Extremists
According to the U.S. Department of State: Nongovernmental sources reported the government severely mistreated persons arrested on suspicion of “religious extremism” or those who participated in underground Islamic activity. This included subjecting them to torture, beatings, and harsh prison conditions. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]
There were numerous cases of arrests or convictions for membership in religious groups the government labeled “extremist.” Human rights NGOs indicated that the government imprisoned a significant number of individuals for membership in prohibited Muslim groups. In July the human rights NGO Ezgulik reported that three men, Otabek Ochilov, Zafar Pulatov, and Bakhtiyor Bozorov, and three women, Lolakhon Qudratova, Nigora Ernazarova, and Aziza Mukhitdinova, were sentenced to terms of between nine and 15 years for allegedly being members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Their cases were part of a large trial that involved 66 suspects accused of terrorism in Kashkadaryo Region. NGOs questioned whether “Islamic terrorist organizations” had such a well-established presence in that region. *^*
“The Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGIHRDU) reported that six women from the Yangiyul District of the Tashkent Region were sentenced on May 8 under a law prohibiting materials deemed to threaten security and order. The authorities gave them suspended sentences, but reportedly tortured them to extract false testimony against Ugila Mirzaeva, who was accused of being a member of the religious organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. *^*
“In August IGIHRDU reported that, according to her mother, Bakhtiyor Orzikulov, who has been imprisoned since 2001 under suspicion of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, was repeatedly tortured while in custody. Authorities placed Orzikulov in solitary confinement after prolonging his sentence on what his mother said were fabricated charges resulting from alleged violations of prison rules. Authorities then denied Orzikulov’s mother the opportunity to visit her son in prison. In March the NGO Forum 18 reported the government sentenced Tajik citizen Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov to five years’ imprisonment in a Tashkent prison for sermons found on his mobile phone and denied a visit from his family while he was held in an isolation cell. *^*
“Prison administrators reportedly charged prisoners convicted of religious extremism with organizing extremist cells while in prison or with other offenses that led to extended prison terms. There were also reports that administrators often charged prisoners who would otherwise be eligible to apply for amnesty with internal prison violations, rendering them ineligible to apply. In May Vazira Alimova, the mother of 37-year-old Isroil Alimov, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2000 for membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, complained that, despite promises by authorities that her son would be part of the December 2013 amnesty, he had not been released. According to Forum 18, seven Muslim followers of Turkish theologian Said Nursi were freed under amnesty after receiving lengthy sentences in 2009-2010 in the Bukhara Region on extremism charges.” *^*
Impact of Repression Against Islamists
The government’s tough policies towards Muslims is believed to radicalized many who would normally eschew violence and turned Muslim that are simply devout into ones that engage in violence.. One member of Hizb ut-Tahrir told the Washington Post, “Our authorities are so strict, it can forces us to resort to violent ways to achieve our goals. Islam doesn’t prohibit the use of armed violence.” He said he prefers to settle matters peacefully but “if an uprising happens first I’ll be in on that.”
Those politically inclined find themselves with a choice between supporting a secular dictatorship or radical underground movements, Because the government has cracked down on open opposition groups there is no middle ground. Many see similarities between the current government in Uzbekistan and the Shah-era government in Iran, which was ousted and replaced by Islamic extremists. Yusuf, the religious leader, told the Los Angeles Times, “My strong feeling is that punitive actions alone will never resolve the crucial issue of extremism. The state should instead concentrate on helping us preach true orthodox Islam.”
Rajan Menon, a Central Asia specialist at Lehigh University, wrote in the Washington Post: “Karimov is creating the very threat he harps on. His systematic destruction of democratic, secular movements has left the political arena open to clandestine Islamic movements. The combination of repression and poverty in Uzbekistan provides them with recruits particularly in the Fergana Valley, where Islam has deep roots.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016