In the remote central-Asian country, militant Muslim fundamentalists want ot seize power and impose strict Islamic rule. This creates a difficult situation for the U.S. war on terrorism in neighboring Afganistan.
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, a special report from Central Asia, where militant Muslim fundamentalists, like the defeated Taliban, still want to seize power and impose strict Islamic rule on Muslims who are more moderate. Our case in point is Uzbekistan. The U.S. needs bases there to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, next door. But that requires an alliance with a repressive regime whose human rights and economic policies may be encouraging the very terrorism we oppose. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Tashkent.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Uzbekistan’s monuments and public buildings show its past as a Soviet republic. It’s now independent, but former Communist boss Islam Karimov still holds a tight rein over this remote central Asian country.
What has changed since the early 90s is the practice of Islam — flourishing once again as it did before the Soviet era. Eighty percent of the nation’s 24 million people belong to Uzbekistan’s relatively liberal Islamic tradition.
Those traditions were challenged soon after independence, with the advent of Muslim missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other nations. Shoazim Minavorov is with the government agency that regulates religious activity.
SHOAZIM MINAVOROV (Deputy Religion Minister): Uzbek people have always looked at Islam as peaceful. And it was with great trust that we accepted the foreign religious missionaries in our mosques. But what happened was that these missionaries brought a different brand of Islam which was alien, foreign to our people.
DE SAM LAZARO: The newcomers preached conservative ideas, stirring conflict and often violence, particularly in rural areas, according to Marat Zakhidov, a former member of parliament, now a human rights advocate.
MARAT ZAKHIDOV (Human Rights Advocate): People who were not willing to observe certain rules and rituals were boycotted. We saw the first manifestation of this extremism in 1997. I’m talking about assassinations of police and government officials, businessmen in Namangan and other areas.
DE SAM LAZARO: But Zakhidov says the government used the unrest as the pretext for widespread arrests of suspected Muslim fundamentalists and anyone else considered a government opponent.
A 1999 U.S. State Department report called Uzbekistan one of the world’s most oppressive nations. The government of Islam Karimov has jailed thousands of citizens, ostensibly in a crackdown on terrorist activities. But the report said many of those jailed were hauled in on trumped-up weapons or narcotics charges. Many were guilty of little more than attending services in a mosque.
Marat Zakhidov himself was fired from his job as a university professor and removed from parliament. With international support, he has managed to continue advocating for some of the 5,500 people he says are now detained. Many are tortured to extract confessions on vague charges of extremism.
Mr. ZAKHIDOV: These were the appeals I’ve had in just the last two weeks. The courts are totally corrupt it is virtually impossible to work with them. They take very unjust, even at times monstrous, decisions about the fate of people.
DE SAM LAZARO: The government defends its response, citing threats from an ill-defined network of terrorist organizations and an assassination attempt on the president in 1998.
Mr. MINAVOROV: There were cases where people, based on fundamentalist feelings, were calling for overthrow of the government, distributing leaflets, incidents of violence in Ferghana. So these people have been justly prosecuted.
DE SAM LAZARO: As for re-Islamization in Uzbekistan, he said, it will be according to Uzbek traditions.
Abdukayum Azimov cites eminent Islamic scholars from history who hail from this region. He heads the government-run institute which trains clerics for what he calls the moderate, Hanafi brand of Islam.
ABDUKAYUM AZIMOV (Imam, Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute): We do not need to be preached to about Islam. We are the inheritors of these great scholars. Hanafism is a harmonizing Islam, that takes into account local customs. Women don’t cover their faces, for example it’s more tolerant.
However, to some, this is not authentic Islam. Muktabar Ahmedova openly supports the creation of an Islamic republic of Uzbekistan, a position that for most Uzbeks would be grounds for treason. Ahmedova’s sex and age have apparently been grounds for leniency.
MUKTABAR AHMEDOVA: The Islam practiced here has been “Russified” — it’s been subjected to decades of atheist influences. If these people were not in power, we would in fact have a much purer form of Islam.
DE SAM LAZARO: Polls show that a large majority of Uzbeks prefer a secular nation. Still, fundamentalist groups hold some appeal. Despite oil and mineral wealth and fertile soil, the economy has faltered badly, leaving many people worse off than they were in Soviet times, according to Ravil Bukharaev. He’s an Islam scholar, now with BBC’s Russian Radio Service.
RAVIL BUKHARAEV (Islam scholar, BBC Russian Radio Service): These radical views flourish and flower in times of trouble, the so-called “gray areas” of history, where nobody understands nothing, except that they had something and now they are destitute.
DE SAM LAZARO: Economically?
Mr. BUKHARAEV: Of course, socially They had a social security. Now they have none and they turn to God because there’s nothing to turn to. So, where people have no hope for the future, especially where the government is corrupt, more or less, then these people are very active and they present a political force.
DE SAM LAZARO: Up and down Uzbekistan’s rugged highways there are military and police checkpoints. They’re off limits to cameras, but it’s here that farmers and other traders complain they’re forced to pay bribes to get through, and that further erodes their already minimal incomes.
Mr. ZAKHIDOV: School-children are forced to help their parents to survive, to get work wherever they can, rather than go to school. And the level of training of teachers has also diminished considerably.
DE SAM LAZARO: As rural literacy declines, a small urban elite flourishes. Sergei Yechkov is one of few journalists who’ve reported on the widespread corruption.
SERGEI YECHKOV (Journalist): It becomes bad manners if you have not paid a bribe. It has become an inalienable national characteristic of Uzbekistan. It explains the very limited amount of investment and difficulties in relations of Uzbekistan with other countries.
DE SAM LAZARO: This country’s proximity to Afghanistan has made it a key American ally and some human rights activists fear that this will prompt Washington to back off from earlier criticism of the regime’s human rights record, corruption, and the resulting economic decay — the very conditions that they say spawn Islamic fundamentalist movements, and sometimes terrorism.