UZBEKISTAN SPECIAL REPORT: How Strong Is The Islamic Opposition?

Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service, 12 December 2001

"We have studied the situation in Uzbekistan carefully and have concluded that contrary to the predictions of many political commentators, most of the population has remained indifferent to the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan," an analyst for the International Crisis Group, Azizulla Gaziyev, told Keston News Service in the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh. "People are preoccupied primarily with how to feed their families and they don't have anything to do with wider politics." Many commentators have predicted that the main challenge to the rule of Uzbek president Islam Karimov will come from the Islamic-inspired opposition, either from the Uzbek branch of the international Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir or from the armed group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Keston's correspondent, who was in Uzbekistan between 23 November and 2 December, broadly shares Gaziyev's assessment. While leaflets for the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir party calling on Muslims to come to the help of the Taliban began to appear on the streets of Tajik and Kyrgyz cities in the wake of the launch of Washington's anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan's law enforcement agencies managed to nip such actions in the bud. "We have to acknowledge that our nation is asleep. Even Islam Karimov's co-operation with the United States in the destruction of Afghan Muslims did not rouse the Uzbeks," underground activists of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan admitted to Keston. "The majority of true Muslims have already been behind bars for a long time. Those who are still free have forgotten about God and think only about where the next crust of bread will come from."

The complete control exerted by Uzbekistan's secular authorities over the official Muslim clergy has allowed the government to unleash a concerted propaganda campaign since the start of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. In all mosques, imams delivered a speech during Friday prayers condemning terrorism. The chief imam of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Anvar-haji Tursunov, welcomed the launch of Washington's anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, declaring that it would assist stability in Uzbekistan.

However, it is too early to rule out the possibility that the situation in Uzbekistan may destabilise. "The danger of spontaneous uprisings is as real as ever," Gaziyev believes. "The main catalyst for a potential destabilisation of Uzbekistan is the very low quality of life for the overwhelming majority of the population."

The Uzbek authorities also recognise that social problems may account for the growing influence of Islamic radicals. "Since the acts of terrorism on 11 September in the United States it has become clear that if a third world war erupts, Islamic fundamentalists will be responsible for it," the first deputy head of the Uzbek government's committee for religious affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, told Keston on 25 September. "In my view, the West must understand that the main social background of Islamic fundamentalists is the most deprived section of the population. Accordingly, if the developed countries want stability in the world, they must give economic aid to needy Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalists first appeared in our country in the early 1990s, at a time when we were experiencing temporary economic difficulties."

Founded in 1953, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party campaigns for the unification of Muslims throughout the world under one Islamic caliphate. The party rejects armed conflict and its main activity is to disseminate its views among the population. The aim of the IMU is to overthrow the current regime by armed means and create an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Its fighters have been based in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority of members of both organisations are from traditional Uzbek society. Most of them live in traditional villages (kishlaks) or in mahallas. The mahalla is a distinctive social institution in Uzbek society: members live in a single city sector in privately-owned accommodation and develop their own type of community. Historically, mahalla members have resolved many issues collectively, celebrating weddings and funerals together. It is customary for mahalla neighbours to offer each other financial support: the entire group generally helps to build a new house for a mahalla member and collects money if a community member is in urgent need.

A distinctive characteristic of Uzbek Islamic radicals is that many of them speak almost no foreign language, including Russian, and most have never been outside Central Asia. Russian remains the main language of international communication in Uzbekistan today, playing an even greater role in Uzbekistan than does English in former British colonies. Almost all educated people are fluent in Russian, and at least up to now, far more world literature is translated into Russian than into Uzbek.

Members of both Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU react very negatively to western civilisation. Keston was told many times that countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are the work of Satan. Another characteristic of members of both organisations is their outspoken anti- semitism. Activists have frequently tried to prove to Keston, with reference to the Quran, that Jews cannot be friends to Muslims. One member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir even told Keston that he was very sorry that Hitler had not managed to eliminate all Jews.

Members of both organisations tend to be young people aged between 25 and 30. Those who spoke to Keston declared that even five years ago they were not true Muslims, did not observe fasts and even drank alcohol. However, the rapid impoverishment of Central Asian society over the past decade, and the flourishing of hitherto-unknown prostitution and drug abuse have led them to conclude that "only an Islamic state can give people a life of dignity". Those Keston met gave the impression of being sincere and fanatically committed young people, somewhat reminiscent of Komsomol (Soviet communist youth league) members of the 1920s.

Given that the economic situation in Uzbekistan is unlikely to improve in the near future, and that young people constitute the majority of the population, the membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU in Uzbekistan seems certain to grow. (END)