Wall Street Journal Europe: Karimov's War on Islam Could Destabilise Central Asia.

Igor Rotar and Lawrence Uzzell, 11 February 2002

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Although they have been driven from power in Afghanistan, Islamic extremists still have fair chances of seizing power in several neighboring states. One is the country that has shifted most dramatically toward the West during the recent crisis. Uzbekistan's ferocious policies designed to crush Islamic militants could end up having just the opposite effect.

Uzbekistan is the strategic kingpin of ex-Soviet Central Asia, an ancient center of Islamic learning, and a beacon to ethnic Uzbek minorities in neighboring countries. If a wave of religious fanaticism should sweep out Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, it would surge right through the artificial state boundaries inherited from the Soviet era.

In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, such threats naturally took second place in America's calculations. Washington urgently needed access to air bases near the Afghan border, and Mr. Karimov responded boldly with an offer of cooperation. Commercial airliners landing at Tashkent's main civilian airport last month taxied right past a U.S. Air Force transport plane; neither partner tried to conceal the American presence.

Sound policy, however, looks beyond immediate tactical needs. The most serious long-term threat to stability and freedom in Uzbekistan comes from Mr. Karimov himself. In a country where more than 80% of the populace is of Islamic heritage, his government is pursuing the most aggressively anti-Islamic policies anywhere in the former Soviet Union. An Uzbek emigre in Moscow has more freedom to practice his faith than his cousins in their ancestral homeland.

Speaking in Tashkent to visitors from the Keston Institute, an Oxford-based research center specializing in international religious freedom, a local barber said that he had forgotten how to trim a beard, because, as he put it: "In our country beards are forbidden." Though there is no such formal law, other sources confirmed that beards are risky. Unless he is elderly, a man with this traditional sign of Muslim piety is likely to be detained and taken to a police station for interrogation as a "suspicious" character. Women with traditional Muslim head coverings also face discrimination.

Uzbekistan's criminal code includes a vaguely worded ban on the use of religion to "undermine social harmony." A 1998 law stipulates that only organizations formally registered by the Ministry of Justice -- which imposes high hurdles for such registration -- may conduct any kind of religious activity. One can see in Uzbekistan many buildings formerly used as mosques but now closed by the authorities.

Mr. Karimov, who led Uzbekistan's Communist Party during the Soviet years, has revived Soviet practices of minutely regulating religious life. Muslim institutions are controlled by the Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan, in effect a state agency -- in a country with no tradition whatsoever of political freedom. An adviser to the directorate's head told us that he fully supports Mr. Karimov's policies.

In August, Human Rights Watch published a detailed memorandum on religious persecution in Uzbekistan, based on hundreds of interviews. Its conclusion: Thousands of Uzbek Muslims have been "detained, harassed, tortured, and imprisoned" even though "only very few have been charged with specific violent acts" and "even more rarely have the authorities produced credible evidence to support charges of the use or advocacy of violence." Instead, the government has targeted "people who pray in mosques not run by the government, who belong to Islamic groups not registered with the government, who possess Islamic literature not generated by the government, or who meet privately for prayer or Islamic study, singling them out for nothing more than the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs."

Keston asked our sources if there had been any cases of such religious believers charged under the criminal code but then found innocent. They could not remember one. Conditions within prisons are brutal, with many instances of torture, and, we have been told, deaths while in custody. One recently released prisoner told us that his jailers had beaten him simply for saying his Muslim prayers. The Soviet-style crackdown has also included harassment of prisoners' relatives, thus swelling the numbers of embittered citizens.

Certain forces stand ready to exploit such bitterness. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is explicitly committed to the violent overthrow of the current regime and its replacement by an Islamic state. It has launched armed attacks on Uzbekistan from bases abroad. Less extreme is the Uzbek branch of the international Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which advocates the unification of all Muslims in the world into a single caliphate. Although in the past this party has publicly rejected armed methods, its rhetoric has taken a violently anti-Western turn since Sept. 11. Hizb-ut-Tahrir shares the IMU's hostility to Western civilization and also that group's anti-Semitism. Its underground activists have told representatives from Keston Institute that countries such as the U.S. and Great Britain are offspring of Satan.

So the question is not whether Uzbekistan faces a threat from religious extremists. It does. The issue is whether the current regime's heavy-handed methods are likely to quench or inflame that threat. As Mikhail Ardzinov of the Independent Society for Human Rights in Uzbekistan told us: "The problem is that Mr. Karimov is waging war not only on extremists but simply on all serious Muslim believers."

That war affects religious minorities as well. A Baptist pastor in Tashkent told Keston that he was unable to get official registration for his congregation because it would be politically awkward for the authorities to authorize more Christian churches after closing so many mosques. The regime enforces harsh limits on the importation of Bibles and other religious literature. Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department has failed to respond with even the elementary step of classifying Uzbekistan as a "country of particular concern" under America's 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

The post-Sept. 11 alliance with Mr. Karimov puts the U.S. into an ambiguous position, supporting a regime that has in essence declared war on Islam as a religion. It gives the extremists evidence for their claim that the U.S. is fighting not terrorism but Islam as a whole. Washington should not forget the results of its policies in the 1970s, when it closed its eyes to the persecution of Muslims by another secularizing, authoritarian but "pro-American" ruler: the Shah of Iran.

Mr. Rotar is Central Asia correspondent and Mr. Uzzell is director of Keston Institute (www.keston.org).

Copyright (c) 2002 Wall Street Journal. All rights reserved. (Reprinted with permission.)