Uzbekistan: Islam vs. Islam: Karimov’s Religious Policy in the Early 1990s.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev, a Graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. He holds MA degree in Politics and Security.

In his latest report on the politico-military situation in the country, the Ambassador of the Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan stated that the leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.[i] The IMU is a militant organization established in 1998 by the radicals whom Karimov drove out from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s.[ii] Its integration into the global terrorism network is an alarming call for the government of Uzbekistan and Central Asia over-all. The organization’s main goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan – at the expense of the current secular regime.  The IMU shot to global prominence a year after it relocated to Afghanistan in 1998 and became a significant security threat for the government of Uzbekistan. Having received training and funding from the Afghan Taliban, it has carried out deadly attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Led by the veterans of the war in Afghanistan Tohir Yoldoshev and Juma Namanganiy, the group launched armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, during the attempts to get to Uzbekistan through its neighbor’s territory. In Uzbekistan, the IMU is responsible for the six car bomb explosions in 1999 and several terrorist attacks in 2004, which were carried out by Islamic Jihadist Union, the shoot-out from the IMU.[iii]

Ironically, Karimov has nobody but himself to blame for the emergence of the group. While it is a reasonable argument that the authoritarian rule and dire social and economic conditions have pushed ordinary Uzbeks into the hands of religious militants in the present, in the newly independent Uzbekistan the situation was different. The factors behind the religious policy pursued by the Karimov regime in the early 1990s were crucial in the emergence of the IMU, and they had little to do with the economy and politics. Having spent his whole life and career in the Soviet political system, Karimov and his entourage carried irrationally critical attitude towards religion and devised the state religious policy according to the suspicious beliefs they harbored in relation to Islam. Furthermore, Karimov’s personal experience of being subject to rude and offensive treatment by the leaders of the IMU heavily influenced the state religious policy. Thus, the main argument of the article is that the emergence of the IMU was largely due to the factors behind the adoption of a repressive policy by the Karimov regime in the early 1990s, which stemmed from the remnant – yet persistent – attitudes and experience the leader of Uzbekistan had acquired.

Critical attitude and suspicious beliefs about religion Karimov inherited from the Soviet era were fundamental in devising the state policy towards Islam in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. The founding father of the nation and its first and only president Islam Karimov was a former communist apparatchik. He was raised in an orphanage and later educated in the Soviet educational system. Consequently, Karimov carried a great residue of the Soviet critique of religion, which stemmed from the belief that religion was a dark remnant of the past.[iv] Uzbekistan had inherited the Soviet attitudes towards religion. For the Karimov regime, Islam was and remains to be an alternative center of power and authority. It perceives Islam as a competitor, rather than a collaborator. Consequently, the new regime had no doubt that Muslims had to be under check. This has led the state to adopt a hostile approach towards the practice of Islam that falls outside the state drawn boundary of “good” – that is apolitical – Islam.

The regime’s repressive method of dealing with Islam was excessive. Although the revival of Islam entailed its eventual politicization, in the newly-independent Uzbekistan it was limited mostly to the rediscovery of cultural heritage. Islam was celebrated as a part of the national history, and Muslims in Uzbekistan dug into religion in the search for identity they have lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seventy years under the Soviet rule have displaced religion from the public realm, and the rhythms of everyday life remained “secular in a way that is inconceivable even in other secular Muslim countries.”[v] In such a relatively stable and timely situation for dialogue and compromise, Karimov still opted to push his line of intolerance and inflexibility. His prejudice kept him from engaging in a dialogue with the leaders of the IMU back when they have not decided to take on arms. Eventually, the state religious policy created resentment and frustration among many in Uzbekistan, which came in handy for the IMU in their attempts to discredit the government. Muslims in the country grew disillusioned as they witnessed the continuation of the Soviet repressive policy towards Muslims, after all the excitement and expectations of the greater freedom in a new state. Karimov’s task was to manage Islam in a way as to create harmony and unity among the population. However, when the situation required careful handling and dialogue, he chose the inherited repressive method.

The reasons for Karimov’s the religious policy, which eventually led to the emergence of the IMU, stemmed from his personal offense that came in November, 1991, in Namangan.  It exacerbated what was already a critical attitude towards Islam. Karimov visited Namangan to meet with the representatives of the local government administration. Local organizations – many of which were religious – were also promised a meeting with the President, during which they would be able to voice their concerns and ideas. Karimov ignored the promise and left to Tashkent. Infuriated by the neglect, members of the local religious organizations took on the streets and demanded that Karimov return and hold a promised meeting with them. The organizers behind the protest were Yoldoshev and Namanganiy, the leaders of Adolat (Justice) and later the IMU. Karimov flew back to Namangan to meet with the protesters. He was met by an angry mob, and Yoldoshev and Namanganiy spoke to him rudely as they laid out their demands, which ranged from turning the local Communist Party building into an Islamic center to the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Karimov found himself absolutely helpless, jostled by the crowd and scared for his safety. He lost control over the situation and paid the price by being treated as a child. “He found the confrontation with Adolat personally humiliating, but it also hardened his attitude towards opposition couched in Islamic terms.”[vi] The state religious policy onwards the event in Namangan was a form of retaliation for what Karimov had to endure on that day. Nearly seventy participants of the protest were arrested.[vii] The leaders of Adolat fled to Tajikistan and later to Afghanistan. Unfortunately for the nation, the President failed to see beyond his prejudice and rage. Karimov’s dire experience and emotions left from the meeting in Namangan were projected onto the religious policy. By refusing to build a constructive dialogue over the state and religion relationship, he left the radicals no other way than militancy in the advancement of their cause.

As dangerous as the consequences of the current alliance between the Islamic State and the IMU might be, Karimov is the one who mismanaged the country when a more far-sighted and cold-blooded leadership was needed most. His case illustrates that an explanation for the emergence of religious radicalism requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Historical and psychological factors might be behind the political and economic reasons, which scholars and politicians think of as sole explanatory factors.

[i] From the November report on the politico-military situation in Afghanistan by Avazbek Abdurazakov, the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan.

[ii] Emmanuel Karagiannis, Political Islam in Central Asia: The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir (London: Routledge, 2010).

[iii] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 121.

[vi] Ibid, 141.

[vii] Ibid.