Tashkent: Islamization frightens ethnic Russian Uzbeks
President Mirziyoyev has adopted a more permissive policy toward Islam. Taliban influence from neighboring Afghanistan. The government favors religious radicalization, even if it arrests some extremists for demonstration purposes.
Moscow (AsiaNews) - Uzbekistan's President Šavkat Mirziyoyev, recently re-elected for a second term, has adopted a more permissive policy towards Islam, which in the post-Soviet years was barred from taking public initiatives in social life. After the Taliban seized Afghanistan, the influence of a more radical interpretation of the Muslim religion has begun to worry many people, especially ethnic Russian Uzbek citizens.
This is revealed in a Radio Azattyk report , gathering the voices of several witnesses. Russian Sergej was born and raised in Namangan, a city in the eastern part of Uzbekistan, where Muslim traditions had been preserved even in the decades of the Soviet regime, and where some dangerous exponents of the Central Asian jihad were also born. In the 1980s Sergej was a fervent communist high school student, a member of the Komsomol (the Party's youth organization). The authorities had instructed him to go to the city bazaar and rip off the burka from all women who dared to wear it in public.
Clothes related to the Islamic faith were demonized by the Soviet administration, which considered them signs of "medieval obscurantism" and segregation of women, who were being offered higher education and economic independence. It was the program called the "awakening of the oriental woman".
Today Sergei is an elderly bookseller, and he declares himself surprised by the changes: "I did not think that burkas, paranžas and khižabs would return," he says referring to the heavy Islamic women's clothes and veils that cover the face, now allowed again in public thanks to a law passed in July by Mirziyoyev. The new wave of "public devotion" is spreading with impressive speed in a country of 36 million people, the most populous in all of Central Asia.
Together with many other Russians, Sergei, decided to leave Uzbekistan, despite the fact that he had never before felt the desire to move to Russia. Today there are 720 thousand Uzbeks of Russian origin, compared to 1.7 million in 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Even the men are showing signs of Islamization, especially in the length of their beards, which were unthinkable in the years of Islam Karimov's post-Soviet presidency. The local Communist Party secretary took power in 1991 and held it until his death in 2016. In his day, police were instructed to stop and forcibly shave bearded men, as they did in the days of Peter the Great in the 1700s to westernize Russia, and arrest them if they resisted.
As his first act after replacing Karimov, Mirziyoyev granted amnesty to the thousands of Muslim "prisoners of conscience," along with several acts of expanding religious freedoms. After the seizure of Kabul, however, crackdowns on suspected terrorists have now also returned, creating a major contradiction in Uzbek society. Nigala Khidojutova, who was expelled from the country in 2005 for having formed the opposition Free Peasants Party, reports "it is the government itself that encourages religious radicalization, even if it arrests some extremists for demonstrative purposes".
Nigala says "widespread corruption is causing great resentment in a very weak civil society, with poorly educated youth, widespread lawlessness and now religious radicalism; it is a bomb that will explode at the first spark." Many Uzbeks recall with dread what happened in 1999, when local Islamists linked to the Taliban swept through Tajikistan's Fergana Valley, demanding control of the area and free passage for jihadist guerrillas.
Many Uzbek Muslims, and also many imams, today sympathize with the new Taliban; it is no coincidence that Mirziyoyev has publicly supported the appointment as Grand Mufti of the moderate Nuriddin Kholiknazarov, who grew up under the Soviets and is considered one of the few people capable of holding together the different souls of Uzbek Islam.