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9 March 2001

Not Losing Their Religion

Uzbekistan branches out beyond Islam and Orthodoxy.

by Shukhrat Khurramov

photo by Skuhrat Khurramov TASHKENT, Uzbekistan--Uzbeks traditionally profess one of two religions: Islam or Orthodox Christianity. The majority of the population (85 percent) identify as Muslim, and most follow the Hanafi sect of Sunni Islam. The country boasts 1,700 mosques and The Islamic Institute, where 10 madrassahs train future clergymen and theologians. In 1999, the Islamic University was opened for training specialists in Islam. A distinctive feature of today's Uzbek Muslims is their growing aspiration to visit to Islamic holy places, with over 4,000 people recently traveling to Mecca, fulfilling the Hajj pilgrimage.

Two major, opposing trends characterize Islam in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. The first one, followed by the majority of Uzbeks, is "traditional" Islam. The Islamic Board of Uzbekistan represents and defends these traditional interests. The second is identified by the Uzbek government as "Wahhabism," a movement that has become shorthand for fundamentalist Islam in the post-communist world. Wahhabism arose in 18th-century Saudi Arabia as a protest against what its members saw as idolatry in mainstream Islam.

Wahhabis first began to appear in Uzbekistan at the end of the 1970s and at the beginning of 1980s in the Fergana Valley. Now, Wahhabism's followers are increasing because of the rise of international religious contacts and financial aid from abroad--primarily from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In 1996, Wahhabis organized the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and have since been blamed for several terrorist acts, including the February 1999 bombings and an attempt on the life of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Following the February incidents, the Uzbek government imposed repressive measures against nonmainstream followers of Islam.

The widespread crackdown indeed reduced acts of terrorism but it also may have increased popular support for radical Islam, according to Rachel Denber, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Department for Europe and Central Asia. The arrest and detention of thousands of people in connection with the government crackdown on the "Wahhabis" has raised the ire of the friends and relatives of those targeted by authorities, she says. Moreover, at a spring 2000 meeting sponsored by the Open Society Institute, Denber said that as more Uzbeks are imprisoned, "Jails will become schools for the movement."

Some underground anti-constitutional activity in the republic is led by religious organizations known as Akromiyens--after sect leader Akhrom Yuldashev---and Nurchillar, the bearers of light. Their professed goals are to create a theocracy in Uzbekistan by overthrowing the present, secular state system. Nurchillar appeals to its followers to set up a theocratic state through ideological work and propaganda, not by forcible methods, and they would like to see Uzbekistan as an Islamic republic that could be included into the Osmanian (Turkish) empire. Also along those lines, a radio station begun last year by the Taliban movement, "The voice of Shariat," now broadcasts in 11 languages, including Uzbek, Russian and English.

And the West has definitely been paying attention to the efforts of various Islamist groups in the country. After her visit to Uzbekistan in April 2000, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicized an annual report on international terrorism that for the first time included the IMU on the list of the most dangerous terrorist organizations of the world.


Orthodoxy has been represented in Uzbekistan since 1871 and the Orthodox Christian church claims to have membership equal to about 5 percent of the population. In 1999, a theological seminary was opened for training priests.

Besides Islam and Orthodoxy, the Uzbek Justice Ministry has registered more than a dozen other religious groups, including Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Evangelical Lutherans, Catholics, Armenian Apostolics, Korean Protestants, Bahai members, Jews, Hare Krishnas, and Jehovah's Witnesses among others.

While the religious revival of Islam and Christianity is going on, another trend is also emerging. The Protestant Christian sects, rooted in the West, are actively recruiting in Uzbekistan, focusing primarily on recruiting young people.

The leaders of the Orthodox Christian church and Islam have in the past worked together to oppose both fundamentalist Islam and the encroaching Western-style Christianity. "We, the leaders of the Orthodox Christian church and Islam, must struggle to explain the essence of the teachings. People forgot their beliefs during the totalitarian, atheist period. Various sects are breaking down our teachings of Islam and Christianity," said one Orthodox archbishop. In 1995, Islamic and Orthodox clergy issued a joint declaration: "We speak out for our common interest in strengthening the Islamic spirit of the Muslim people, as well the Christian spirit of the Slavic population of Central Asia, because the two religions are the holy heritage of our ancestors."

According to Uzbek law, citizens have full freedom of religion. According to the of law on religion--which dates back to 1992 but was amended in 1998--religious organizations can be created on the initiative of not fewer than 100 citizens, over 18 years old and living permanently in the territory of Uzbekistan. Before the amendment, the law had allowed only 10 people to be the initiators in order to register, and nonresidents of Uzbekistan were not prohibited from participation in the registration process. The newer version of the law prohibits wearing religious garb in public--only church leaders have the right to wear it. The law also bans proselytizing and "any missionary activity." Furthermore, religious leaders may not be elected as deputies to the Supreme Council, according to the Uzbek Constitution.

Human Rights Watch has publicized numerous reports that charge the Uzbek government with persecution of Western religious groups. In October 1999, for example, the police burst into prayers meeting of unregistered Baptists in the city of Karshi. The participants, who were celebrating a Baptist holiday of harvest, were arrested---among them, some children. The detained people were allegedly beaten and tortured. In addition, several foreigners accused of proselytizing were refused entry visas, and several Jehovah's witnesses have reported being repeatedly detained for questioning and asked to pay fines for engaging in illegal religious activity.

Shukhrat Khurramov is a freelance correspondent based in Uzbekistan and regular TOL contributor.

©Copyright 2001, Transitions Online (Uzbekistan)

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