Addressing a joint session of Congress and a national TV audience on September 20, 2001, George W. Bush declared that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had “links” to Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the September 11 attacks in the United States. Henceforth, the US would consider the IMU an international terrorist organization, and a target in the administration’s “war on terrorism.”

Dire as the consequences of Bush’s speech may be for the IMU, they could also hurt other dissidents in Uzbekistan, for the regime of President Islam Karimov prefers to portray all its political opponents as cut from the same cloth. In the fall of 2000, 12 activists from the Uzbek political opposition went on trial in Tashkent for terrorism. One of the accused was Muhammad Solikh, leader of the nationalist and thoroughly non-Islamist Erk party. The others came from the ranks of the Islamist opposition. Only three of the accused were present in court. The others, including Solikh, and Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangoniy, key figures in the IMU, remain outside the country, and were tried in absentia. After the court announced its predictable decision, [1] the state-owned newspapers published a comprehensive summary of the court proceedings, which expounded upon the history of the opposition movement in Uzbekistan over the last ten years. [2] Karimov’s government, through the mouths of its judges, has always identified political opposition as a criminal conspiracy aimed at destabilizing Uzbekistan and the whole of Central Asia. The Karimov strategy for neutralizing opposition relies upon the concept that Uzbek Islamism is wholly “imported” from outside the country, borne by missionary infiltrators who hail, not coincidentally, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Along with drugs, political Islam coming across Uzbekistan’s borders should be stopped. The Karimov regime views the use of all violent measures in this effort as quite justified.

Central Asian “Wahhabis”

Islam has long been “political” in Central Asia. But in the late 1970s, Central Asia met the kind of political Islam which can be called Islamic fundamentalism. In the former Soviet Union, fundamentalists are often designated Wahhabis — after adherents of the conservative form of Islam preached by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and adopted in present-day Saudi Arabia. The provenance of the term is uncertain. One school holds that the Russian Orientalist Alexei Vasiliev, one of the Soviet Union’s leading experts on Wahhabism, suggested the term to identify local Islamic dissidents, to emphasize the foreign origin of their ideas. [3]

The other viewpoint maintains that the term was introduced by Muhammadjan Hindustani, the most respected theologian of the late Soviet period. Hindustani secretly trained many students, including those who eventually gathered under the banner of fundamentalism. Hindustani referred to these “dissenters” as Wahhabis because they diverged from local tradition and began to introduce innovations into the ritual practices and thinking of local Muslims. [4] Curiously, those now labeled as Wahhabis do not call themselves Wahhabis, although they do share certain core principles with this movement. For the Uzbek state, the term has political utility: they use it to relentlessly deny that Islamist opposition to their rule has any domestic roots.

From Pan-Islamism to Atheism

Ideal types of Islamism — like Wahhabism — are seldom found in a pure form in Central Asia. Rather, they are found in different combinations with each other, as well as with other public forms of Islam, which date back to the pre-Soviet beliefs and practices of the region. Local governments sponsored Islamic institutions in Central Asia from the tenth century until 1917. During the nineteenth century, Bukhara was regarded among conservative circles in the Muslim world as the bastion of Islamic purism. Late in the century, a new form of “political Islam” — the ideology of pan-Islamism — came to Central Asia. Pan-Islamism came to intersect with pan-Turkism, the main ideas of which was to unite Turkic and Muslim peoples against the Russian Empire’s colonial policy and to create an autonomous Turkestan. The Young Tatars, the Young Bukharans and the Young Khivans, all bearers of pan-Islamist ideology, named themselves after the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire, who espoused the idea of Turkic and Muslim unity despite their otherwise secular rhetoric. The Muslim modernism represented in Central Asia, arguing for the expansion of women’s rights, the development of science and secular culture, is linked to this older pan-Islamist movement.

The peak of the pan-Islamist movement in Central Asia was the proclamation of the Kokand Turkestan Autonomy in 1917. When the Bolsheviks broke that up, an armed rebellion grew into an Islamic resistance movement seeking an independent Muslim state. (Enver Pasha, one of the key Young Turk activists, took part.) The Bolsheviks routed this movement, known to them as bosmachi, in the late 1920s. Eventually, the Soviets contrived to overcome pan-Islamism not only by force, but also ideologically, mainly by inspiring Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kazakh and Kyrgyz nationalisms, which mooted the idea of an integrated polyethnic Turkestan.

As the Soviets pursued the policy of militant atheism, the status of Islam in the region and its core institutions were significantly undermined. Muslim courts were liquidated, and most mosques ceased to exist, their property expropriated and their clergy persecuted. By virtue of the unveiling campaign — called khujum (attack) — undertaken in the 1930s, communists also achieved considerable secularization of marriage and the family. Islam was driven almost underground, functioning only as an individual confession, with public prayers restricted to a few surviving mosques serving a limited number of elderly believers.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, further processes of nation-state building in the region militated against the rebirth of pan-Islamism, although a yearning for Islamic solidarity never completely exhausted itself.

Islam Emerges from Underground

Upon independence in 1991, Uzbekistan attempted to restore freedom of confession, officially condemning the ideology and practice of atheism. But although Islam has emerged from underground, and Islamic symbolism has been exploited actively by the country’s leaders, religion has failed to regain the social prestige it held before 1917. The ruling elite, generally supported by society, preferred the secular character of the state and social institutions. Legislation covering marriage and the family retained the norms established in Soviet times: prohibition of polygamy, prohibition of marriage before coming of age and equal rights for men and women in marriage.

Most importantly, the principle of the separation of religion from state has hewn to its Soviet-era interpretation. The Uzbek constitution specifies that religious organizations shall be separated from government and bans religion-based political parties. In keeping with the constitution, the government is not supposed to interfere in the affairs of religious organizations. But in reality the government plays quite an active role in the life of the Muslim community, deciding which mosques can be registered and which cannot. Government actively influences the appointment of preachers at large mosques, not to mention the election of the leader of all Muslims of the country.

Strictures are imposed not only on political organizations, but also on other kinds of public unions based on religion. Legal Islamic organizations in the country are limited to officially registered mosques and a small number of educational institutions: nine religious schools (medreses), one higher institute of Islam and one Islamic university. [5] Other Islamic organizations — like publishing houses and charities — are subjected to the same ban as political parties. Not surprisingly, for 15 years a network of underground Islamic structures, varying from unofficial religious schools to clandestine organizations of political opposition, has flourished in Uzbekistan.

Tradition vs. Fundamentalism

Unofficial home-based religious schools appeared in the Soviet period. Tutors in these schools represented the so-called parallel Islam. Usually they came from the families of former religious activists where religious knowledge was transferred from generation to generation. In these unofficial schools, organized as study circles based at the home of a spiritual mentor, people studied Arabic and old texts preserved in family libraries. These mentors represented the local tradition in religious thought and practice, emphasizing tolerance toward Sufism and cults of saints, as well as cooperation with secular authorities.

A new generation of adherents to unofficial Islam came of age in the 1980s. Having acquired basic knowledge in the home-based schools, they subjected the local traditions to revision. Young people showed interest in more politicized trends of Islamic thought and ideology. These new currents arrived from other Muslim countries, especially those of the Middle East, as restrictions on international contacts were removed and the number of people going on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca increased.

The ideas of contemporary Islamic thought permeated the region through the two main channels. In the 1970s and 1980s, a few young graduates of the Mir-Arab medrese in Bukhara continued their education in the Arab world. They returned familiar with the works of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, ideologues of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Abu-l ‘Ala’ Mawdudi (1903-1979), leader of the Jama’at-i-Islami (Islamic Association) movement of Pakistan. Secretly, Islamic literature was distributed among the Muslims of Central Asia. As early as 1979- 1980, the library at the Central Asian Muslim Spiritual Governance (SADUM) carried books by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb, which ended up in the hands of students of secret Muslim schools in Tashkent and the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan. [6] An Egyptian journalist traveling in the region in 1980 found students at such schools studying photocopies of books by Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Qutb. [7]

The positive reception of this literature was probably aided by the stories told by returning pilgrims and graduates of Middle Eastern schools about the important role Islam plays in the social life of Arab countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism seemed to have succeeded at putting into practice the idea of a perfect Islamic state and society. Against the background of the humbled status of Islam in the Soviet Union and the restraint of Islamic revival by independent Uzbekistan, more politicized Islamist writings may be more convincing to young Uzbek Muslims than the exhortations of the older generation calling for loyalty to the national tradition of professing Islam.

Roots of Islamist Dissent

Three main reasons explain the growth in popularity of fundamentalist ideas among young Uzbeks. Young people were disappointed by the opportunism of older Muslim clerics in cooperating with the atheistic Soviets. In contrast to the “conformism” of the traditional clerics, fundamentalist ideas could be seen as more responsive to contemporary social issues — the repressive authoritarian regime, the growth of unemployment, the decline of public morals and the erosion of Muslim values.

Second, tension grew between some provinces and the capital. The growth of Islamism has been especially noteworthy in the Ferghana Valley. Home to 31.4 percent of the population, for last 40 years the Valley been under-represented in the central government, in proportion to its size and weight in the national economy. Since 1959, the Samarkand-Jizzak and Tashkent clans have dominated high government posts while the Ferghana clan was relegated to secondary positions, for instance, the purely decorative post of speaker of parliament. Ambitious young leaders in the Valley found their dignity in opposing everything associated with the capital. If the latter represents cosmopolitan and secular ways of life, then the Ferghana Valley patriots naturally resorted to more nationalistic and more Islamic ideologies. The Ferghana Valley has been the stronghold not only of the Islamic movement, but also the secular nationalist Birlik party, which was also crushed by the government.

Finally, the impetus to resist the central government comes from the worsening economic situation, especially in agricultural provinces. In the Ferghana Valley, there is less and less irrigated land per rural household. Rural areas are being de-urbanized as villagers lose jobs in manufacturing. In the last decades of Soviet rule, many villagers in the Ferghana Valley worked in neighboring towns and smaller urban settlements. They were probably the most qualified and best trained part of the rural labor force.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the disintegration of the established production and trade networks, only those sectors of the economy which were oriented to local or world markets survived. In the case of Uzbekistan, only the cotton sector and the mining industry retained their markets. Young people, many of them quite well-educated and well-trained, faced a difficult choice between returning to work on the land — which promised little — and seeking meager business opportunities. Many expressed their dissatisfaction in the form of open protest.

Not only did young people disobey their conformist mentors, they set out to create new underground religious schools, which promulgated fundamentalist ideas. The new unofficial religious schools in the 1980s and 1990s supplied an alternative to the official institutions of religious education, and also to the unofficial schools of the old traditional type. At the new unofficial schools, students focused less on mastering ritual practices and antique riddles of theology than on exploring contemporary Islamist ideas. The numbers of new-generation unofficial schools increased dramatically during the period of perestroika and the initial period of Uzbek independence. At first the government was quite tolerant of the new schools, until it realized that the situation was getting out of control, especially in the Ferghana Valley.

Fundamentalists vs. Government

The incidents of 1992 were a turning point. By that time, there already existed in the Ferghana Valley a network of illegal religious political organizations, such as Tavba (Repentance), Islom Lashkarlari (Warriors of Islam), the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP) and Islom Markazi (Islamic Center), which gained great influence in the local community. These organizations started with criticism directed at official Islam, which they accused of complicity with the communists and the new regime, but then shifted to purely political appeals. In a number of places, a “creeping” Islamic revolution began. In the town of Namangan an organization called Adolat (Justice) slowly assumed functions of law enforcement agencies in maintaining public order and punishing delinquents guilty of minor offenses. In fixing punishment, Adolat attempted to introduce shari‘a law. [8] Soon Adolat’s definition of delinquency began to include some patterns of women’s behavior regarded as frivolous. Women were obliged to wear the hidjab (a shawl covering the head and lower part of a face), [9] and could be punished merely for wearing short-sleeved blouses. Men who did not visit the mosque regularly became subject to public reprimand. In 1991-1992, Namangan was becoming a Wahhabi community — a place where strict interpretation of religious maxims policed everyday behavior.

With the eager collaboration of local state authorities, the main mosque turned into a sort of local governing body which was able to mobilize thousands of people. This gradual transfer of power into the hands of Islamists was suspended only after the interference of the central government. In 1991, the central government stormed the local office of the Communist Party, at the time the seat of local power, and commenced breaking up Islamist organizations in the Namangan province, imprisoning their leaders or putting them to flight. The Islamists responded with the serial assassinations of high-ranking officers of the local militia in 1997.

That year, the government launched a large-scale attack on Islamist forces. Underground religious political organizations and activists were harassed and persecuted. Some fled the country, chiefly to Tajikistan, where they joined the Islamic opposition there. After the defeat of the latter in 1992-1993, the Uzbek and Tajik Islamists emigrated together to Afghanistan, beginning a close working relationship among the radical Islamists of the three countries. At first they were all hosted by the mujahideen government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Masoud. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, the Tajik opposition continued to cooperate with the Rabbani-Masoud alliance. The newly emerged IMU got closer to the Taliban.

In Uzbekistan, the government intensified its anti-Islamist propaganda and took steps to interdict Islamist individuals, literature and financial resources coming into Uzbekistan from Pakistan and the Middle East. Hastily, the government designed a counter-fundamentalist ideology based on the ideas of national independence, patriotism and moral and spiritual conservatism in the style of adat (traditional common law). A conservative quasi-ministry of spirituality and enlightenment (man’aviat va marifat) was created to extol local religious tradition and great theologians from the Central Asian past. The government emphasized that the theologians’ “national” ancestry, rather than the religious content of their teachings. Continual celebrations of birthdays of “Uzbekistan’s” great ancestors were apparently intended to excite pride in the national past and overcome inferiority complexes about other countries in the Muslim world.

Finally, in 1998 the government endeavored to limit the very reproduction of dissident Muslims, imposing rigorous restrictions on the establishment and operation of unregistered religious educational institutions and mosques. The criminal code was amended to threaten operators of religious schools with penalties one hundred times the minimum wage, three years’ hard labor or imprisonment for terms of up to five years. Laws prescribed similar penalties for lecturing on religious teachings without a state-approved religious education. In the subsequent campaign to re-register religious institutions, not all functioning Muslim schools and mosques passed muster. In 1997 — when the Islamist movement reached its peak — sources estimate that Uzbekistan had more than 4,200 mosques, of which 2,433 operated in the Ferghana Valley. Already in 1999, following the adoption of the above laws, official statistics reported the existence of only 1,566 registered mosques and official Muslim schools. [10]

The Conflict Goes International

In response to the government crackdown, the Islamist opposition opened operations on two fronts. The so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a military-political organization with a backbone of activists from the Adolat union drubbed in 1992, was established. Former Adolat leader Takhir Yuldash became the IMU’s political leader. Military operations were headed by Juma Khojiev, also known as Juma Namangoniy. The IMU chose to apply military pressure on Karimov’s regime, declaring jihad in 1999. Twice — in August 1999 and August 2000 — the IMU attempted unsuccessful armed incursions into the Ferghana Valley.

The Islamic opposition also disseminated propaganda inside the country aimed to discredit the regime. This work was led by an underground organization called Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a branch of a clandestine international organization of the same name whose objective is a caliphate to unite the Muslim world. Hizb-ut-Tahrir focused on students and young people, meeting them face to face and distributing leaflets. According to media reports, in the Quwa district of the Ferghana Valley alone police apprehended 114 members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, possessing 453 books and over 5,000 leaflets. [11]

The ouster of Islamists from the country internationalized the conflict. Abroad, Uzbek Islamists received moral and material support from multiple Islamic foundations and networks like al-Qaeda. The infusion of funds permitted the Islamists to set up training camps, purchase arms and bankroll operations within Uzbekistan. Karimov’s government also failed to cut off completely the channels — the Internet and other telecommunications — through which Islamist ideology entered the country.

The Domestic Import

The question remains to what extent the Islamist opposition in Uzbekistan has domestic roots, and to what extent it has been imported. The government insists on the latter, viewing the IMU, together with all other forms of Islamist opposition, as a tool of international terrorism aiming to destabilize the Central Asian region and to secure drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Europe.

Foreign observers, governments and NGOs split into two camps. The position of the Uzbek government is supported by regional governments, particularly Russia, joined by some Western observers who view Islamic fundamentalism with suspicion and even hostility. Human Rights Watch, the World Organization Against Torture and other international NGOs counter that the Uzbek government, by its harsh crackdown, provoked the Islamic opposition to armed confrontation, and is now using the bugbear of international terrorism to justify repression of any kind of dissent in the country.

Before US war plans in Afghanistan created a need for Uzbek bases, US policymakers had been of two minds about the IMU. In September 2000, Bill Clinton’s State Department listed the IMU among foreign terrorist organizations. [12] A month and a half later, conservative Republicans pushed through the House of Representatives a resolution referring to the same IMU militants as “armed rebels,” [13] a term with significantly different connotations from “international terrorists.” Today the White House has gone back to lumping the IMU together with Osama bin Laden. Bush’s reference to the IMU in his September 20 speech to Congress naming the enemy in the “war on terrorism” was viewed by Uzbek dissidents as a quid pro quo for the Karimov regime, which had granted the US military use of its airspace and territory. [14]

Both viewpoints — that the IMU is imported and that it is homegrown — are true to a certain degree. Clearly, the IMU grew out of the milieu of the Islamist grassroots organizations which rode the crest of perestroika and the concurrent revitalization of public expressions of faith. The activists and leaders of these organizations were coached in the unofficial religious schools, which emerged in response to the repression of believers’ rights by the Soviet regime. But the fact of outside ideological influence cannot be denied. Of course, Islam itself may be regarded as an ideology once “imported” from the Middle East.

International Islamist organizations are widely reported in the Russian media to encourage and sponsor the IMU. Sponsors include extremist organizations as the global underground network controlled by Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, the Pakistani organizations Sepa-e Sahaba (Warriors of Muhammad), Harakat-ul Ansor (Party of Allies), Sepa-e Tabibi (Warriors of the Healer) and others, not to mention Hizb-ut-Tahrir. [15]

Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian countries, has a socio-economic environment favorable to the spread of the ideas of Islamism: the decline of living standards resulting from the collapse of the relatively well-functioning state-centered economy and the lingering transition to a market economy. Due to the hardships of the transitional period, a significant part of the population which formerly identified itself as the middle class suddenly found itself among the “new poor.” Many of the new poor come from the impoverished intelligentsia, who may be more receptive to Islamist ideas than others. In Jordan, the home country of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the bearers of its ideas tend to be teachers and others from the lower middle class. [16] So far, Uzbek teachers do not seem to be involved in propagating Islamist ideology, but a few cases have been noted. [17]

Karimov’s Pennies from Heaven

In Uzbekistan, only one factor that helps Islamist feeling to grow has not yet matured. This factor is anti-Western attitudes, which in Middle Eastern countries were generated by colonial legacies, the expansion of Western consumer culture and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the growing gap between the capital city, which embodies the spirit of cosmopolitanism, and the provinces, where Uzbeks still follow traditional lifestyles, could be an alarming sign. Globalization — everywhere identified with the West, especially the US — is knocking at the door of Uzbekistan, and is likely to cause controversy in the country. One outcome may be further strengthening of the cosmopolitan elite in the capital, which has gained control of the country’s key economic resources. For the provinces, globalization is likely to mean further pauperization, and, as information technology extends its reach, the concomitant expansion of the influence of Islamist ideas. Possibly, Islamist ideas could provide sustenance to those left out of globalization, and become the banner of their quest to restore the moral order and social justice which they see as lost in the post-Soviet transition. In these circumstances, Islamic opposition activists accused by Karimov and the West of terrorism may not be perceived as criminals in Uzbekistan, certainly not by the whole population.

The arrival of US troops in Uzbekistan for deployment against the Taliban is like pennies from heaven for Karimov, who has aimed for long time to forge a “qualitatively new” strategic partnership with the world’s remaining superpower. [18] The new US-Uzbek alliance will certainly affect the internal alignment of forces in Uzbekistan. As it will strengthen the urban secular elites, the alliance may exacerbate the deepening cleavage between the prosperous and cosmopolitan capital and the poor and backward provinces. So far, the provinces have not been infected by an anti-Western mood. But since rural Uzbeks will probably receive little from the new Western largesse promised to the regime, anti-Western militancy — in the spirit of Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden and their like — could sink roots in Uzbek provinces as it did in the Middle East.


[1] Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangoniy were condemned to die. The others were given terms of confinement ranging from 12 to 20 years.
[2] Narodnoye Slovo, November 23, 2000.
[3] Personal communication with Anna Zelkina. Also, see Abdujabbar Abduwakhitov, “Islamic Revivalism in Uzbekistan,” in Dale Eickelman, ed. Russia’s Muslim Frontiers: New Directions in Cross-Cultural Analysis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 85.
[4] Bahtiyar Babajanov and Muzaffar Komilov, “Development of the Religious Situation in the Ferghana Valley: Problems and Prospects of Study,” in Obshchestvennoye mneniye. Prava cheloveka, No. 1-2, 2000, pp. 97-99.
[5] Narodnoye Slovo, August 14, 1999.
[6] Babajanov and Komilov, p. 201.
[7] Martha Brill Olcott, “Islam and Fundamentalism in Independent Central Asia,” in Eickelman, op cit., p. 34.
[8] They did not go as far as cutting thieves’ hands off. Rather, Adolat members tied “criminals” to “the pillar of ignominy,” in the belief that shaming is the best method of correction.
[9] Traditionally Muslim women of Turkestan had worn a different type of hidjab: a scarf called a chodir tied around the head in various ways so as the hide the hair and neck, or a veil called a paranji which consisted of a full-length cloak styled after a woman’s robe, with a horsehair face covering, the chochvon. Until the late 1920s, the paranji was widespread among the urban and wealthy populations. The present form of hidjab consists of ankle-length modern dresses or coats with long-fitted sleeves, high necks and white scarves tucked in around the face and draping over the shoulders. Today the scarves themselves are often imported from Saudi Arabia or another Middle Eastern country.
[10] Narodnoye Slovo, August 14, 1999.
[11] Adolat, February 18, 2000.
[12] US Department of State, Office of the Spokesman’s Press Statement, September 15, 2000.
[13] US House of Representatives, Resolution 397, October 30, 2000. Said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in subcommittee hearings: “If there was a democratic process, an honest government in Central Asia, there would be no threat from Islamic fundamentalists.” Transcript, September 13, 2000.
[14] Washington Post, October 1, 2001.
[15] Kabar News Agency (Bishkek), February 16, 2000; Zahir Sokhibi, “Who Aids Islamic Extremists?” Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Sodruzhestvo, October 25, 2000.
[16] In Arabic, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party). Ahmad S. Moussalli, Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalist Movements in the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999), pp. 90-94.
[17] Fidokor reported on February 17, 2000 that students and faculty of the higher education schools could be found distributing anti-government leaflets.
[18] New York Times, October 13, 2001.

How to cite this article:

Alisher Ilkhamov "Uzbek Islamism," Middle East Report 221 (Winter 2001).

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