To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.
Uzbekistan is poised on the brink of disaster. President Islam
Karimov is fighting a war for the status quo. The status quo
however, involves government corruption and repression, resulting in
poverty and absolutely misery for most of Uzbekistan's 88% Muslim
population. Meanwhile, radical Islamic groups, both socialist and
jihadist, entice disgruntled, disenfranchised, poverty-stricken
Uzbeks with the promise that an Islamic state would provide them
with justice. In the absence of any other option – there is no
viable secular political opposition – Uzbek citizens are
increasingly aligning themselves with radical political and militant
Islamic groups which they see as their only hope as they rise up
against their government. This is fast becoming a war between Islam
and the status quo.
The only path likely to circumvent an Islamic revolution or a
drawn-out and bloody civil war, the path of reform, is not on the
agenda. While Uzbekistan's Islamic groups have demonstrated that
they are prepared to use lethal force to advance their agenda, the
Karimov regime has likewise demonstrated that it is prepared to use
lethal force to crush dissent. (Link 1)
None of this bodes well for Uzbekistan's Christian minority who are
unfortunately caught up on the edge of the whirlwind as Karimov
represses all religion indiscriminately.
In 1999, the USA used its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act
(which links religious liberty to trade and aid) to positive effect
in Uzbekistan. Today however, Karimov's regime is finding support
for its indiscriminate heavy-handed repression in the Shanghai
Co-operation Organisation (SCO) which was formed in 2001 to enable
Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan to
co-ordinate activities, in particular security. The SCO has since
extended observer status to India, Pakistan and Iran. So why should
Karimov be concerned with Western condemnation of its lack of
transparent democracy, openness, free media, human rights and
religious liberty? The SCO, which one commentator describes as "a
huddling of harried elites", will support Karimov as he represses
religion as violently and pervasively as he sees fit.
Christians in Uzbekistan are experiencing escalating persecution due
to increasing Islamic zeal and increasing government repression of
religion. Forum 18 has extensive coverage of the escalating
persecution of the Church in Uzbekistan < http://www.forum18.org >.
As the totalitarian Karimov finds supportive allies in Russia and
China, Uzbekistan's Christians may find that their allies, Western
advocates of religious liberty, are increasingly without leverage.
THE POST-SOVIET STATUS QUO
Adolat Najimova, a EurasiaNet partner from Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty (RFE/RL) writes, "The lives of ordinary Uzbeks are extremely
difficult, with high unemployment, particularly in rural areas;
there are villages in the country that are virtually devoid of
males, in part a result of forced migration in pursuit of wages.
Local observers cite widespread corruption, accusing government
officials of enriching themselves at the expense of the public.
"The majority of Uzbeks try hard to make ends meet despite
Uzbekistan's huge potential; it is among the largest producers of
cotton and gold in the world. Meanwhile, most sectors of the economy
are controlled by a small circle of people who might best be
categorized into clan-like structures. The middle class has all but
disappeared in Uzbekistan over the course of the past decade."
Najimova writes that human rights abuses are widespread, torture is
systematic, and there is "no secular opposition in the country, and
international observers have dismissed last December's parliamentary
elections as a farce. The country's parliament remains firmly
subordinate to the president. There is no truly independent
media..." (Link 2)
Uzbekistan has clearly not yet lifted its roots out of the Soviet
UZBEKISTAN'S ISLAMIST THREAT: ISLAM vs STATUS QUO
The two main Islamic movements threatening the status quo in
Uzbekistan are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which is linked
to al-Qaeda and fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001)
and Hizb ut-Tahrir (which blends Wahhabi theology with Leninist
structures and strategy).
The IMU, which has waged considerable terror in Uzbekistan, enacted
its first suicide bombings in Uzbekistan, in the capital Tashkent,
in March 2004. While Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to be non-violent, its
strategy does aim to culminate in Islamic revolution. Some socialist
Islamists have grown impatient with Hizb ut-Tahrir and have split to
follow jihadist methods.
The finer details of Uzbekistan's Islamist movements are intensely
complicated and information is conflicting. But the Islamist threat
is not to be underestimated. These groups aim to establish an
Islamic state across Central Asia and they thrive on instability and
discontent. President Karimov is within reason to fear an Islamic
revolution or a IMU coup in Tashkent. However, at the same time he
is doing much to accelerate the likelihood of such an event.
President Karimov refuses to acknowledge (or does not care) that his
policies are fueling social anger. In the absence of any openness or
liberty, there is no opportunity to discuss, let alone vent. The
regime's injustices, corruption, elitism, brutality and repression
are catalysts for radicalisation within the majority Muslim population.
Reporter Adolat Najimova told EurasiaNet, "Some observers assert
that the lack of avenues for grievances or participation in
political and social life pushes many young Uzbek men and women to
join the ranks of radical Islamic groups; the result can be a
vicious circle: increasing numbers of people attracted to such
religious groups promising to deliver justice, and increasingly
harsh responses by the government." (Link 2)
REFORM IS THE ONLY VIABLE OPTION
Only reform, in particular openness and economic reform that eases
social pain, offers any hope that civil war or Islamic revolution
can be prevented in Uzbekistan. It is widely believed that that the
genuine pro-Western reforms implemented in Kyrgyzstan after the
"Tulip Revolution" (24 March 2005) will circumvent the Islamist
But unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan was ripe for "revolution" (regime
change). As Christopher Walker writes in a EurasiaNet Commentary (14
July 2005), "Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in many ways represent
the region's 'low hanging fruit' for political change. Each featured
a comparatively open political environment, in which opposition
parties could build popular support and agitate against the
respective governments. In comparison, other states in the region --
most notably Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have stifled all
forms of domestic dissent -- present far stiffer challenges for
those seeking change." (Link 3)
This is why the situation in Uzbekistan is so diabolical. Uzbeks are
highly agitated by increasing totalitarianism, repression and
entrenched corruption, and by the lack of justice, human rights,
freedoms, employment, information and well being. Uzbeks are
desperate for change, but there is no viable secular opposition,
only radical Islamists who are actively winning hearts and
escalating their efforts.
Tanya Malcolm, a Central Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, and
Ganijon Kholmatov, an independent political analyst based in Osh
(Kyrgyzstan) both told RFE/RL that escalating authoritarianism is
fueling the extremism in Central Asia. Kholmatov believes a
lessening of religious restrictions, and an opening up of public
debate has lessened the appeal of banned, extremist groups like Hizb
ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan. (Link 4)
Unfortunately, while Karimov needs to implement economic reforms in
Uzbekistan urgently to circumvent civil war or Islamic revolution,
it appears he is determined to wage his war for the status quo.
Karimov is bolstered by the fact that he has found Russia's
President Vladamir Putin and China's President Hu Jintao (both using
similar methods to fight the same war in their own nations) to be
And Russia and China are bolstered by having the Karimov regime in
Uzbekistan as an ally. As NATO has expanded to incorporate the
Baltic states, and as the US has set up bases in Uzbekistan and
Kyrgyzstan to fight the "War on Terror", Russia has become
encircled. Russia and China are both unhappy about Washington's
presence in their backyard. There will probably be some quid pro quo
here – Russian and Chinese support for Karimov's authoritarian,
human rights-abusing regime in exchange for Uzbek pressure to remove
US bases and influence from Central Asia. And Uzbekistan does not
need to fear that a US withdrawal from the region might leave a
power vacuum for Islamists; Uzbekistan will appeal to the Shangai
Co-operation Organisation (SCO) for support or assistance in dealing
with any problem stemming from religion.
Most analysts believe that Karimov cannot win this war, as the
protests will eventually get beyond the scope of government control.
Chris Seiple writes for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, "If
these demonstrations [as in Andijan, 12-13 May] were coordinated,
possibly by extremists, they would be almost impossible for the
government to put down. It required the presence of both the
president and the interior minister to restore order in Andijan, and
they cannot be everywhere at once." (Link 5)
The question is, how far will Russia or China go to preserve the
status quo in Uzbekistan?
Uzbekistan is poised on the brink of disaster. A worst case scenario
could have the Ferghana Valley looking like Chechnya. The stage is
set for Christians in Uzbekistan to be facing an increasingly
difficult season. We must pray for the Church, and pray for God to
intervene and keep Uzbekistan from going over the edge.
- Elizabeth Kendal
1) 'I don't know why they opened fire. They killed the unarmed
citizens of Andijan'
Rustam Iskhakov in Andijan, Uzbekistan, 16 May 2005
2) UZBEKISTAN: PRESIDENT KARIMOV'S LIMITED OPTIONS
EURASIA INSIGHT. By Adolat Najimova, 21 May 2005
3) THE FORMER SOVIET UNION'S NEXT WAVE OF DEMOCRATIZATION
Christopher Walker 14 July 2005, A EurasiaNet Commentary
4) Kyrgyzstan: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal,
By Gulnoza Saidazimova, Prague, 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL)
5) UNDERSTANDING UZBEKISTAN
by Chris Seiple, 1 June 2005
Uzbekistan: Is The Country Headed For Regime Change?
By Jeffrey Donovan, RFE/RL, 30 June 2005
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