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Uzbekistan - Religion

Islam is by far the dominant religious faith in Uzbekistan. The government reported as of 2011 that approximately 93 percent of the population is nominally Muslim (the vast majority are Sunni, of the Hanafi school (madhab), and approximately 1 percent are Shia, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand). Approximately 4 percent is Russian Orthodox, a percentage that is declining as ethnic Russians and other Slavs continue to emigrate. The remaining 3 percent includes small communities of Roman Catholics, Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas, and atheists. In addition, an estimated 10,500-11,500 Ashkenazi and Bukharan Jews remain concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley.

Despite its predominance, Islam is far from monolithic, however. Many versions of the faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan. The conflict of Islamic tradition with various agendas of reform or secularization throughout the twentieth century has left the outside world with a confused notion of Islamic practices in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan the end of Soviet power did not bring an upsurge of a fundamentalist version of Islam, as many had predicted, but rather a gradual re-acquaintance with the precepts of the faith.

Soviet authorities did not prohibit the practice of Islam as much as they sought to coopt and utilize religion to placate a population that often was unaware of the tenets of its faith. After its introduction in the seventh century, Islam in many ways formed the basis of life in Uzbekistan. The Soviet government encouraged continuation of the role played by Islam in secular society. During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan had sixty-five registered mosques and as many as 3,000 active mullahs and other Muslim clerics. For almost forty years, the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the official, Soviet-approved governing agency of the Muslim faith in the region, was based in Tashkent. The grand mufti who headed the board met with hundreds of foreign delegations each year in his official capacity, and the board published a journal on Islamic issues, Muslims of the Soviet East.

However, the Muslims working or participating in any of these organizations were carefully screened for political reliability. Furthermore, as the Uzbekistani government ostensibly was promoting Islam with the one hand, it was working hard to eradicate it with the other. The government sponsored official antireligious campaigns and severe crackdowns on any hint of an Islamic movement or network outside of the control of the state. Moscow's efforts to eradicate and coopt Islam not only sharpened differences between Muslims and others. They also greatly distorted the understanding of Islam among Uzbekistan's population and created competing Islamic ideologies among the Central Asians themselves.

According to a public opinion survey conducted in 1994, interest in Islam is growing rapidly, but personal understanding of Islam by Uzbeks remains limited or distorted. For example, about half of ethnic Uzbek respondents professed belief in Islam when asked to identify their religious faith. Among that number, however, knowledge or practice of the main precepts of Islam was weak. Despite a reported spread of Islam among Uzbekistan's younger population, the survey suggested that Islamic belief is still weakest among the younger generations. Few respondents showed interest in a form of Islam that would participate actively in political issues. Thus, the first years of post-Soviet religious freedom seem to have fostered a form of Islam related to the Uzbek population more in traditional and cultural terms than in religious ones.

In light of the role that Islam has played throughout Uzbekistan's history, many observers expected that Islamic fundamentalism would gain a strong hold after independence brought the end of the Soviet Union's official atheism. The expectation was that an Islamic country long denied freedom of religious practice would undergo a very rapid increase in the expression of its dominant faith. President Karimov justified authoritarian controls over the populations of his and other Central Asian countries by the threat of upheavals and instability caused by growing Islamic political movements, and other Central Asian leaders also have cited this danger. In the early 1990s, however, Uzbekistan did not witness a surge of Islamic fundamentalism as much as a search to recapture a history and culture with which few Uzbeks were familiar. To be sure, Uzbekistan is witnessing a vast increase in religious teaching and interest in Islam. Since 1991, hundreds of mosques and religious schools have been built or restored and reopened. And some of the Islamic groups and parties that have emerged might give leaders pause.

The law provides for freedom of worship, freedom from religious persecution, separation of church and state, and the right to establish schools and train clergy; however, the law grants those rights only to registered groups. It also restricts religious rights that it judges to be in conflict with national security, prohibits proselytizing, bans religious subjects in public schools, prohibits the private teaching of religious principles, and requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute materials. The Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), a government agency accountable to the Cabinet of Ministers, must approve all religious literature. The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, discusses ensuring compliance with the law, the rights of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion. The committee includes representatives from various Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups.

The criminal code formally distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are those that are not registered properly, and “prohibited” groups viewed as extremist, which the government bans altogether. The code makes it a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison, to organize an illegal religious group or to resume the activities of such a group after it has been denied registration or ordered to disband. In addition the code punishes participation in such a group with up to three years in prison. The code also provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for “organizing or participating” in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. The law increases the fines for repeat violations of the law on religious activity up to 200 to 300 times the minimum monthly salary of 62,920 soums ($35). After a person is punished under the administrative code, he or she may be tried under the criminal code for a repeat offense.

The government remained deeply suspicious of Muslims who worship outside state-approved institutions, were educated at madrassahs abroad, gather socially to discuss religious issues, or are tied to known “Wahhabi” imams, a term the government and the press periodically use to describe Muslims whose intellectual or religious roots derive from the strict teachings of prominent imams of the early 1990s. The government often accuses defendants of being “jihadists,” but it is not clear whether the government considers them members of the terrorist Islamic Jihad Union or whether the government used the term generically to mean “extremist.” The government informally bans other “extremist” Muslim religious groups as it identifies them, and defendants are convicted of sentences similar to those levied against groups previously identified as “jihadist” or “extremist.”

Strict laws against religious extremism are applied liberally, limiting free practice of religion for all religious groups. The government severely represses those it suspects of Islamic extremism, including those suspected of any affiliation to organizations such as the banned extremist Party of Islamic Liberation (Hizb ut-Tahrir) or the more moderate Nurchilar (followers of Said Nursi of Turkey). Thousands of suspected extremists have been incarcerated since 1992. The exact number remaining in custody is unknown but may be several thousand. Political prisoners and suspected extremists are allegedly treated worse than ordinary prisoners. A large number of prisoners have reportedly died in custody, many from disease and other poor conditions and others from mistreatment and abuse.

The government and local imams discouraged some public displays of religion. For example, in some parts of the country, authorities questioned women wearing the hijab and encouraged them either to remove it or alter it to reflect the more traditional style of tying the scarf at the back of the neck. Children continued to be discouraged from practicing religion. School officials were known to discourage both Muslim and Christian parents from sending their children to mosque or church services, and some school officials questioned students about their religions and why they attended services. There were several reports of school officials sending girls home or rebuking them for wearing the hijab, and there were isolated reports of schools refusing to allow children to enter if their mothers’ hijabs were not removed or altered. There continued to be reports that local officials pressured imams to prevent children from attending Friday prayers and additional reports that some local officials, teachers, and police officers turned students away from Friday prayer services.

Karimov has been accused of using the perceived threat of Islamic militancy to justify his style of leadership. Some analysts suggest that the wave of bombings and shootings in March 2004 is evidence that this policy is backfiring. Observers point out that the combination of ruthless repression and poor living standards provides fertile breeding ground for violent resistance in a volatile region. More to the point, Uzbekistan has an unusually young population, whose search for meaning in life would find little sustenance in the poor soil of what passes for Islam in Uzbekistan.

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Page last modified: 13-03-2013 16:09:18 ZULU