Bahai News - Not Losing Their Religion
9 March 2001
Not Losing Their Religion
Uzbekistan branches out beyond Islam and Orthodoxy.
by Shukhrat Khurramov
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
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
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)
Page last updated/revised 032001
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