Zaynab M. Dost
“In Uzbekistan, political opposition is banned by the law. Under this system, religious groups have positioned themselves as the only opposition “, – the main issues and specifics of religious extremism in Uzbekistan, as explicated by Zaynab Dost, an independent analyst, specially for CABAR.asia.
Despite the fact that Uzbekistan remains a stable state in Central Asia, there are a number of factors in the country that can develop into a political turbulence. One of the threats to security is religious extremism, operating with Islamic rhetoric. In recent years, Uzbek authorities have been continuing to pursue a policy of force against those accused of extremism, without focusing on alternative ways of resolving the issue. The solution lies in an integrated approach on the part of the state. Uzbekistan is to be recommended to focus not only on a solution by force, but also take into account internal, external and psychological causes of extremism.
Map of religious extremism
The list of extremist groups in Uzbekistan includes the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (IMU), also known as the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan” (IMT), “Akromiya”, “Jamaat Mujahideen of Central Asia”, “Hizb-ut-Tahrir” and others.
In recent years there has been an increase in the number of arrests of people accused of religious extremism. In October 2015, a representative of the law enforcement agencies of Uzbekistan said that on the 3rd of October the capital of Uzbekistan bore two “small” terrorist attacks . Accordingly, in November 2015, law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies of Tashkent were shifted to a special mode of operation due to activation of religious movements in the Ferghana Valley .
Causes of religious extremism
However ironic it may sound, in reality, religion has little to do with processes of religious extremism and terrorism. Worthy of mention is the internal and external factors, as well as psychological reasons conducive to the spread of radical ideas in Uzbekistan.
When talking about internal causes, it is necessary to expose the socio-economic and political problems. Official figures for 2015 show stability in the Uzbek economy, including the growth in the amount of 8% and the inflation rate of 5.6% . However, in reality, unemployment and economic difficulties affect many Uzbek families. Despite the fact that Uzbekistan’s economy is quite diversified in comparison with other countries in the region, it depends on the export of cotton, gas, precious metals, and food, which is of paramount importance for the employment and welfare of the population. The authors of Global Food Security Index for 2014, prepared by the analytical unit of the publication The Economist, estimated that about 70% of Uzbekistan’s population lives below the poverty line. In connection with this, it becomes obvious why millions of Uzbek citizens are working on anything but well-paid positions in Russia and other countries.
Of particular note is the factor of labor migration and its relation to religious extremism. There are cases of radicalization through Russia, where migrant workers, separated from family and familiar relationships, become more susceptible to extremism. For example, most of the people joining Hizb-ut-Tahrir, do so not in Uzbekistan, but precisely in Russia . Returning home for a temporary or permanent residence, they carry with them a baggage of new ideas, which cannot but cause concern.
Corruption — the internal structural problem which hampers the overall development of the country. According to Transparency International estimates, Uzbekistan occupies 153rd place in the ranking of 168 countries. The Government is taking measures to eradicate bribery and cooperates with the international community for this purpose. In March 2010, Uzbekistan joined the Istanbul Action Plan to combat corruption – the initiative of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). However, in practice, corruption still remains a challenge for the country. Due to limited opportunities, when study and employment depend on corruption, rather than on his or her talents, some seek solace in religion. The danger here is that certain people find a “solution”, inspired by the ideology calling for the establishment of an Islamic order.
The war in Afghanistan, the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003, and instability in the Middle East undoubtedly affected the rise of jihadism in the world. The “Holy War” against the “infidels” and the regimes supported by them, for which the extremists call, exerts influence on the inexperienced youth.
In view of this, particular concern to the authorities in Uzbekistan raises the specter of the “Islamic state” (IS). On September 2014, Osman Gazi, “Emir” of the IMU/IMT, active now in the north of Afghanistan, announced that the organization swore allegiance to IS . In August 2015, the IS banner was found flowing in Tashkent, and at the end of the year, human rights activists in Uzbekistan had reported that more than 200 people were arrested on suspicion of belonging to the IS . According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, about 500 citizens of Uzbekistan have joined the militants in Syria and Iraq .
Another threat for Uzbekistan presents itself through the financial component of drug traffic, which is a feeding for terrorist groups such as the IMU/IMT. Uzbekistan cooperates with international organizations in countering the threat of religious extremism and terrorism. Important is the country’s participation in the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Uzbekistan’s chairmanship in the SCO in 2016 provided an opportunity to continue cooperation within the framework of RATS mechanism to address the issue on the local and regional levels. Upon conclusions of the summit in Tashkent, on 23rd-25th June 2016, the SCO Convention was adopted to counter extremism. Apart from that, Cooperation programs have been adopted for the SCO member states in combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, for the years 2016-2018 .
Socially vulnerable strata of the population, whose standard of living lies below poverty line, and who have poor education, may be more susceptible to radical religious ideas. As Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, an Islamic scholar, writes: “poverty is not a direct cause of emergence of these type of organizations, but its effect on the growth of such organizations shall not be disputed by anybody. The main breeding ground for the very same “Hizb-ut Tahrir” or the “Tablighi Jamaat” – are the natives of provinces and the “folk from the roadside” . However, scarcity of opportunities for economic and social development does not mean that only the poor are exposed to extremism. It is well-known that in the early 1990s prevalent among the “Hizb ut-Tahrir” recruits were the prone- to-religion intellectuals . Today the makeup of the organization is also quite diverse. One may assume that in a number of cases involvement in religious-extremist organizations was due to an identity crisis in an ideological void, which came about after the collapse of the USSR. Moreover, attention should be paid to the ambitions of individuals. The desire to attach importance to themselves and to be part of something “grand” often pushes people into the arms of the respective ideologies. Here, a special role is played by education and personal traits. Some researchers point out that religious radicals and believers who are committed to the interpretations of religion in the spirit of “us” against “them”, are differentiated by unconscious arrogance and hubris.
In the main, extremist organizations in Uzbekistan are composed of young men from socially vulnerable groups. However, in recent years more and more women join extremist organizations. Many of them are relatives of those convicted of membership in the “IMT” and “Hizb ut-Tahrir.” As a rule, women are involved in the organization of clandestine training courses or distribute literature of a corresponding interpretation. Thus, in October of 2015, in the city of Kokand, two teachers suspected of distributing IS propaganda leaflets were arrested in the secondary school №4 . In the same month, two more women in the Kashkadarya region of Uzbekistan were convicted of propaganda in favour of the caliphate through WhatsApp application .
Challenges in the struggle with religious extremism
In countering religious extremism several noteworthy points can be singled out.
First, fearing destabilization the government resorts to harsh suppression of religious extremism. In Uzbekistan, all groups advocating political Islam are ranked as extremist organizations, even if some organizations have declared non-violence in their program. There is no law on religious extremism, establishing a procedure for recognizing one organization or another as extremist. Trials are closed and that means that the authorities can rank not only the opposition groups as extremist organizations, but also those associations who practice Islam outside of the state framework. The Uzbek Constitution enshrines the right of people to freedom of religion, but the methods of religious observance are strictly regulated. For example, in June 2016 the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan (DUM), banned collective iftarduring the month of Ramadan . Whereas strict measures do help the government to maintain stability, they can also have side effects, because they play into the hands of extremists who claim that the Uzbek government is waging war against Muslims.
Second, there are shortcomings in the work of the law-enforcement agencies such as the General Prosecutor’s Office, divisions of the National Security Service (NSS) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) in their struggle with extremism. According to estimates of human rights defenders, in 2013 there were 10,000 to 12,000 people, imprisoned on charges related to “religious extremism” or membership in an illegal religious group . Among the prisoners, there might have been people who have made the necessary statements under pressure and torture. The shortcomings also include the issue of the lack of reform measures in the penitentiary system. There is a risk that extremism may continue spreading through prisons where criminal elements serve as fertile ground for the growth of radical ideas.
Third, in Uzbekistan there is an issue with adequate coverage of religious extremism in the media. Preventive work is being conducted in the country to combat radical ideology; the clergy and government officials discuss the threat of terrorism and religious extremism on television and movies are shown to point to the danger of jihadism. However, the programs do not always explain the motivations of extremists, and the quality of some programs is not of the highest level. The TV programs are of somewhat staged character. It would, therefore, be more productive to create material of analytical nature, critically discussing the issue. Moreover, the press is rarely in disposal of timely information on crimes of an extremist or terrorist nature. The population receives sporadic reports on clashes of security forces with armed extremists. Thus, during the terrorist attacks of August 2009 in Tashkent, the official confirmation came out a few days after reports of other sources . It is clear that the authorities are trying to avoid panic, but in the absence of truthful information, people begin to feel distrust toward the authorities.
Fourth, the general crisis in the sphere of education hinders countermeasures against extremist ideas. Notwithstanding the education reforms, the knowledge level of graduates of schools, colleges and higher educational institutions of Uzbekistan leaves much to be desired. Corruption in the education system and the poor knowledge level mean fewer opportunities for the future of young people and their vulnerability to radicalization.
Fifth, of no less importance is the problem with the lack of legitimate outlets for the population to express their dissatisfaction on various issues. Up to now, any criticism of government agencies has been quite a rare thing in the mass media of Uzbekistan. In addition, there have been cases of administrative penalties executed against people who tried to express their civil standing. At the Parliament’s level, the political parties in Uzbekistan are absolutely loyal to the government and do not represent a bastion of change. Here, it should be noted that political opposition is banned by the law in Uzbekistan. Under this system, religious groups position themselves as the only opposition.
Conclusions and recommendations
At the moment, no widespread radicalization, leading to mass support for extremist movements in Uzbekistan is happening. In the long run, lack of economic development, unemployment, reliance on coercive methods to combat religious extremism and the ban on political opposition, could contribute to the spread of radical ideas among socially vulnerable segments of society. One must not ignore the likelihood that in case of a socio-political crisis in the country, extremists will be able to entice people to follow them, using socio-economic problems and poorly educated population.
In order to impede any further growth of extremist groups, the government is to be recommended to focus not only on solution of the issue by force, but also concern itself with the advancement of people’s economic welfare, correction of law enforcement agencies’ performance, improvement of the quality of education and of an ideological struggle, and consider allowing secular political opposition in the parliament.
Improving performance of the law enforcement agencies is an important precondition in countering religious extremism. In addition to upgrading the legal framework and actions of the offices of state in harmony with the law, Uzbekistan should consider the option of preventing extremists’ communication with other prisoners in order to avoid emergence of new radicals.
Equally important is the work on improving the education system and the quality of the ideological struggle against extremism. For many years, the state has been carrying out preemptive measures in schools, to prevent extremism. It is necessary to improve the quality of teaching and to introduce religion as a compulsory subject of study. Professional development of personnel and decent pay for their work, publication of new books in the Latin version of the Uzbek language, introduction of world literature and culture to the youth, should be included as an instrument of struggle with extremism. In addition to that, it is desirable to adopt a state program for the study of Islam as a culture, as opposed to the extremists’ political engagement in it.
An important measure against religious extremism may be a consideration of possibilities to allow secular opposition in the parliament. Registration of new political parties could contribute to the citizens’ full-fledged participation in solving the issues of society and the state. The assumption of the secular opposition will give the upper hand to the Uzbek authorities in the ideological struggle with extremists, as the population will be provided with an alternative to the Islamists, who currently are the stronger opposition.