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The Shrinking Space For Religion In Central Asia

The Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was built shortly befor Timur's death, refurbished in 1970.
The Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was built shortly befor Timur's death, refurbished in 1970.

The thing the governments in Central Asia fear the most is religion. Secular opposition there has been nearly eliminated and in its place religious opposition has appeared.

Only a very few people in Central Asia are given to joining Islamic extremist groups. But were one to judge from the actions of the region's governments and security forces, it would easy at times to get the impression there was an imminent threat to the state.

The era of the Internet and social networks has ushered in a new era of paranoia, not only in Central Asia, and the authorities in Central Asia are broadening their definitions of what an extremist group is and taking preemptive measures to cut off the perceived threats these often ill-defined groups allegedly represent.

To discuss religion and the Central Asian governments' increasingly restrictive attitude toward various groups, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel to discuss the campaign against suspect believers in the region.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From London, Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, joined the talk. Participating from Washington, D.C., was Dillorom Abdullaeva of Tashabbus, a group formed by young lawyers in Uzbekistan to help protect the rights of people there. And in case you didn't notice, we have Noah Tucker from working with us at RFE/RL now, so he was in the studio in Prague with me for the discussion.

It was not long after independence in 1991 that the Central Asian leaders, all former Communist Party officials during the Soviet era, realized that although reembracing Islam would help their countries to reinforce distinctions between them and former colonial master Russia, these leaders themselves knew very little about the religion.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was confronted by a group of Muslims during a trip to Namangan in December 1991 and forced to sit and listen as the group's leaders lectured him about their ideas of good governance. Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992 and the core of the government's military opponents was the Islamic Renaissance Party. These then were the early examples for Central Asian governments and it sparked different reactions from the five states.

Corley said policies toward religion evolved to the point where "the Central Asian governments are more or less saying, religion is dangerous unless we the authorities have licensed it and registered it as being acceptable within very tightly restricted bounds, which the government has set."

Any group outside those bounds becomes suspect. While the constitutions of all five enshrine freedom of religion, in practice so-called "nontraditional faiths" face significant problems.

As Abdullaeva said, "There are many religious groups who are unofficially banned in Uzbekistan," and she added, "It is practice to be arbitrary and to keep fear in people who practice religion."

And Abdullaeva added that the state-approved version "of Sunni kind of Soviet-style, I would say, closer to culture than religion."

The Central Asian governments seem to misinterpret the intentions of many groups or misidentify them entirely. "Wahhabis" were once the favorite targets of campaigns, even going back to the Soviet era, though most if not nearly all the people detained or imprisoned in Central Asia did not seem to be practicing the form of Wahhabism associated with Saudi Arabia, its birthplace.

"Salafis" have now become one the most suspected Islamic groups in Central Asia. Tucker explained, "You'd be very pressed to find anyone in a Central Asian government who could delineate to you the exact difference between a Wahhabi and a Salafi and [when] lawyers who present this evidence in trial, there's very little effort to make any kind of definition."

There is also very little effort made to elaborate how exactly these people represented a threat. Corley said, "The government[s] should look at people who are actually committing crimes of violence or inciting, or organizing the committing of crimes of violence and not target people solely because of their religious affiliation or their perceived religious affiliation."

Not Belonging To Nonexistent Group?

In the worst-case scenarios some Central Asian governments grossly exaggerate or even invent groups, then imprison perceived opponents for membership. Tucker noted how problematic this was for the accused. "They're [the government] saying you belong to a group that doesn't actually exist so it's very hard to prove they don't belong to something, if you can't say what the group is in the first place," he said.

Corley commented, "This is a very dangerous approach which does nothing to help the security of the country and does nothing to protect the human rights of the people of an individual country."

Corley provided the example of Bahrom Saparov, the leader of a group of Sunni Muslims in Turkmenistan's eastern town of Turkmenabat who apparently was preaching without official approval. "He is believed to have received a 15-year prison term, he's in the top security prison in Owadan Depe in the desert and very, very few prisoners ever come out of there alive, he's last known to have been seen in that prison in 2014."

And Tucker said that just recently in Uzbekistan, acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev "has ordered, particularly in border areas and within Tashkent, for the security services to do house-to-house searches of people who were previously convicted on religious charges."

Abdullaeva pointed out, "Religious extremists or acts of religious extremism are the result of the severe restrictions on freedom of religion in those countries."

Tucker suggested that "the governments would do their own citizens a favor in paying attention to public safety and the public having definitions [of extremist groups] that actually work."

The Majlis discussed these topics in greater detail and ranged around Central Asia looking at other specific examples of state campaigns against religious groups. You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Religious Persecution In Central Asia
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The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.