For well over a year, the Uzbek government has been engaged in a campaign against Islamic "extremism," which it also calls "Wahhabism." The net has been cast broadly: the campaign has targeted all expressions of Islamic piety beyond the direct control of the government's own religious administration. And it is not just the so-called extremists who have suffered. Mosques not subordinate to the official religious administration have been closed; the use of loud speakers for the call to prayer outlawed; students who insists on wearing "Islamic" dress to university have been summarily expelled; and in some cases, men sporting beards deemed "extremist" have been forcibly shorn.
Although the campaign was already underway, it was redoubled in intensity after the bombings of February 1999 in Tashkent, an incident that the government blamed on "extremists." The government had long argued for vigilance against "religious extremism," but the bombings gave the argument a new urgency, and provided the government an excellent alibi.
In the post-Cold War world, religious extremism, or "fundamentalism" (the most common term used to describe the phenomenon) has come to be the common enemy of civilization. "Fundamentalism" has been pressed into service to fill the gap created by the end of communism as an ideological threat. It is a convenient way to provide new villains for the popular imagination, and it has been turned into a proper theory by authors, such as Samuel Huntington, who see a clash of civilizations, not ideologies or nations, as defining the future of our planet.
A natural corollary of this is rhetoric of what might be called "antifundamentalism." This involves positioning oneself against what one defines as fundamentalism, and thereby gaining the moral high ground. This rhetoric is the widely accepted currency of the New World order. It places all antifundamentalists on the right side of the civilizational fence: against fanaticism and intolerance, and for secularism and rationality.
The rhetoric of antifundamentalism has come in quite handy for a number of authoritarian regimes. The Algerian regime annulled elections for fear that fundamentalists would take over. The Turkish military forced the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan from office after accusing him of being a fundamentalist. When riots broke out among the Uighurs of Xinjiang in 1997, the Chinese government blamed the unrest on the insidious influence of foreign fundamentalist organizations. Serb nationalists have justified their actions in Bosnia and Kosovo over the last decade by claiming that Balkan Muslims are fundamentalists, and thus a threat not just to Serbia but to all of Europe.
I do not wish to imply for a moment that fundamentalism does not exist, or that the political goals of the fundamentalists are not unpalatable. If used analytically, the term "fundamentalism" adds much to our understanding of the changing form of religion in the modern world. But all too often, the term is used in a polemical sense, and is designed to tar one's opponents with the one unquestionably abhorrent label of the post-Cold War world. The specter of fundamentalism thus can then be used to curtail civil rights of populations, and to encroach on democratic procedure, while at the same time asserting one's commitment to secular values.
The Uzbek government's campaign against so-called religious extremists has to be seen in this broader perspective.[For background see the Eurasia Insight Archive] There are no doubt Islamic fundamentalists in Uzbekistanpeople who wish to remake Uzbekistan as an Islamic state. But their numbers are small, and their support in society minimal. Instead, Islam for most people in Uzbekistan coexists securely with national tradition. The current Islamic revival in the country, the existence of which cannot be denied, is for most people a return to moral values suppressed by the Soviet regime. It has little political content. Nor is Uzbekistan a part of the transnational flows of people, literature, and capital that knits many fundamentalist organizations together.
The Uzbek campaign targets many people simply for being pious outside the framework of institutions controlled by the regime itself. Worshipers at mosques not subordinate to the official religious board are not by definition extremists or fundamentalists. Instead, the struggle against religious extremism increases the state's reach into society, and its monopoly over cultural expression.
It would be idle to deny that the regime's rhetoric of antifundamentalism does find resonance among certain sectors of the population in Uzbekistan (as indeed it does to a degree in the West). Nevertheless, antifundamentalism does not augur well for the future of an open society in the country.
Adeeb Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.