Serious attempts are underway in Uzbekistan by the US Embassy and the local Spiritual Board to maintain support among local Muslims for US strikes against Afghanistan. Although the effectiveness of these efforts is difficult to gauge because of free speech restrictions, on the surface they seem to be working. However, the reality might be entirely different, a source tells EurasiaNet.
Within days of the beginning of the US-led coalition's strikes on terrorist and Taliban targets in Afghanistan, US diplomats in Tashkent arranged meetings with prominent local imams. The first of these meetings took place on Wednesday, October 10, when Edward Burkhalter, the embassy's political officer, met to exchange views with the head imam of Tashkent, Anvarhoji Tursunov.
A source with knowledge of the meeting said that Burkhalter emphasized the US government's message: the current war on terrorism is not a war against Islam. He also acknowledged that the United States has made errors in its foreign policy in the Muslim world in the past. "We have not always treated Muslims fairly," the source quoted Burkhalter as saying.
Burkhalter acknowledged a lack of US awareness about the concerns of Muslims, and expressed a desire to reduce the chances of future misunderstanding by convening regular meetings with Muslim officials in Uzbekistan. Burkhalter specifically asked the imam to relate to his congregation that the United States' war against terrorism was not a war against Islam.
According to the source, Tursunov offered a solid condemnation of terrorism, and of the September 11th attacks in particular. He stated that "Terrorism has nothing to do whatsoever with Islam." Tursunov also emphasized that US anti-terrorism efforts are in the best interests of Uzbeks, saying that a successful US campaign against militants in Afghanistan will help promote stability in Uzbekistan.
Tursunov stated that imams in Uzbekistan are in close contact with the populace on a daily basis, and that the people were also united in their rejection of terrorism. He described his own experience of having lost a relative who worked at the central branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, which was the scene of one of the bombings that took place in Tashkent in February 1999. The blast killed Tursunov's relative, a father of two, as he was on his way to work.
While it has not been proven who carried out the Tashkent bombings, the Uzbek government blames the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and claims that Muhammad Solih, the leader of the outlawed Erk party, also collaborated in the attack. The IMU is on the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups.
During the same week that Burkhalter met with Tursunov, the quasi-independent Spiritual Board of Uzbekistan's Muslims, the officially sanctioned organization that oversees Islamic affairs in Uzbekistan, issued instructions to imams to devote their Friday sermons that week to the condemnation of terrorism.
In his own sermon that week, Imam Tursunov repeated many of the same statements that he had made in his meeting with Burkhalter. Observers say there was no direct connection between the Burkhalter-Tursunov meeting and the Spiritual Board's decision to focus on an anti-terrorism theme in Friday sermons.
One week later, a higher level meeting took place between US Ambassador John Herbst and the head of the Spiritual Board, Mufti Abdurashid qori Bahromov, at the mufti's office at the Spiritual Board in the Baraqxon madrasa. Ambassador Herbst thanked the Spiritual Board for its support in condemning terrorism, and both sides reiterated their condemnation and their hope that terrorism will be "uprooted" in the near future.
While on the surface the United States government and Uzbek religious authorities are successfully getting out their collective message to the Muslim community, their success may in fact be illusory.
One Uzbek Muslim with broad awareness of the popular mood, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that "even though there aren't any demonstrations on the streets in Uzbekistan, as there are in Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, [many] Muslims here [in Uzbekistan] feel the same way as those demonstrators."
The source said Muslims in Uzbekistan are unconvinced that the US anti-terrorism campaign is not a war against Islam. He alleged the United States carried out "unjust" policies towards many nations, adding that, in his view, the current anti-terrorism campaign is designed to maintain US world hegemony.
The source also asserted many Uzbeks actually feel that the United States got what it deserved on September 11. He expressed hope that, in the wake of the terrorism attacks in the United States, Americans will better appreciate the suffering of others around the world.
Furthermore, the source claimed that even those officials in Uzbekistan who are speaking out in solidarity with the United States don't actually believe what they are saying, but are doing so out of political necessity.