Over the past half-year, the Uzbek authorities have brought at least three court cases against Uzbek members of the Tabligh Jamaat movement. The nature of the group lies in the name, literally a "society disseminating the faith." That faith is Islam. Tabligh's origins lie a long way from modern-day Uzbekistan, in 1920s colonial India, where its founder, Mohammed Ilyas, set himself the task of returning stray Muslims back to the fold and shepherding them away from the influence of the Hindu majority. Starting in the 1970s, the group began to spread throughout the world, reaching Central Asia in the 1990s.
The re-emergence of Tablighs in Uzbekistan is one more piece of convincing proof that the Uzbek authorities, for all their efforts over the past 14 years, have been unable to control religious life in the country and that new organizations are emerging. The authorities believes Tablighs are a political threat and in December 2004 claimed that the group was to lead a holy war, or jihad, against the government. Traditionally, though, the Tablighs have eschewed politics and Uzbek Tablighs insist they are interested only in teaching the Koran. That claim did little to help their case in Uzbek courts: Uzbek law bans missionary work. The three trials ended in imprisonment.
Since the mid-1990s, President Islam Karimov has in effect been trying to turn Islamic religious organizations into branch offices of the president's ideological department. Funding for new mosques from, for example, Saudi Arabia is not allowed. All mosques have to be registered with various branches of the justice system; all of them are overseen by the Spiritual Directorate of Uzbek Muslims, effectively the right hand of the secular authorities in the religious arena. Teaching religion in private is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan. But would-be students of official schools, or madrasahs, immediately learn that they will be learning politics as well as studying the Koran. Mir Arab Kobiljon Sodyqov, director of the largest madrasah in Central Asia, in Bukhara, says that students are asked their political views in the admissions interview. A typical question, he says, might be the date of the Uzbek president's birthday and a would-be student might, for example, be asked to recite the lyrics of the anthem of Uzbekistan.
Unofficial Islam persists despite state controls. Some groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and whoever was responsible for a spate of bombings in spring 2004, would be commonly accepted as terrorist organizations. In addition there are three important groups, including the Tablighs, that fall outside state control and are seen as subversive and militant political forces. A fourth, the Sufis, command great influence. Together, they provide a sense of the spectrum of unofficial Islamic thought in Uzbekistan and of the challenge that the authorities face.
SALVATION IN A CALIPHATE: HIZB UT-TAHRIR
The group most frequently mentioned as an example of informal Islam is Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international movement whose aim is to unite the world's Muslims into one state, or caliphate. In the eyes of the Uzbek authorities, they are terrorists. Merely carrying Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets is punishable by several years in prison. To Western ears as well, the group's ideology might seem odious. Hizb ut-Tahrir says Western democracy is unacceptable for Muslims and views countries such as the United States, Britain, and Israel as scions of the devil. Its rhetoric is typically and openly anti-Semitic. The group's leaflets, distributed illegally in Uzbekistan, call Karimov a "Jewish kafir," or infidel. An Uzbek member of Hizb ut-Tahrir interviewed by TOL expressed regret that Hitler had not exterminated all Jews.
But it would be wrong to label Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization or to say that it advocates terrorism, at least if we judge by their history, tradition, and stated beliefs and by the lack of evidence that they have planned any terrorist attacks. Uzbek members of Hizb ut-Tahrir interviewed by TOL emphasize their denunciation of violent struggle. A caliphate can be established only when the majority of Muslims in Uzbekistan are ready for one, they argue. Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir see their main task as spreading their ideas among the population.
For Muhammad Sodyq Muhammad Yusuf, the former chief mufti of Uzbekistan, the way to deal with Hizb ut-Tahrir is through argument, not punishment. The government's punitive policy is a fundamental mistake, he asserts. "Such a policy creates a halo of great martyrdom around the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The right way would be to have discussions with the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Competent theologians would be able to prove how untenable their views are."
The group finds the overwhelming majority of its supporters among relatively young men (the average member is probably aged around 30) from traditional sections of Uzbek society, among market traders and peasants. Remarkably, most of those TOL spoke to knew little or no Russian; practically all educated Uzbeks speak Russian fluently, a legacy of the Soviet era.
The success of Hizb ut-Tahrir feeds off political discontent. And anti-Western sentiment is largely a reflection of that. A large majority of Uzbeks consider contemporary Uzbekistan to be the embodiment of Western democratic standards (a characterization of Karimov's authoritarian regime that few, if any Westerners would accept). Uzbeks can often be overheard saying that the Western model of development has brought poverty, corruption, and prostitution to the country.
ADVOCATES OF A PURE ISLAM: THE WAHHABIS
There is one form of Islam that most Uzbek Muslims are united in disliking. "The moment two imams quarrel, they immediately start calling each other Wahhabis," says Muhammad Sodyq Muhammad Yusuf. But, he continues, "In reality, here in Uzbekistan, the word