Warily, Muslims Welcome Softer State Stance on Ramadan

August 31, 2011 - 6:50am

    * Uzbekistan
    * EurasiaNet's Weekly Digest
    * Islam

For Solijon, the devout Muslim owner of a small restaurant in Andijan, Uzbekistan, this year’s Ramadan is memorable. Unlike previous years, officials have not forced him to sell alcohol and report on his pious guests during the holy month.

Uzbek authorities have long viewed religious rites with suspicion, fearing they lead to a rise in piety, which many officials equate with extremism. Authorities have, in the past, banned Ramadan-related festivities and strictly monitored mosques. In Andijan, authorities even forced local shops and restaurants to sell alcohol, which is forbidden for practicing Muslims. Solijon and his religious friends are praising the changes, though they suspect the apparent relaxations of central control over faith are temporary and do not signal the end of Uzbekistan’s notoriously restrictive approach to religion.

More than 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s 26 million people consider themselves Muslim, giving Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast from sunrise to sunset, special significance.

Believers were surprised when, just before Ramadan began, President Islam Karimov instructed authorities to organize religious celebrations. Karimov’s unprecedented decree deemed Eid ul-Fitr, the day that marks the end of the fasting period (and which falls on August 31 in Uzbekistan this year), a national holiday. Karimov also ordered official media to provide “comprehensive and positive” coverage of state-sponsored Ramadan festivities.

Muslim clerics – all appointed by the Muftiyat, the state-run Muslim Spiritual Board – dutifully commended the new approach. “Our government ensures that followers of all religions enjoy equal rights. I can say confidently that there are no restrictions on religious practice. The recent decree [by Karimov] attests to that,” said a Muftiyat representative speaking on state television on August 29.

According to estimates by Uznews.net, an independent news website, more than 50 percent of adults fasted during this Ramadan season. Though many inside Uzbekistan believe that figure is inflated, there are indications piety is on the rise. Restaurants in cities across Uzbekistan have remained closed during the fasting hours and restaurant owners report a drastic decline in alcohol consumption.

The authorities’ new stance toward Ramadan follows a related trend, believers say -- relaxation in government policy toward perceived religious activism. State harassment of devout residents continues, but not on the traditional large scale when Muslims have been rounded up and jailed for allegedly belonging to banned groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Government officials say they have asked local neighborhood committees to discipline community members, instead.

The “government feels more confident and relaxed” about the rise in piety because the threat of religious extremism has decreased in recent years, an Uzbek military officer told EurasiaNet.org. “We have defeated our internal and external enemies and achieved stability,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Believers who have been critical of government policy in the past are unsurprisingly relieved by the changes. Now, “if one shows deference to authorities and does not interfere in politics, it is possible to enjoy some freedoms, including the freedom to worship,” said Solijon, the restaurant owner.

Local officials admit they are relieved, too, facing less pressure from the central government. An official in the city of Ferghana said the government’s crackdown on religious dissent in previous years has put him and his colleagues in a bind. Because they are related to community members by blood and marriage, the central government’s demands to report on residents and arrest those suspected of membership in banned religious groups caused tensions.

Still, most believers do not see the change as an end to Uzbekistan’s restrictive laws on religion. The National Security Service (SNB) continues to wield enormous influence on state religious policy. Insiders say that public prayers during Ramadan have been allowed only in mosques approved by the SNB. Headscarves are prohibited in some public venues. Observers add that coverage of Uzbekistan’s upcoming Independence Day festivities on September 1 has dominated state media outlets while Ramadan-related festivities received scant attention, despite the presidential decree.

The central government’s laxer attitude toward this year’s Ramadan did not prevent local officials from forcing teachers and students, many of whom were fasting, to take part in lengthy rehearsals for Independence Day celebrations. “It was very exhausting to stand outside in hot weather for the whole day without water and food,” said a Ferghana teacher who was fasting.