Rise In Islamization In Uzbekistan Has Progressives, Ethnic Russians Concerned

TASHKENT -- Sergei grew up in Namangan, the eastern Uzbek city where Islamic traditions persisted despite decades of atheist Soviet rule.

As a young communist in high school in the 1980s, Sergei was ordered to a nearby bazaar to forcibly remove burqas -- known locally as "paranjas" -- from any Uzbek woman who dared wear one.

The authorities demonized and ridiculed the heavy, black, and shapeless paranjas with horse-hair veils that made women look eyeless as a sign of "medieval obscurantism."

State campaigns against such Islamic dress went hand in hand with efforts to give women access to higher education and economic independence -- and were hailed as "the awakening of the Oriental woman."

"There was a lot of yelling and protests," said Sergei -- a gaunt, mustachioed bookstore owner -- in his apartment in Tashkent. "I never thought they'd be back."

But some four decades later, they are the most vivid visual example of the breakneck speed of Islamization that is taking place in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous country of some 36 million.


Coupled with the real or presumed threat of a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, the Islamization has alarmed many and sown panic among Uzbekistan's ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking community.

Some of them -- including Sergei, who owns a small bookstore and for years dismissed the idea of moving to Russia or elsewhere -- want to leave because of it.

Revival Or Radicalization?

While paranjas are a rare sight in the capital, Tashkent, many women -- including teenage girls -- are seen sporting hijabs and dressing conservatively. Their numbers have increased manyfold since President Shavkat Mirziyoev's government lifted a ban on the wearing of head scarves in public places in July.

And many men grow full beards -- something deemed impossible and even perilous during the 1991-2016 rule of first Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party apparatchik who initially resisted the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His government even instructed police to detain and forcibly shave full-bearded men and interrogate them about their alleged "Islamic radicalism." Thousands of Muslims who practiced their faith outside government-approved mosques were jailed, according to rights groups and Western observers.

After coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoev initially amnestied many jailed Muslims and secular dissidents and gradually eased religious freedoms -- a policy that was recently reversed with suspected Islamists being jailed, as was outlined in a report for the U.S. Council on International Religious Freedom.

These actions are no doubt being taken because of the speed of Islamization in the country. "One can witness the growing number of radical youth, and the government [indirectly] encourages it [with its policies]," Nigara Khidoyutova, who was forced out of Uzbekistan after co-founding the opposition Free Farmers Party in 2005, told RFE/RL.

"Coupled with the growing corruption, a weak civil society, the illiteracy of the youth, omnipresent lawlessness and injustice, it creates a combustive mix that only needs a spark," she said.

Inspired By The Taliban

Another recent event -- the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in August -- made the Islamization look more worrisome to Uzbekistan's ethnic Russian community of some 720,000 (there were about 1.65 million ethnic Russians in the Uzbek S.S.R. in 1989).

Some religious Uzbeks hailed the Taliban's triumph, saying on Telegram channels and social networks that they were inspired by the "expulsion" of the Americans from the war-torn country and supported Afghan society being based on Shari'a law.

Timir Karpov, a human rights advocate and founder of the 139 Documentary Center art gallery, told RFE/RL that "ideas of the Taliban" have gained real traction in Uzbekistan. "That's why [so many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers] are tense and have their suitcases ready," he said.

The Taliban sent delegations to the Central Asian countries and Moscow to assure them that their ethnic Pashtun movement no longer embraces international jihadists such as Osama bin Laden and will treat Afghanistan's minorities -- including Uzbeks and Tajiks -- fairly.


But many Uzbeks remember the panic caused in 1999, when a squad of Taliban-backed Uzbek Islamists briefly seized a village in southern Kyrgyzstan and demanded passage to Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley.

Even though Bishkek and Tashkent said the insurgents had eventually been "liquidated," the raid spurred a small exodus of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, and even progressive ethnic Uzbeks.

Creating 'Mankurts'

Famous Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov created the term "mankurt" for his 1980 novel The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years to describe an unthinking slave -- a condition created by a form of torture involving a shrinking camel hide tied around one's head.

Nationalists all over Central Asia use the macabre term to describe their ethnic kin -- Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbeks -- who grew up speaking Russian. And the communists did everything they could to breed generations of "mankurts."

Soviet Uzbekistan absorbed several massive migrations, including the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews who were evacuated to its warmer, warless climes during the World War II Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R.

Many opted to stay -- and witnessed the arrival of entire deported ethnic groups -- Crimean Tatars, Pontic Greeks, Volga Germans, and Koreans from Russia's Far East. After the 1966 earthquake that leveled parts of Tashkent, tens of thousands more people arrived from all over the Soviet Union to help rebuild the city.

The "Sovietization" equaled the Russification of locals and the newcomers. Many urban Uzbeks sent their children to Russian-language schools -- while almost every Uzbek male went through two years of compulsory military service in which they spoke compulsory Russian.

Another major factor that deprived Uzbeks of their immense cultural heritage was when Moscow replaced their Arabic-based alphabet in the 1920s with a Latin one -- and then a Cyrillic one in the 1930s.

The teaching of Arabic in Uzbekistan was reduced to one university, while the U.S.S.R.'s only theological school functioned in the ancient city of Bukhara -- and was shown to foreign Muslim dignitaries such as Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri or champion boxer Muhammad Ali as proof of "religious freedom."

Theological works by Muslim renaissance men such as Avicenna were no longer available to generations of Uzbeks, and their religiosity was reduced to the knowledge of basic prayers and rituals.

Breeding Jihadism

But in places like the densely populated Ferghana Valley, Islam remained entrenched in many walks of life. One of the valley's main cities, Namangan, played a crucial role in the birth of Uzbek jihadism.

The 1981-91 Soviet-Afghan war gave thousands of Central Asian conscripts a chance to see a deeply religious Muslim society.

Two war veterans and Namangan natives, Tohir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, declared Shari'a law in Namangan -- their hometown -- in 1991 and publicly humiliated President Karimov when he arrived for talks and made mistakes in the Islamic prayer ritual.

Yuldash and Namangani later fled to Afghanistan to launch the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that organized the 1999 incursion into Kyrgyzstan and later fought against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Years after the IMU founders' death, many of its members pledged allegiance to Islamic State and morphed it into the Islamic State-Khorasan group that is currently battling the Taliban.

Uzbekistan's Russians are not always familiar with the intricacies of their fight in Afghanistan -- but see how it influences religious Uzbeks. "The Taliban may not come here today, but they affect the minds of locals," Fyodor, Sergei's son-in-law, told RFE/RL. He is also packing up to leave for Russia, citing Islamization as the main reason. He is ready to sell his small publishing company and apartment in a luxurious building.

Fyodor is worried about the future of his 5-year-old daughter, Polina, who is the only ethnic Russian in her kindergarten class. "She has no one to play with," he said as she quietly watched a Russian cartoon on his phone.