Uzbeks try to blunt Islam's rise
Citing political fallout of fundamentalism around post-Soviet Central Asia, one state cracks down on those it says practice strict 'Wahhabi' Islam.
Abdukudus Mirzoev takes the precautions of a wanted man.Skip to next paragraph
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Before venturing out of his house on the outskirts of this city in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, he makes several secretive calls on his cell phone. And as he drives away, Mr. Mirzoev glances into the rearview mirror twice to make sure he isn't being tailed.
Mirzoev's worries are a reaction to a year-long crackdown on those who are perceived as "Wahhabis," or Islamic extremists, by the Uzbek government.
The breakup of the Soviet Union brought about economic uncertainty and an erosion of law in parts of Central Asia. It also ended an era of official atheism and reawakened fundamentalist Islam in the region.
Fearing the religious extremism that was tearing apart neighboring Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Uzbek government soon cracked down on believers suspected of Islamic extremism.
"We don't live normally," says the young man about his family. "How can we, if after three years we still don't know what happened to my father?"
Abduvali Mirzoev, one of Uzbekistan's most popular imams, disappeared on his way to Moscow in August 1995.
The Uzbek government claims it has no news about his whereabouts, but the younger Mirzoev is convinced that the Uzbek secret police kidnapped his father as he was boarding his flight at the Tashkent airport.
Given Uzbek President Islam Karimov's strong-handed campaign against alleged Islamists in the religiously conservative Fergana Valley, Mirzoev's fears may be justified. After a spate of murders - including the killing of four policemen - in the nearby city of Namangan last December, Mr. Karimov launched a massive crackdown against Wahhabis. Thousands of the region's young men were arbitrarily arrested and detained, say human rights activists.
Following the swift sentencing of 27 suspects in murder trials that were criticized for their lack of due process, a blanket of fear and resentment has settled on the Uzbek side of the Fergana Valley, where one-third of the country's population, or 7 million people, live.
That fear has been fueled by the current crackdown on those suspected of subscribing to "Wahhabism," which refers to an 18th-century Saudi Islamic movement bent on purifying the faith.
"Such people must be shot in the head," Karimov told parliament in May. "If necessary, I'll shoot them myself, if you lack the resolve."
The only problem is that nobody quite knows how to identify a Wahhabi. That is one reason, many here suspect, that men with beards and women wearing veils were the first to be targeted by authorities. During the crackdown last December, however, police appeared to round up young men almost randomly.
"What kind of Wahhabis could come from people like us?" asks a distressed mother in Namangan, the city most affected by the crackdown. The retired doctor recalls how one afternoon last December, 22 police armed with automatic weapons burst into her apartment looking for her son.
First, they ushered the frightened family onto the balcony. Then, she says, "They called me back into the room and lifted a blanket from the bed, exposing grenades, pistol cartridges, and marijuana."