AS the clock nears 2 on a Friday afternoon, the bustling streets of Tashkent's Old City fall strangely silent. The men selling watermelons stop and turn to face the low brick walls of Tilah Sheik mosque. An imam sings out ``Allah Akbar,'' the traditional Islamic call to prayer. Inside the packed courtyard, men young and old, wearing Islamic tubeteikas - black, square, embroidered caps - touch their heads to the ground.
The scene here in the capital of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan occurs all across Soviet Central Asia, where three quarters of the Soviet Union's estimated 45 million Muslims live.
After decades of official repression, Islam has emerged as a powerful and visible force across this inner Asian zone of the Soviet empire. Increasingly, the local Communist leadership seeks to coopt Islam, as well as nationalism, to preserve its authority.
Across the street from the mosque is the headquarters of the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the official religious organization headed by Mukhamadsadyk Mamayusupov, a mufti. He is treated as a respected public figure, appearing on television and called on by the Communist officialdom as a force for moral and social order.
The Communists and the mufti have a common enemy - the small but growing movement of Islamic fundamentalists. Mostly young, inspired by fundamentalist movements elsewhere in the Islamic world, they are emerging from a broad, underground movement of unofficial Islamic worship, to begin to form political organizations. They preach a doctrine of purified religious life and of Pan-Islamic brotherhood that is aimed against the Communist state and what they view as its allies in a corrupt official Islamic establishment.
Behind the whitewashed clay walls of the Old City, through a narrow wooden door into a packed earth courtyard, some of the leaders of this fundamentalist movement gather to talk to a Western reporter. These are the people the mufti and the communists have labeled Wahhabis, referring to the Sunni fundamentalist movement based in Saudi Arabia. Sitting around a low table in a carpeted room, they speak of their cause.
``We started our party because the mufti did not work on behalf of the Muslims in Uzbekistan,'' says Tulkan Irgashov, leader of the Hizbullah Party. ``Our mufti called us Wahhabis, but we never called ourselves that. Wahhabism emerged because there were people who wanted to live solely according to the Koran. There were many people who only wanted material things and luxury and betrayed the Koran. The same thing is happening in Uzbekistan and the mufti has done nothing to fight this.
``I have four children and I don't live in luxury,'' he said, thrusting his short-bearded face forward. ``But there are many people who have money which they did not get by sweat and labor. And this is wrong.''
His voice raises in anger and his gold teeth flash. ``The Muslims are united,'' he says. ``We are one people. There should be no national borders. The mufti is a puppet in the hands of the KGB [the secret police] and he does not help Muslims to have free contact with the rest of the world.''
``We don't want our soldiers to be used against Iraq,'' Mr. Irgashov says, slamming his fist on the table, speaking about a month before the start of the Gulf war. ``We don't want a second Afghanistan. The Soviet Communists sent Muslim soldiers to Afghanistan where they were killed and had to kill fellow Muslims.''
Sadeksalevich Sharafuddinhajaev speaks more softly about the issues that the movement is pressing. Arabic must be taught in the schools, he says, so that the people can read the Koran.
``Today, although people are performing namaz [the daily prayers], they do not read the Koran and do not understand it properly,'' he explains. ``When an individual knows Koran and Sunna well, he prays in a state of cleanliness.''
Religious law, the sharia, should be enforced, including ending the separation of church and state and allowing polygamy, he adds.
The fundamentalists call for reviving the pre-revolutionary entity known as Turkestan, reuniting what Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin broke into Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
``Now we have one military district and one mufti but five presidents,'' Mr. Sharafuddinhajaev says. ``There should be one president. We are the people of Islam.... We are not different nationalities.''
The fundamentalists echo the calls for economic independence and complaints of colonial dependency that are now standard even for the Communist leaderships in Central Asia.
``We need capitalist technology and Islamic ideology,'' Sharafuddinhajaev argues.
The fundamentalists recount charges of corruption against the mufti, accusations that he sells Korans donated by the Saudi government for money, which is a violation of the Koran. Unaccounted-for funds are being siphoned into his private business, they say, reeling off figures from documents.
The mufti and the Religious Board, the angry Islamic activists continue, work closely with the authorities.
About 7,000 Muslims gathered at the Tilah Sheik mosque late last August to protest the alleged corruption of the mufti and demand an investigation. The authorities persuaded the demonstrators to disperse with promises of action.
But a later gathering in mid-September, timed to coincide with an ``international Islamic conference'' in Tashkent, an official showcase of new liberal policies toward religion in Central Asia, was dispersed by Interior Ministry special forces, the activists say.
The term Wahhabi first emerged in February 1989, when a Muslim political demonstration led to the removal of the previous mufti, according to Abdur Rashid, a nationalist activist and former writer for Muslims of the Soviet East, the official journal of the Religious Board.
But the roots of the movement go back to the unofficial Islamic movement, which carried out religious services in secret. They were strongly opposed to the official, recognized imams, who are widely viewed as under the control of the KGB and the Communist Party.
The fundamentalists are particularly strong in the rural areas of Uzbekistan, in the fertile but impoverished Fergana Valley, where most of the people live.
Unofficial religious leaders ``stayed in provincial places where the authorities didn't pay much attention, unlike cities such as Samarkand, Tashkent, and Bukhara, where the tourists go,'' Mr. Rashid explains.
A wave of official repression was unleashed against the movement in the late 1970s. But through contacts with Muslim students from abroad and in recent years from Saudi and other missionaries, Rashid recounts, ``the idea of Muslim revolution, of Islamic renaissance, got in here despite the official ideology.''
The Iranian revolution had particular impact in Tajikistan, which shares a Persian culture, and in Turkmenistan, which borders Iran. Together with Uzbekistan, these are the strongholds of the fundamentalists.
The Westernized intellectuals who lead the Uzbek nationalist movement Birlik (Unity) are uncomfortable with the growing political role of the Islamic movement.
``For us, the No. 1 priority is motherland and unity,'' says Mahmud Ali Makmudov, secretary of the Uzbek Writers Union and an advocate of an independent, united Turkestan. ``Religion comes next.''
``We sometimes argue with [the fundamentalists] and say you are just another form of communism,'' says poet Mirza Tura, a nationalist activist.
Sometime after 1 p.m., Irgashov stops his fierce lecture and glances at his watch.
``It is time for prayer,'' he says, rising abruptly and disappearing quickly out into the street with his brothers behind him.