Abdukudus Mirzoev takes the precautions of a wanted man.
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."
Accused of murdering a former collective farm manager and his wife, the young man was taken away and later beaten, his mother says. The authorities later lessened the charges, and her son is set to be released next month.
A young Namangan woman, who also spoke only on condition of anonymity, recounts an almost identical tale. Police appeared one morning last December, conducted a search in the absence of witnesses, and found incriminating evidence - six bullets - in a shoe. The police took her husband away, and he was later sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison.
He attracted the authorities' attention because of his affiliation with the Otavalikhon Mosque, which until the government shut it down in February drew half of Namangan's believers.
These arrests, like hundreds, if not thousands, of others, follow a distinct pattern documented by Human Rights Watch. The New York-based group accuses the Uzbek authorities of conducting arbitrary arrests, beating suspects, fabricating evidence, and violating the freedom of religion. A recent Human Rights Watch report states that "police detained suspects typically without an arrest warrant, planted small amounts of marijuana or several bullets ... in their homes during a search, and beat them until they confessed to the crime."
In the wake of these mass arrests, an uneasy peace has descended over the region. Many locals will speak out against the government only in private, and the Namangan authorities are unwilling to talk even off the record.
"The government itself is creating fundamentalism," says Mikhail Ardzinov, president of the Independent Human Rights Association of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. "We say we need to conduct a dialogue with religious people. Now it's become dangerous. This authoritarian regime is to blame."
Mr. Ardzinov rejects the Uzbek government's argument that only a strong hand can prevent radical Islamic extremism from spreading from its neighbors Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Like many of the Uzbek president's critics, Ardzinov says Karimov has used the threat of instability as a pretext to intimidate the population. "There are no Wahhabis," he says, "so the government had to conjure them up."
STILL, it is true that the Uzbek side of the Fergana Valley is deeply religious. Some of its inhabitants seem ambivalent, even positive, about recent victories of the radical Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan. Considering the lack of economic opportunities in the region, many distrust the government and are turning to their faith.
"The state isn't afraid of religion, but rather that a religious movement could turn into a social movement, taking on an oppositional role," says a historian in Tashkent who insists on anonymity.
While religious extremists do exist, he says, their numbers are very small. "But any movement could mobilize a large crowd, especially given the poor social and economic situation."
Agitating the religious sensibilities of the impoverished and resentful Fergana Valley threatens to radicalize the population. In October, 15 men from Andijan went on trial for terrorism, robbery, and possession of arms and drugs. It is said that they had been trying to reopen the mosque of Abduvali Mirzoev, the imam who disappeared three years ago.