Amid reforms, Muslims still under fire in Fergana Valley

Critics say that Uzbek government policies are pushing even moderates toward radicalism

First came the kidnapping: Muhamadkhon Najmiddinov was walking home after prayers at a local mosque in Uzbekistan a few months ago, when men jumped out of a passing car, pulled a sack over his head, and bundled him off.

Second came the frame: The same day Mr. Najmiddinov disappeared, some 20 Uzbek security officers – many armed with automatic weapons – barged through the pale blue, wooden latticework gates of their prisoner's home. Family witnesses say they planted – and then "found" – 69 bullets that were later used as evidence in court, a common practice by police here to net suspected Islamic extremists.

Third came the sentence: 14 years behind bars for the father of five, and the resulting anger. "Our cases were falsified – God can see that," Najmiddinov told his mother, Mubarek Khon, after the sentence was read out. She says he was tortured during his interrogation – another routine practice here – and that she "could feel it in his voice." Najmiddinov is currently one of some 6,500 political and religious prisoners behind bars here.

"One day," the son told his mother, "there will be justice."

That day may not be too distant, if the degree of polarization between the secular, undemocratic regime of President Islam Karimov and the large number of Uzbeks who have been affected by the campaign against Islamic extremism is any gauge.

Uzbekistan has become a critical American ally for the Afghanistan war. While that link may be yielding some halting human rights progress here, critics say that longstanding Uzbek policies are in fact pushing many moderate Muslims into more extreme positions, and so thwarting US efforts to contain extremism across the region.

The crucible of that radicalism is the fertile Fergana Valley, ringed by jagged mountain ridges, and bordered by three former Soviet states – Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan. The Fergana Valley has a centuries-long tradition of independent Islamic thinking, the heart of which is is Namangan, hometown of two chief rebel leaders, and a focus of government moves against extremists.

Mr. Karimov took the oath of office with one hand on the Koran more than a decade ago. In the first years of independence from 70 years of rule by the atheist Soviet Union, reclaiming Islam was critical to building a new national identity.

But by 1998, wary of radical factions supported by fundamentalist regimes in two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Karimov resolved to clamp down on extremists, and declared that "such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I will shoot them myself."

Support for outlawed groups like the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut Tahrir – which preaches for an Islamic state across Central Asia, and considers Sept. 11 "God's punish- ment to Americans" – stems as much from the regime's uncompromising tactics as from desperate economic conditions, analysts say.

Failure by the government to ease up – wearing a beard is a sure ticket to police harassment, as is praying five times a day – could have "bad results," says Muhamad Sadeq Muhamad Yusuf, the former Islamic Mufti of Uzbekistan, and an influential cleric in Central Asia. "Even if Muslims do not defy the government by force, deep inside they will be very angry and could join any group that appears."

Another problem is the scale of the crackdown. "If you have 7,000 people locked up, each one has 10 relatives and they are all against the state," says lawyer Karim Bahriyev. "The government should find the real reasons – poverty and unemployment – and should bring back a secular opposition, to fight the religious opposition."

Uzbek officials say they have had little choice but to crack down on groups that want to overthrow the government and have enjoyed cash from Saudi, Afghan, and Pakistani sources.

But deputy foreign minister Sadiq Safaev says the government has done more than just use "repressive measures." He notes that 25,000 prisoners were released in an amnesty last year. Among them, for the first time, were some 860 religious and political cases. The government also spends money on education and other projects.

"If you take into account that Uzbekistan avoided civil war, millions of refugees, and heavy bloodshed, I think we might say [government policy] was mainly successful," Mr. Safaev says.

"As the world changed [after Sept. 11], the strategy must also change," Safaev says, to include "more aggressive reform ... and economic and political openness." Uzbekistan has recently been praised for a slight relaxation of its harsh policies.

These are just initial steps, however. "From their point of view, what they are doing works," says Matilda Bogner, head of the Tashkent office of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "There is a point at which you can't intimidate a person any further," says Bogner. "If they think they are going to die, what's the point of keeping quiet?"

Widespread abuses have not kept the US from forming an alliance, though senior officials have testified before Congress that continued Uzbek repression could breed more terrorism in the future.

"The US could have more leverage, but those who make those decisions [in Washington] tend to sympathize with the Uzbek government, when it claims radical Islam needs to be suppressed," says John Schoeberlein, director of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University.

Ironically, the Islamist opposition was brought to prominence by vigilantes that sought order in the first lawless years of independence. The group "Adolat," or "justice" – led by Tohir Yuldashev, the political leader of the IMU – called for an Islamic revolution.

"At the beginning, there were 200 members, and Uzbek TV reported on how well Adolat was fighting crime," says Husniddin Nazarov, the son of a well-known cleric Abidkhan Nazarov, who disappeared several years ago. "They caught thieves and robbers and, it's true, they tortured and punished them brutally."

The vigilante work coincided with an influx of radical Islamic missionaries, arriving in Central Asia with suitcases of money and strict Wahhabi ideologies from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Unfettered, these "teachers" tapped into the post-USSR thirst for religion, and filled the gap with a new strain of Islam rarely seen before in Central Asia. Mosques and madrassahs sprang up.

The crackdown began in early 1992, after Karimov confronted protesters who had occupied a government building in Namangan. Karimov was visibly shaken by the crowd, returned to Tashkent, and ordered Adolat leaders arrested. Mr. Yuldashev and Juma Namangani – later the IMU military chief – fled to Tajikistan.

They were joined in exile by more and more young Uzbeks fleeing crackdowns, especially after six bombs in the capital Tashkent in February 1999 prompted a no-holds-barred wave of arrests.

"People are just so afraid, and morale is so low," says Ahmad Abdulaev, a human rights activist in Namangan. Such despair, experts say, coupled with the sorrow of families like Najmiddinov's, only broadens the appeal of those who preach for an Islamic utopia.

"The government should open schools for people who want to learn Islam. And there should be, in a word, democracy," says Yusuf, the former mufti. "The government has the right to watch over this process, to make sure there is no teaching of terrorism. But let them study.... It will take a long time to recover, but it also depends on if clerics are given the freedom to do it."

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