A careful observer of the international scene may well be struck by the many parallels between Iran circa 1978 and present-day Uzbekistan. Both countries’ leaders were purportedly U.S. allies. Both were ruled by strongmen who used threats of Islamic extremism to justify persecution and torture. Both the Shah and Uzbek President Islam Karimov faced fundamentalist anti-Western Islamic movements that sought to overthrow a government and establish a theocracy. Suspicion of belonging to a radical Islamic group was enough to secure punishment in both Iran and Uzbekistan. Iranian fundamentalists were successful in toppling the Shah’s regime. The outcome in Uzbekistan is still up for grabs.
No one denies that Uzbekistan is on the front line of the War on Terror. The region’s most notorious terrorist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is closely linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. IMU remains committed to overthrowing President Karimov and establishing an Islamic state. Based in eastern Tajikistan and Afghanistan, IMU has in recent years attacked U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and planned attacks on U.S. embassies across Central Asia. IMU fighters also staged incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the summers of 1999 and 2000. American troops first encountered the IMU when coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as the IMU fought alongside its Taliban allies.
Numerous other local Islamic groups have called for the overthrow of the Uzbek government, though through nonviolent means. Chief among them is Hizb ut-Tahrir, formed in 1953 by Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani al Falastini. Hizb ut-Tahrir, headquartered in London, is a radical fundamentalist group that seeks to reinstate an Islamic way of life and create a global Islamic empire, after which it will wage war on the remaining infidels.
But the Islamic group making headlines these days is Akramiya. The question is whether Akramiya is a terrorist group, a persecuted religious sect or, indeed, if it exists at all.
THAT DEPENDS ON WHOM YOU ASK. Akramiya was founded in 1996 by Akram Yuldoshev, a 29-year-old math teacher from Andijon, site of much of last week’s violence. According to Radio Free Europe, Akramiya is a splinter group of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The groups split after Yuldoshev decided that Hizb ut-Tahrir’s nonviolent methods to establish a regionwide Islamic state would not work in Central Asia.
In 1998, Yuldoshev’s group was banned and its leader arrested for narcotics possession. In December 1998, Yuldoshev was granted amnesty. The day after the February 1999 Tashkent bomb attacks, however, he was re-arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison, even though the bombings were widely seen as the work of the IMU.
The Chairman of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Talib Yoqubov told Radio Free Europe that the Akramiya Islamic group has ceased operating in Uzbekistan, and that Karimov’s government uses charges of Islamic extremism as an excuse to crack down on dissent.
“They made up Akramiya,” he said. “There is nothing like Akramiya in Uzbekistan now. Several years ago, they spoke of Wahhabi. Then they started talking about Hizb ut-Tahrir. [Membership in] Jamoati Tabligh [another Islamist group] became another accusation under which they imprisoned many people. Now it is Akramiya. I am sure after a while, [the authorities] will come up with some new name. This is the process we witness in Uzbekistan.”
Yuldashev has repeatedly denied any involvement in politics or calling for the overthrow of the government. Yuldoshev’s defenders meanwhile paint their mentor as a kind of Islamic Stuart Smiley, and point to a theological pamphlet he wrote in 1992 called “The Path to Faith.” According to those familiar with the pamphlet, “The Path to Faith” is “a work of moral philosophy focusing on the inner person rather than society, and suggesting that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions.” The government had another take on the work, alleging that it calls for the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state. Prosecutors called “The Path to Faith” a handbook for Islamic coup-plotters.
Regardless, the Akramiya Islamic Group, being outside the official state-sponsored Islamic religion, remains banned, and anyone associated with the group faces arrest. (Human rights activists estimate there are more than 6,000 religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan.) Last week’s violence in Andijon erupted when 23 local prominent businessmen were found guilty of belonging to Akramiya. Supporters say at least 15 of the accused ran their own companies, that many were secularists, and that their confessions were produced under torture. It was Akram Yuldashev’s defenders — some armed — that took to the streets of Andijon last week. Perhaps as many as 500 were killed by security forces, including many women and children.
There are two theories why the Andijon businessmen were prosecuted. One is that the government and security forces need to be seen as successfully battling religious extremism. “The war on extremism and terrorism started by the state constantly demands new victims,” Rahmatullo Alibaev, a local human rights activist, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “The real members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir have already been jailed, and now peaceful Muslims…are being caught.”
The second theory is that the government is using the wealthy business owners’ confiscated property to enrich itself. Radio Free Europe reported one of the accused business owners, Mamurjon Qurbonov, saying that property including mobile telephones, automobiles, and jewelry has been confiscated from the defendants. Human Rights director Yoqubov calls the confiscations state piracy.
“Uzbekistan is witnessing the period of the state-orchestrated piracy,” Yoqubov told RFE. “The state uses the judiciary to rob its own citizens. We see that entrepreneurs are subject to robbery and a lot of different things are made up to try and imprison them.”
UZBEKISTAN REMAINS AN IMPORTANT U.S. ally in the War on Terror, with the U.S. military continuing to rely on an Uzbek air base in support of operations in Afghanistan. The White House last week called for a “more representative and democratic government should come through peaceful means, not through violence.”
But, like the late Shah of Iran, President Karimov appears to have little use for democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. “To link these tragic events with the development of democracy is absurd,” he said at a news conference. “The attempts to artificially impose democracy in countries that are far from its standards may result in a third force — radical Muslim groups — benefiting from the situation.”
During President Karimov’s 2002 visit to Washington, he pledged to “build a strong and open civil society, ensure respect for human rights and freedoms, and establish a genuine multiparty system. He also promised to ensure free and fair elections, permit political pluralism, diversity of opinions and the freedom to express them, and guarantee the independence of the media and the courts.”
But as long as there is even a perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalists, a democratic oasis in this desert wasteland will remain just a mirage.