The 'Other' Islam

Omer Barak
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Omer Barak

he plaza in front of the government administration building in the city of Andijan stands empty; even the birds are nowhere to be found. Exactly a year and three months later, there is not a trace of the riot that broke out in the square, or the copious blood that spilled on its marble paving stones. The only hint that anything happened here is the three police cars that receive all visitors to the city.

The Friday mosque, which the elders of Andijan say is the only building to survive the earthquake that destroyed the city in 1902, also survived the earthquake of the violent clashes of May 13, 2005. The mosque is behind an impassable concrete wall. A rusty water tower and an abandoned textile plant peek through the overgrown vegetation that surrounds it, and in place of its windows are fragments of broken glass. It has been years since the azan, the call to prayer, was sounded from the minaret of the mosque. The religious soul of the building's turquoise-tiled skeletonexpired during 70 years of Soviet repression, and has not found its way back in the 15 years of Uzbekistan's independence.

The madrasa (Muslim house of study) on the other side of the concrete fence that bisects the huge religious compound, which is situated along the edge of the city's main market, did in fact experience a few years of revitalization until the mid-1990s, when the authorities in Tashkent nipped it in the bud. Like the madrasa, which was converted into the "Regional Museum of Art and Literature," the young men scurrying to and fro between its rooms have gone through changes, too. Instead of poring over volumes of the Koran, they now lead the few visitors to the "museum" from one alcove to the next, each of which is devoted to another respected literary figure. In the memorial room that is dedicated to local poet Muhammad Yusuf, who died only five years ago, our 21-year-old guide, whose name is Awas, is at a loss when he is asked why he thinks the religious institute became a cultural institution, one in which patriotic quotations of President Islam Karimov adorn the walls of its corridors in place of Koranic verses. "I have no idea. Ask the authorities," he says.

The "authorities" have one unequivocal explanation for what is happening in Andijan - an explanation that justifies their conversion of mosques into museums. "How do you even dare to think I would give an order to shoot members of my own people?" said a livid President Islom Karimov, who blew up in rage at a press conference held by the general prosecutor after the riot. This same Karimov - who said in a speech to the parliament in Tashkent in 1998, "We should shoot 'these people' in the head and if need be, I will do it myself" - claimed that "only" 170 people or so were killed when he gave the order to break up the demonstration in Andijan. According to his version, all of them were "these people," in other words, Muslim terrorists.

In the opinion of Uzbek officials, what happened in Andijan is part of a series of manifestations of Islamic extremism, which began with a struggle over the opening of a mosque in another city in the Ferghana Valley in 1990, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In early May 2005, passions were at the boiling point in Andijan, as the sentence was about to be handed down in the trial of 23 businessmen accused of belonging to Akramiya, reputedly a fanatic Islamic faction. On May 12, after the court postponed its verdict, armed men attacked a police station and an army base, and in due course, the city's jail. Hundreds of prisoners, including the indicted businessmen, were set free, and marched down a wide boulevard that leads to the government square. Anarchy spread through the city. On May 13, the armed men succeeded in gaining control of the administration building, and masses of protesters began gathering in the public plaza adjacent to it.

At this point, versions differ. As opposed to Karimov's "170 terrorists," Western human rights organizations (which have been barred from Uzbekistan ever since, on flimsy legal pretexts) claim that between 400 and 600 people were killed as the crowd was dispersed violently. Most of the dead were innocent civilians, and the action apparently was overseen in person by President Karimov. If learning what actually transpired depends on the Karimov regime's willingness to cooperate with an international committee of inquiry - which the European Union demands in exchange for lifting sanctions imposed on the state in the aftermath of the Andijan bloodbath - the world may never find out how many people were killed.

Building a ladder for Karimov

However, other voices can also be discerned within the choir of Western criticism over the Karimov regime's functioning in Andijan, criticism that induced the regime to turn its back on the United States and Europe and to embrace Russia. "The criticism of Karimov was a strategic mistake," contends Dr. Brenda Schaffer of the University of Haifa. "What happened in Andijan was the result of a sloppy lack of professionalism, no more and no less. The Uzbeks do not have any real non-violent tools for dealing with a group that is trying to take over a jail, which was simultaneously in the forefront of a move to assemble civilians in a public square."

Similar voices are also being heard - off the record - in diplomatic missions in the capital city of Tashkent, in an attempt to offer Karimov a ladder that might help him descend a few rungs from the anti-Western tree he climbed after having been humiliated and insulted by the accusations against him.

High as that tree may be, getting down from it seems to depend on its roots no less than its highest branches. Or in other words, it depends on the extent to which Tashkent officials believe that the violent suppression of the public assembly in Andijan was Uzbekistan's modest contribution to the global war on Islamic terror, and not merely the police's mishandling of a fledgling protest by the Muslim residents of one of the most backward regions of the country.

The beginning of an answer to this question may be found in the old city of Tashkent, in the maze of dusty streets and low mud houses. A band of people are seated in a side room by the entrance to the Hoja Ahrar Friday mosque, which served as a metal-working factory during the Soviet era. Every evening at six o'clock, Sarwar, 25 and Abdallah, 28, are the first arrivals. The young men are imams in the mosque, graduates of the four-year program of studies at the Kukeldash mosque, whose renovated plaza is visible from the Hoja Ahrar madrasa. One of their jobs - in exchange for a monthly allowance that is barely half the minimum wage - is to provide assistance to the students, teens and children who come of their own free will to learn how to read the Koran. "A lot of new mosques opened last year," says one student. "I think there are about 300 now, in Tashkent alone. I don't know what's happening this year, but Islam is increasingly more popular."

A watchful eye

On the other side of the city, officials in the government offices would prefer that fewer mosques open in Tashkent. But if they are already going to open, then it is best if it takes place "under their watchful eye." The young people are studying Koran only a few minutes' walk from the office of the mufti who heads the "Spiritual Council" of Uzbekistan. The mufti, Abdulrahsid Bakhromov, answers to President Karimov, as does the "president's adviser on religious affairs." The two men see to it that the religious training of the youths in the state-supervised mosques and madrasas will be conducted along moderate and judicious lines.

Consequently, Muslim life in the capital city is temperate but bustling, with supervision from above. But stories are being told in the elegant restaurants of Tashkent about an entirely different reality outside the city, in those regions in which central government is not conspicuous, particularly in the Ferghana Valley. This was (after Bukhara) the second-most important Muslim religious center in Central Asia, and the Soviets' secularization efforts were less successful there. There are stories about dozens of sleeper cells of activists in Hizb a-Tahrir, the largest Islamic organization operating in Central Asia, which espouses the conversion of the region into a state governed by Islamic law. Conversely, there's also talk of "fat women who are sent by the government to physically strike anyone who gets close to a madrasa."

It turns out that the stories told in Tashkent are only somewhat true for the burning hot asphalt of the roads that crisscross the valley, which are lined with dozens of stands with pails filled with apples. The first proof is observed toward midday, when it is difficult to escape the heat even on the roofs over marketplace in the city of Margilan, in the center of the valley. A boy wearing a dopa, a traditional, black-and-white Uzbek skullcap, pushes a cart bearing plum compote through the crowd of peddlers.

All of a sudden, the peals of laughter of the group of pickles-and-olives salesmen, who have opted to refresh themselves with a bottle of brandy - as an alternative to the plum drink, are cut short by the ululation of the call to prayer, the azan, from the mosque. This sound, according to stories told in Tashkent, was not supposed to be heard any longer, as part of regime's undeclared all-out war against open expressions of religion in the valley, in the aftermath of the Andijan disturbances. Nevertheless, the men downed their improvised brandy glasses, left the women and children behind, and began to stream toward the mosque near the market, to recite the afternoon prayer to Allah.

That afternoon, there was another "surprise." In the city of Kokand, the Norbutabei madrasa has not been replaced by a museum. Here, in the city that was once the valley's most important Muslim center, there are no fat women waiting to strike visitors to the Muslim house of study. "Take a good look - there is no Al Qaida here," explains Muhamid, the animated madrasa employee. For a fee of $2, Muhamid will lead the tour through the compound, including a mausoleum with a blue tile dome, characteristic of Muslim architecture in Central Asia.

Young Uzbeks are huddled in small groups in the madrasa itself, near the entrances to the cave-like rooms. None is more than 25 years old. Some are practicing their reading of a Koran that is supported on wooden legs, but most of them are only interested in the visitors. Approximately 70 students study here in the morning hours, mainly young men from the surrounding area. "I came here of my own free will and after the madrasa I want to go back to Andijan and be an imam in the mosque there," explains an older student in Uzbek. He does not know any other language, aside from a pidgin Koran-inflected Arabic. The only subjects taught here are Koran and religion. Without English or at least a decent Russian, he has no good reason to make any other plans beside returning to his home town and serving as a junior-ranking clergyman, or at most at the Great Mosque in Tashkent.

Muslims and Jews get along

Then why is it that one finds active madrasas and impressive mosques under construction, under the nose of a regime that does not hesitate to employ all the tools at its disposal and is waging all-out war against religious fanaticism in a region in which it seemingly enjoys firm rule? Because Karimov and his people evidently know what the congregants of the synagogue in the city of Ferghana also know. "Tfu tfu tfu," they say over the backgammon board after evening prayers, which they meticulously recite each day. "There have never been any problems here between Muslims and Jews."

Not only have there not been problems, but relations still remain as good as ever. This helps explains the great enthusiasm of the good-looking Uzbek teenagers, who spent most of the day Sunday diving headfirst into the cold water canal near the village of Akbura in the valley. "A wedding is being held today, not far from here," explains one of the oldest in the group, Issu, a 21-year-old engineering student at Ferghana College. And it is not just any wedding. "It is the wedding of an Uzbek girl and an 'Amerikanski boy.'" And a Jewish boy, at that.

Seated in the middle of the square in which the wedding is being held, facing the crowd and wearing frozen expressions, are the white American parents, who are done up in traditional Uzbek garb. Playing in the ear-splitting background is a local orchestra, comprising darbouka, synthesizer, violin, drums and a wailing vocalist. Close to them, sitting at a table that also faces the plaza and the crowd, is the soon-to-be-wed couple: Nudira and the apple of her eye, Jonathan from Salt Lake City. He is dressed in a suit and maroon tie, wearing a skullcap that looks like a fountain from which issues the sweat that is profusely dripping down his forehead. She is swathed in a see-through pink veil covered with silver pendants.

Members of her family take turns walking up to congratulate the happy couple, who met when Jonathan was volunteering in a water project in the local hospital where Nudira also worked, and in the courtyard of which the wedding is being held. In the meantime, following the violence in Andijan, the NGO that ran the water project has been shut down. The couple hopes that the wedding will enable them to move to the United States, notwithstanding the bureaucracy they still face.

Intermarriages of this sort are rare, but it is not necessarily the Muslim side that is at the forefront of objections to them. This is only one example of the "other" Islam of Central Asia and Uzbekistan. Although 85 percent of the residents are Muslim, and although the Islam that is imported to Uzbekistan is relatively better rooted than that of some of its neighbors and is backed by ancient religious institutions, legal scholars and Islamic folklore, Uzbeks are first of all Uzbek and only afterward Muslim.

"This isn't the case of a jihad warrior with a knife between his teeth," explains Dr. Avinoam Idan of Haifa University. "Islam in Uzbekistan, and in the Ferghana Valley in general, has an extensive socioeconomic background. The religious factor was only added onto the social factor. Likewise, the Andijan congregation saw itself as having a social mission, in a region that, while it is agriculturally very fertile, is economically backward."

To ensure that the Andijan events do not recur, "Karimov should let the people breathe," say people in Tashkent - and not only in the religious sense, which the Uzbek authorities appear to be doing already. For instance, permits to work in the capital could be issued to more residents from the region, which would also help the government fight the country's No. 1 economic problem - the exodus of skilled laborers to Russia and the West. According to current estimates, about 4 million Uzbeks now work outside the country. With an already temperate "religious factor" and a slightly quieter "social factor," Karimov will be able not only to climb down from the Andijan tree, but perhaps also to avoid climbing up any other trees.W



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