Digital Islam

by Nathan Hamm on 10/13/2004 · 17 comments

RFE/RL looks at two visions of Uzbek Islam on the internet (the story is at the bottom of the page).

First is the all-but-official Islam.uz, run by Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, former chief Mufti of Uzbekistan and a former exile. As described by RFE/RL,

Writings by the former chief mufti are organized into categories covering all the fundamental topics of Islam: the Koran, the utterances of the prophet, the tradition, and Islamic law. Other articles discuss the five pillars: faith, prayer, fasting, zakat (similar to tithing), and pilgrimage. Other sections cover such issues as society, the family, the individual, history, and Sufism. A page on “important issues” runs the gamut from jealousy to “Islam against terror.”

The site proclaims as its motto “to strive for unblemished Islam and pure faith in the spirit of those who are unified in their adherence to the tradition [of the Prophet], to study and apply the Koran and the tradition, to disseminate knowledge of Islam, to follow the righteous forbears [the first generations of Muslims] and the great religious scholars, to spread a spirit of inclusiveness and brotherhood, to end religious illiteracy, to eliminate discord and factionalism, and to do away with fanaticism, heresy, and conflicts.”

At the other end is MuslimUzbekistan, a site that “offers a distinct vision of the faith as a badge of suffering and a rallying cry for struggle.”


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 17 comments }

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 1:29 pm

As they sometimes said about George Bush 41, this article is “more mush from the wimp” at RFE/RL when it comes to fanatical, extremist, terrorist, anti-American “Muslim Uzbekistan.” For example, this beautiful use of euphemism:

MuslimUzbekistan offers materials in four languages — Arabic, English, Russian, and Uzbek. The Uzbek site focuses primarily on the persecution that Muslims suffer in Uzbekistan. Other news is about events in Iraq and Palestine. Sources are generally mainstream, including RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, but the site’s authors couch reports in a tone of extreme hostility to the Karimov regime. The tenor is much the same for accounts of other conflicts. More eclectic offerings include an Uzbek translation of the essay “9/11 was staged to defame Muslims” by conspiracy theorist John Kaminski.

The “About our site” section of MuslimUzbekistan not only describes a project that sets for itself very different goals than Islam.uz; it offers a distinct vision of the faith as a badge of suffering and a rallying cry for struggle:

By couching his description in euphemisms, Daniel Kimmage, like Bush 41, can’t bear to tell it like it is.

So here’s the bottom line, what John Kerry might call “the real deal”: “Muslim Uzbekistan” is a call for jihad.

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 1:37 pm

In case people don’t understand, it is false to say that Muslims are persecuted in Uzbekistan, and RFE/RL repeats that lie. Perhaps Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are persecuted, but the 90 percent plus of Uzbeks who are Muslim are allowed to practice their faith–and a Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 1992 found that they overwhelmingly believe the greatest threat to Islam itself comes from Wahabis and terrorists, not the Uzbek government!

RFE/RL is recycling extremist propaganda, here, calling “eclectic” the crazy conspiracy theories about 9/11 that should mark this site as totally bogus.

This type of article, with insinuations of moral and religious equivalence between a peaceful mufti in Tashkent and fanatical extremists, is evidence that RFE/RL staff are stupid, incompetent, or evil.

If I were George Bush, I’d turn over the Uzbek Service to you, Nathan, asap…

Nathan October 13, 2004 at 1:58 pm

I don’t know if Kimmage is using this language with the intent to minimize or if he’s simply falling into the all too common journalistic habit of excessive fairness/political correctness.

I typically find him pretty damned sharp and very likely to get right small but important details that other journalists miss.

With this story, I was kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It feels like one that is only half told.

As for the point about Muslims being persecuted, that’s a rhetorical battle that is quite a pain to me. I agree that Muslims aren’t persecuted. Medieval extremists are pursued. I get the sense that wariness about where the line between piousness and extremism lies as well as a lingering skepticism of religion in officialdom makes it all too easy to confuse the state of being anti-Muslim. They do restrict the ability of Muslims to deviate from safe, official Islam, but that’s a pretty equal opportunity restriction on all religious groups and one that Uzbeks seem to not care much about. To confuse it with genuine Muslim persecution is a symptom of Muslim self-absorption (among fundamentalist Muslims anyway) or buying into that line of thinking.

BTW, I wish that Pew or someone else could/would do some more attitudes polling in Central Asia.

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 2:18 pm

Hi Nathan,

I think that RFE/RL are in fact biased in favor of the extremists, perhaps a legacy of Cold War support for the Taliban and some anti-American residue you could find in public statements from Kimmage’s predecessor Adam Albion.

However, in one sense you are right that Kimmage is better than what came before him. I saw him moderate a Johns Hopkins event with Musa Sjever from Freedom House (she seemed excellent, by the way, very impressive and nuanced, far more intelligent and subtle–of course she was educated in the Soviet system in Slovenia and knows what is going on because she lived it). Of course you are right, he is not evil or stupid, maybe just a little bit too weak…

Re surveys: RFE/RL could commission another Pew survey if they wanted to find out and report the results–my guess is that they may not want to know that, or if they know they may not want to publicize the fact that as of 2002, at least: 1) Karimov is popular, perhaps more popular than Bush is here; 2) the Uzbek government has legitimacy among the population and corruption is not considered the biggest problem, rather the economy; 3) only about 6% of the public say they sympathize extremists views, while some 90 percent like Russians and 80 percent like Americans…

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 4:54 pm

CORRECTION: I can’t get in to edit my comment, so need to note a typo–the Pew Global Attitudes Survey is from 2002, not 1992…

upyernoz October 13, 2004 at 5:20 pm

karimov is popular? i was only in uzbekistan for a few weeks in 2003, but my impression was that he was overwhelmingly unpopular. after reading about how little free speech there is in the country before my trip, i was actually shocked by how openly people would tell me how much they hated karimov, unprompted, on crowded city streets. (granted, they did so in english).

as a semi-joke, an italian fellow tourist and i spent 2 days trying to find a single person who wasn’t in a police uniform who would say they liked karimov, we couldn’t do it. neither of us spoke russian or english, so clearly we were not sampling the general population. but still, i have a hard time believing he is popular. maybe that has changed since this year’s bombings. all i can report are my limited experiences there–an my continuing contacts with uzbek friends over email.

i’m not sure whether the karimov government has legitimacy, but i agree that most people would say the biggest problems are economic (although some may tie that together with corruption. they are not entirely unrelated issues). it seemed to me that many people in uzbekistan believe karimov is at least partly responsible for the fall in economic standards since independence.

Nathan October 13, 2004 at 5:39 pm

It’s interesting to press for more information beyond just a general feeling.

I think that if you put it simply as “Do you like Karimov?” then most people, especially English speakers, would say they don’t. If you go beyond that and start talking about the realistic alternatives, I found that few people saw that there were any. They realize that their choices are rather constrained between a leader who’s largely not delivering on the economic issues that most people deal with and a group of people who wanted to replicate the Taliban social program. These are things that people told me. I got the impression that when people were mad at Karimov, they wanted him to change things, not go. There’s a degree of certainty that he brings to daily life, for better or worse (which is why I think so many people still pine for the Soviet Union).

At the same time, I did know people who were pretty happy with how things were shaking out. They were thrilled to have Uzbek be the national language, and felt like Karimov played a big role in making the world notice Uzbekistan (not that the average person does, but he has raised the profile in some ways).

Laurence October 13, 2004 at 5:48 pm

Upyernoz says something very important, which bears repeating:

after reading about how little free speech there is in the country before my trip, i was actually shocked by how openly people would tell me how much they hated karimov, unprompted, on crowded city streets. (granted, they did so in english).

Maybe this experience means what you read about Uzbekistan from Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, RFE/RL and others, including “Muslim Uzbekistan,” is not true.

According to the Pew data that I saw, and it is on their website if you want to crunch numbers with an SSRI program, and get the raw data from them, Uzbekistan is divided into the equivalent of “red” and “blue” zones. The cities are more anti-Karimov than the countryside, but again the main criticism is over the economy, for these areas are more cosmopolitan than the villages and collective farms. There is little sympathy for extremists anywhere, however.

I am glad your experience in Uzbekistan talking to people was the same as mine. I found Uzbeks to be intelligent, honest and open, too.

Nathan October 13, 2004 at 6:02 pm

Actually, speaking to the surprising level of openness… When I was in a marshrutka from Gijduvan to Bukhara one day, two Uzbek men provided me with an animated speech in defense of the Soviet Union and a long denunciation of the ills of modern Uzbek society. They were probably early 30’s or so, and they spoke in Russian, which might have made them feel safer. A lot of people around Gijduvan speak Russian poorly, if at all.

BDC October 14, 2004 at 4:43 am

“two Uzbek men provided me with an animated speech in defense of the Soviet Union and a long denunciation of the ills of modern Uzbek society.”

That is something that you have all over the ex-Sovietistans not only Uzbekistan. They don’t seem to miss the political dictatroship of the USSR but the social security that there used to be. Understandable.

Do believe though that if Islam was not outlawed or at least suppressed as it is now, some of the ills of modern Uzbek society would not have been that widespread.

BDC October 14, 2004 at 6:32 am

“Only about 6% of the public say they sympathize extremists views”

OK if true that is healthy even though I doubt about the credibility of such polls + there is the culture of self-censorship too.

Anyway, I would like to know what is defined as or understood under ‘extremism’.

Is that the Taliban/Al-Qaeda bozo gallery?

Or is that the bona fide Sufi who has a beard does not drink too? Or the Muslim girl who cares about her dignity and refuses to go half naked and prostitute… ?

Because it often seems that the latter categories are also considered ‘extremists’.

Nathan October 14, 2004 at 10:17 am

Islam is far from outlawed, and is qualitatively no more suppressed than any other religion in Uzbekistan. The social ills since independence are much more connected to the Soviet legacy, especially the command economy. People who do see a connection between religion and the state of the economy are few and far between. More often, I encountered people who were only interested in reviving moderate Islam as part of the Uzbek national identity, something the government spearheads.

Re: self-censorship and attitudes… I trust those numbers. They feel right to me. Also, because Pew pisses me off half the time, I trust that they’re accurate. If you want to check out the numbers, here’s the survey (PDF). I don’t think the numbers would have appreciably changed over the past couple years.

Also, people actually don’t self-censorship if you get them in the right situation. All it takes is for them to trust you and be away from people who might pass judgment on them. This is a piece of cake. For me, all it took was closing the door usually. I had a few casual acquaintances seek me out to let me know how they really felt about things–particularly ethnic minorities. Uzbeks were a little trickier for me to crack, but again, you just have to make them comfortable. This isn’t a country where minders follow foreigners around.* You are pretty much free to do what you want.

When Laurence talks about extremism, I’m sure he’s using a definition similar to Uzbeks. There are pious, respected Muslims in the country. Uzbeks definitely see a difference between a pious hajji or ak-sakal and men running around in the mountains with guns and fantasies of the caliphate.

I reccomend checking out the survey. Uzbekistan is a pretty surprising place.

* There were certain kinds of people who followed Peace Corps Volunteers on occasion at a distance. One could call them minders, but they proved themselves to be guardian angels for PCVs at times.

BDC October 14, 2004 at 10:50 am

Speaking about Soviet nostalgia: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/FJ14Ad01.html

Laurence October 14, 2004 at 3:32 pm

Nathan, that was a really interesting post, thank you for linking to the original Pew survey…

BDC October 15, 2004 at 8:48 am

“Islam is far from outlawed (…) Uzbeks definitely see a difference between a pious hajji or ak-sakal”

No officially or juridically it’s not. De facto it is. Why are women who choose to wear hejab even in the mahalla or on the street hassled? Why is the azan prohibited? Why are you suspect of you don’t drink alcohol? Why are Christian sects who proselitize hassled much less than Muslims (even moderate brands like Sufi bortherhoods or Ismaili) who do so?

Yes, older believers ak sakals etc… are generally left alone. Just try to be pious as a younger man or woman: you’ll immediately be scrutinized or worse.

“The social ills since independence are much more connected to the Soviet legacy, especially the command economy.”

Social ills like endemic alcoholism, prostitution, … are partly rooted in the poverty and vacuüm left by the collapse of the Soviet command economy. They are however encouraged by an influx of the worst of Western trash culture and the questionable behavior of two-thirds of Western expats.

That process is encouraged because Islam, which could have give the Uzbek people dignity, a certain resistance or a certain level of immunity against that is de facto outlawed and prevented from developing.

As for the PEW-survey: it was published in late 2002 I believe. Between then and now you have the Iraq war. Do not underestimate the impact of that on public opinion in Uzbekistan and CA.

Nathan Hamm October 15, 2004 at 1:44 pm

No officially or juridically it’s not. De facto it is. Why are women who choose to wear hejab even in the mahalla or on the street hassled? Why is the azan prohibited? Why are you suspect of you don’t drink alcohol?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these aren’t all a result of government policy. Uzbek society has never taken too kindly to conservative Islam that wraps women up behind sheets of heavy cloth. There is a genuine Uzbek mistrust of what they view as unwanted foreign meddling from Arabs, Persians, and Turks who want to remake them as “pure” Muslims. Uzbeks are proud of who they are and don’t feel the need for a helping hand from anyone, and they are understandably skeptical of those in their communities who become devotees of foreign versions of their faith.

Why are Christian sects who proselitize hassled much less than Muslims (even moderate brands like Sufi bortherhoods or Ismaili) who do so?

When I was in Uzbekistan, the leaders of Cafe, a covert Christian proselytization organization, were assaulted and nearly killed in their homes. These people actually happen to have been acquaintances of my aunt. Though the case was never solved, there is speculation that the government was trying to send a message to missionaries. Christians aren’t hassled “as much” because there aren’t as many of them and they aren’t viewed as a serious security threat. They are hassled though. A lot. HRW and Western media have a piss-poor track record of reporting Christian persecution in Muslim countries, IMO. Read Forum 18, they are a good resource for this kind of information.

There was a new protestant demonination in my city that was constantly being shaken down by the militsia and I knew of a few Uzbek converts to Christianity who were tormented by their peers and officials.

Social ills like endemic alcoholism, prostitution, … are partly rooted in the poverty and vacuüm left by the collapse of the Soviet command economy. They are however encouraged by an influx of the worst of Western trash culture and the questionable behavior of two-thirds of Western expats

I pretty much only found Westerners taking advantage of social ills that Uzbeks themselves were doing a pretty damned good job of sustaining on their own. Prostitution is, and has been for quite a while, a pretty healthy industry in Uzbekistan. It’s pretty widely known among the men of Uzbek towns which women are the prostitutes. The trade was apparently flourishing in Navoi in the days before Westerners were allowed to even set foot in it (it officially didn’t exist for quite a while).

As for alcohol, well, aroq sure as hell isn’t the Russian word for vodka (it has different meanings in various Turkic tongues, suggesting that the consumption of alcohol predates the arrival of Europeans).

The thing is, Islam isn’t the only way to dignity and pride, both of which I found are pretty strong among Uzbeks anyway and encouraged by the policy of Uzbekchikliq.

As for the PEW-survey: it was published in late 2002 I believe. Between then and now you have the Iraq war. Do not underestimate the impact of that on public opinion in Uzbekistan and CA.

I wouldn’t overestimate it either. I have, from pretty reliable sources, been informed that there was a fair amount of ambivalence about the war and a pretty even split of support and opposition. The debate in Uzbekistan over the war was, in my opinion, much more nuanced than in much of Europe.

It is often assumed that Uzbek opinions are largely informed by their religion. I never found Uzbeks to be as into Islamic brotherhood as many other Islamic peoples.

BDC October 16, 2004 at 1:02 pm

“I pretty much only found Westerners taking advantage of social ills that Uzbeks themselves were doing a pretty damned good job of sustaining on their own.”

Yes very true and that’s a problem. Because the reaction you get is, that people take Westerners less serioulsy and even get despised because of that. Quote fo one of my ex-staff: ‘We thought that Europeans/Westerners are cultured and correct. Now we know that many are no better than our own thugs and duraki. So what can we learn from them? What lessons can they give us?’

“As for alcohol, well, aroq sure as hell isn’t the Russian word for vodka”

It comes form the Arab ‘al-arak’ which is the first name for alcohol for it were Arabs who developed the distilling process. I’m not lashing out at alcohol on itself. There are other Muslim cultures that accommodated alcohol: raki in Turkey; beer in Indonesia and West Africa. But it’ a far cry from the institutionalized alcoholism that you find in Uzb and other ex-Sovietistans.

“The thing is, Islam isn’t the only way to dignity and pride, both of which I found are pretty strong among Uzbeks anyway and encouraged by the policy of Uzbekchikliq.”

Uzbekchikliq as it is promoted by the Tashkent regime is especially about supremacy and arrogance more than about dignity and pride.

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