Obidxon qori Nazarov, a well-known imam from Uzbekistan now living as a refugee in Sweden, was shot yesterday outside his home. (More at RFE/RL and UzNews.) Nazarov, various media outlets report, had been moving frequently after moving to Sweden in 2006 after living in hiding in Kazakhstan since 1998.
Nazarov is an interesting religious figure. A conservative who emerged from the now in retrospect freewheeling period of religious debate in final years of the Soviet Union and early years of independence, he is originally from Namangan, but he made his name preaching at Tashkent’s Tokhtaboi Mosque. Frank and Mamatov, describing recordings of his lectures, say that his common sense and humor contributed to his popularity. Monica Whitlock’s The Land Beyond the River describes Nazarov’s troubles with the Uzbek state and the official religious establishment. In his words, he said he became a target when he refused to praise the government in his sermons, and he turned the accusation that he politicized religion on its head, saying that it was the state politicizing faith by forcing clerics to serve the state. After he accepted a gift of literature from Ferghanachi, Uzbeks who had settled in Saudi Arabia, he was accused of being a Saudi agent. What finally led to his expulsion as imam of Tokhtaboi was a sermon condemning the disappearance of Abduvali Mirzaev, another conservative, independent imam who angered Karimov’s government.
The government of Uzbekistan is adamant that Obidxon qori is connected to terrorism. One recent story on an Uzbek news site claims he recently directed a plot to commit multiple terrorist attacks in Tashkent. Documentaries shown on Uzbek television portray him as a leader of a ring of thugs. Conflation of Islamic activism with Islamist extremism is, of course, what Uzbekistan’s government does as a matter of course. Nazarov’s theology is very conservative and overlaps with that of Central Asian extremists, but there is no compelling evidence that he is in fact involved with terrorist organizations. In past statements, he seems to suggest, in a somewhat cryptic fashion, that had he (and presumably other conservative imams) been able to openly preach in Uzbekistan, he would have been able to identify and defuse violent extremists.
As for me, I shall remain true to myself. We have been very open up to now. But the government is forcing our congregation to choose: either to go with the Muftiat, or to hid. If some new underground movement starts, I shall not be able to answer for it.
Swedish police have ruled out Swedish nationalists and are investigating the crime internationally. (Here’s one of those nationalists talking about the attempted assassination and calling Sweden a terrorist paradise.) Several Uzbek activists in exile in Europe have accused Karimov’s government of being behind the hit, and even without direct evidence, it’s hard to see anyone else behind it. Critics of the Uzbek regime have found little safety outside its borders. Alisher Saipov, a journalist critical of Uzbekistan’s government, was murdered in Kyrgyzstan following a series of articles in the Uzbek press denouncing him. Fuad Rustamkhojaev, an imam and organizer in Russia for the People’s Movement of Uzbekstan, was murdered outside his home last year. Muhammadsolih Abutov, another prominent member of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan in exile, is worried he will be targeted soon, after a recent article (part of a larger series of attacks on him) said those who attack their homelands should “be pursued relentlessly until […] justly punished”
Sadly, Abutov and other Uzbek activists in exile clearly do have reason to be worried.