Today, the Uzbek language information environment (IE) offers numerous websites, forums, blogs and audio-video materials on Islamic theology. As an active user of those resources I can confirm that a significant number of readers are caught by the well-built net of the web portal www.islom.uz which has a constantly-growing list of links to the websites such as www.quran.uz, www.islam.uz, www.info.islam.uz, www.muslimaat.uz, www.fiqh.uz, www.hadis.islom.uz, www.siyrat.uz, www.halol.org and few others which are affiliated with former Mufti of Uzbekistan, Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf (MSMY). On August 16 islom.uz announced that under MSMY’s leadership a new website oilam.uz has been created and on October 30 his team of young religious Uzbeks with IT background and strong sense of entrepreneurship spread the word via forums that the scholar’s books can be now also purchased from Apple Store and Google Play, and although the list presently includes only 3 books (2 in Uzbek and 1 in Russian), it shows a high level of aggressiveness of “MSMY enterprise” in promoting his books. MSMY’s online products include also “Omina” “Hilol” magazines, and hundreds of his YouTube lectures are daily visited by Uzbek cyber audience. Research of the topic of videos, number of views and comments of his YouTube presentations led to believe that the scholar has a great online audience. For instance, his tafsir (explanation) of Sura Asr has been viewed 16,737 times since it was posted 5 years ago, and his Eid holiday congratulation speech posted on October 25 was viewed 5,086 times. MSMY conducts weekly Q&A sessions on his promotional websites and he answered to questions of Uzbek BBC Service on March 23.
Considering that most Uzbek Internet users are young males and females living inside the country as well as abroad, the Islamic scholar-politician has been able to reconnect with those who knew him for long while but emigrated abroad and the generation of Uzbeks who grew up when once powerful religious figure was absent in the country for almost a decade. The top Islamic heavy-weight preacher of Central Asia who has recognition in former Soviet space and other parts of the world has not limit himself by talking to only cyber-followers but his team has been successful in promoting him through printed media. While the Uzbek government closed the last book store selling Islamic books in the trade center “Mir Knigi” (The book world) in Tashkent in March of 2011, in recent two years the Sheikh has increased the number and volume of books in Uzbek and Russian printed by the publishing house and studio Hilal in Moscow which sells MSMY’s products through the network of Hilal bookstores in Moscow, Tashkent (2 stores), Andijan, Namangan and in Samarqand. A large number of Sheikh’s lectures are also available in CDs and DVDs. The total number of MSMY’s products, including books, CDs, DVDs, sold by online-bookstore is 128. It is worth noticing that the very last book store closed down by authorities sold only books on Islamic theology primarily published in Uzbekistan and authored by Uzbek scholars which had been approved by the state. Obviously the government is wary about dissemination of religious products and trusts only MSMY and his printing house. MSMY is a VIP guest of all major events involving Islamic official establishment and the opening ceremonies of his book stores in various regions of Uzbekistan were held with remarkable publicity.
Although the Sheikh has no official position, the government promotes his regular visits to mosques where he not only leads pure religious sermons but provides anti-Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Akramiya, Wahhabi, Tablighi Jamaat, Ahmadiya propaganda. The government, in combination with massive scale of imprisonment of Muslims, has relied on him in an effort to curtail spread of extremist ideas among population which has little respect for official clergy and for the government as a whole. Oq Saroy’s (the Uzbek White House) “restrained promotion” of MSMY in condition of total control of even official imams has created a favorable environment for the ambitious cleric because the state policy on religion eliminates any opportunity for new charismatic religious figures to appear on the surface of Uzbek public life. There is competitive environment although there are young, talented imams who did not gain negative images which MSMY is associated with among some Uzbeks. In such conditions the young imams have less impulse to earn religious knowledge and political experience to compete with old generation of ex-Soviet clergy. President Karimov gives MSMY enough authority to strengthen the regime’s stability and in exchange the prominent sheikh is allowed to conduct his religious and commercial activities.
At the same time the “master” of Oq Saroy has a reason to mistrust MSMY – in a society where religion is a powerful force, unpopular ruler will soon have to compete for power if the experienced politician in Islamic attire is given “inadequate freedom” to retest his political skills enforced by solid knowledge of theology. That is the reason why National Security Service is believed to hire a killer who attempted to kill an independent exiled Imam Obidhon qori Nazarov in Sweden on February 22 – the cleric had freedom to preach and express his critical position on situation in Uzbekistan and with his growing footprint in Uzbek information environment he earned anger of Karimov. Some of his top viewed YouTube videos hit more than 28,000 views with lowest at about 2,000 views within 3 years. Cyber-monitoring department of National Security Service scrupulously watches the Uzbek information environment for content of religious and political news and statements. It is obvious that MSMY’s presence on cyber-space is allowed by authorities and promoted by sympathizers in the government. Karimov, with his personal antipathy for practicing Muslims and fear of political Islam, suppressed Islam and Muslims to extreme and not everybody in the government and law-enforcement agencies are happy about that. Those officials in Tashkent and regions promote MSMY as they consider themselves Muslims and traditionally follow Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence. At the same time there are some among the public who mistrust the former Mufti, and his opponents include not only those whom he criticized as apostates and mistaken in Islam but also some Muslims who blame him for fragmentation of Muslim community of Uzbekistan and for the tensions between conservative Hanafis and growing in 1990s a group of Salafis. There are also some who believe MSMY is a product of his time and suffers same diseases which Karimov has – thirst for power and money.
Last April MSMY turned 60 and he is 14 years younger than Karimov; while the aging authoritarian ex-Communist boss still relies on keeping his people in fear with the help of army of brutal police and torture-experts of National Security Service, the more flexible and adaptable clergy-boss of the Soviet period not only survived and has been unwillingly promoted by Oq Saroy, but gains growing audience among the Uzbek public which becomes younger and wants more freedom for religion. As Karimov increasingly grows worried about post-2014 situation in Afghanistan the threat of Taliban, IMU and IJU has a risk to increase, which will most likely force the government to further rely on propaganda services of MSMY who will then receive more authority as a religious and political figure.
Photos via islom.uz