In a rare media contact last week, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s new spokesman, Yahyo Hikmatiy, gave a lengthy interview with Alisher Siddiq at Ozodlik (RFE/RL’s Uzbek service). Siddiq was primarily interested in whether or not the IMU planned to join the war in Syria—a rumor they denied–and published a short article from the discussion that in the end contained mostly editorial content taken from other sources. Ozodlik rightfully took the group to task for recent official statements that advertised participation in deadly attacks inside Pakistan targeting Shi’ia Muslims, and ultimately made an editorial choice to publish very little of the actual interview. In perhaps a sign of frustration with not being allowed to control their talking points, the IMU counter-published what they claim is the full text of the interview [the link is to the IMU’s official website, follow at your own discretion–both because of monitoring and because it has a lot of very graphic content. I use Tor]. Some content in of their version contradicts the Ozodlik article, including the question of whether or not the IMU has affiliates fighting in Syria (they claim yes, and members stationed on many other “fronts”), and as such may be revisionist additions in an effort to improve their image with the Uzbek-speaking public.
Although I respect and understand Ozodlik’s decision not to let the IMU use them as a platform for advocating violence, I think there is much more useful content in this and other recent propaganda that merits further examination. One of the things that leads to so much inaccuracy and inconsistency in assessments of the Uzbek Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) is that very few of the analysts who publish on them can read or understand Uzbek, and unlike with Arabic-speaking VEOs, little of their media is ever translated. The language problem also means that much of the analysis of Uzbek VEOs lacks context—analysts will argue, for example, that IMU or IJU theology is the identical to or different from prominent Uzbek reformist clerics like Obidxon Qori Nazarov or Abduvali Qori Mirzoev without the ability to make primary source comparisons.**
This is a serious problem for at least two reasons: first of all, the amount of ink spilled on English analysis of the IMU/IJU (even though most of it is superficial or based on secondary sources) has created the very false impression that these violent groups, along with the radical but non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir, occupy a significant part of the Islamic media in Uzbek not published or subsidized directly by the Uzbekistani state. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a vibrant, independent Uzbek language Islamic discourse in which groups like the IMU and IJU occupy only a tiny margin. Secondly, the lack of context obscures their interaction with the rest of the Uzbek-speaking word, an interaction that new forms of self-publishing, including social media, has dramatically accelerated. They are trapped the margins of religious and political discussion, but they don’t want to stay there, and so try to co-opt parts of both. They respond, interact and ultimately try to swing public opinion to support their own narratives and goals and win new recruits to their cause. Both of these important contexts are invisible to analysis based on secondary sources and even to security analysts who look at VEO primary source material but ignore its social context.
So, as promised in the recent article on the IMU’s global posturing, over the coming weeks Registan will run a series of articles that will attempt to fill this gap, focusing on the Uzbek VEOs, their messaging, the context they operate in and especially their social media strategies. I don’t know yet what shape this project will ultimately take, but I have said before I think Registan is an excellent place to sketch out new ideas and research, to get feedback in the process and create opportunities for collaboration. I will put into practice, and, as always, we invite new authors and guest contributors to submit additional articles, including those that offer dissent.
**There are obviously several important exceptions to this. Allen Frank and Jahongir Mamatov’s book Contemporary Uzbek Islamic Debates: Texts, Translations, and Commentary is an invaluable resource, as is Daniel Kimmage’s work on the IMU; Kamoliddin Rabimov one of the only serious examinations of the IMU and IJU’s religious ideology that should get much more attention than it does.