You may have recognized the context for the picture above before reading these lines, because the Syrian chemical attacks that killed hundreds of innocent civilians in August and nearly led the US into another war will likely be remembered as one of the defining events of the decade and are only one tragedy among so many others in Syria. Much of the global public, especially in the Muslim world, feels affected by and drawn into this desperate conflict. In the Uzbekistani media, however, the most important world news event of the year simply didn’t happen.
For weeks it had never happened, just as the Arab Spring protests in 2011 didn’t happen for months. This is not an unusual pattern, especially when it comes to popular uprisings, protests, or rebellions that would imply that ordinary people might have some agency against an oppressive state. When pressed to comment on the Syrian war, the deputy Mufti of Uzbekistan described it as a “big misunderstanding,” an intra-Islamic sectarian conflict that had little or nothing to do with corrupt government or state oppression.
As the weeks wore on, however, one Uzbekistani Islamic public figure broke hard with that line. Adham Atajanov, better known by his screen name Abu Muslim, cautiously began publishing articles that covered the international diplomatic standoff, the bloody civil war and the chemical massacre from a point of view deeply sympathetic to the Syrian public. At first he republished articles from Voice of America that were likely safe because they highlighted the perspective of many Americans who were against US intervention. But in early September Abu Muslim dropped a bombshell on his large audience: in the first paragraphs of an article ostensibly about the regional political context for the conflict, Abu Muslim called the Arab Spring protests a legitimate popular response to corrupt and nepotistic dictators who oppressed their people. He went on to say that the Syrian conflict likely would have never descended into civil war if the Assad regime had not brutally suppressed peaceful protestors.
It would be hard to exaggerate how stark the contrast is between what Abu Muslim wrote and the coverage in all the rest of the Uzbekistan-based media or government talking points. So many have been jailed as terrorists or at least driven from the country for far less. But this contrast also illustrates that with religious speech, like all other speech in Uzbekistan, the line between permitted and persecuted is not so much in what is said but in who is saying it. In the terms used by Freedom House, Uzbekistan is one of the most consolidated authoritarian regimes in the world. But it is not a totalitarian one. Even or especially in the discourse around Islam, there is room to speak for the right people, for those who show sufficient loyalty to the state and who are willing to adhere to the government’s talking points when pressed.
Abu Muslim is not a journalist; if he were a journalist, he would be in jail. He sits at the helm of a digital Islamic publishing empire run by Central Asia’s most famous Muslim scholar, Shaykh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, the last mufti of Soviet Central Asia and the first of independent Uzbekistan, forced into exile in the 1990s. After the genesis of the IMU threat in 1999, the Karimov government coaxed him back to Uzbekistan to help manage the threat of political Islam and, later, of the internet itself.
Shaykh Muhammad Sodiq is the last and only independent Islamic authority in the country. In exchange for loyalty to the state and for occasionally issuing public fatwas against the regime’s archenemies–like the Akrom Yo’ldashev and his followers who initiated the Andijon protests in 2005 or the photographer Umida Ahmedova–Shaykh Muhammad Sodiq has been allowed to rebuild his own muftiate in parallel to the one from which he was removed in 1993. Though he cannot train imams or write official sermons, he can publish freely and most of all has been given free reign to construct Uzbekistan’s Islamic internet. Adham Atajanov is his trusted tech-savvy disciple: Abu Muslim oversees an ever-growing network of now more than 20 Islamic internet portals geared toward every possible audience and among the most visited websites in the .UZ domain. In exchange for the occasional rant accusing a political enemy of spreading “homosexual propaganda” that offends Islam, Abu Muslim can praise the popular uprising against a dictator that he describes in a way that sounds eerily like Islam Karimov.
Abu Muslim’s freedom of speech and the necessity that the Uzbek government trust an independent actor to engage the public on digital media is also possible because the Uzbek government views the internet as a threat. On social media and on the internet, a few Uzbeks living outside Uzbekistan offered yet different narratives and much more coverage of the Syrian events. The site Sodiqlar.info, for example, which describes itself as an independent news and information agency, offers detailed information about the Syrian rebellion, the war in Afghanistan, and other conflicts that affect Muslim-majority societies around the world and prominently offer archives of sermons by imams that the Uzbekistani government has banned, repressed or (allegedly) assassinated over the past 20 years.
A small group of Facebook users who identify themselves as journalists for the site covered the Syrian chemical attacks in all its horrifying detail, far more directly than Abu Muslim dared to. In the hours and days following the attacks, long before Info.islom.uz could acknowledge they happened, the Sodiqlar journalists posted dozens of graphic pictures and videos of dead, lifeless children lined up in rows or slumped across the floors of their living rooms that shock the conscience and portray the plight of the Syrian people with a compassion and anger that such a horrific act deserves.
The problem, however, is that Sodiqlar.info is not an independent news site, and the journalists who work there and build large social networks on Facebook are not actually (or only) journalists. Sodiqlar is funded and operated by the Islamic Jihad Union (Islomiy Jihod Ittihodi), an openly al-Qaida affiliated jihadist organization that splintered from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the early 2000s. The IJU claimed credit for suicide bombings and guerilla attacks in Tashkent in 2004 and claim to kill US, NATO and ANSF troops on a regular basis in Afghanistan.
The IJU’s innovative social media strategies and their unique place in the Uzbek language media landscape will be the subject of subsequent articles in this series. In these, parts 2 and 3 in the “Uzbek Extremism in Context” series will focus primarily on the “Context” portion, setting the stage to return to the media tactics and strategies employed by Uzbek Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) in greater detail as the series continues. In order to understand the appeal of VEOs to some Uzbeks (or the appeals that they make), it helps to first understand the range of competing and sometimes conversing voices that offer interpretations for global and everyday life events through the lens of Islam. While VEOs are not primarily focused on operating militarily in Uzbekistan or Central Asia, they and their sympathizers on social media continue to strive to be a part of (and hope to define) the conversation about what it means to be an Uzbek Muslim, and to react to and interact with other Islamic voices in Uzbekistan and in the opposition in exile.