With so much attention on what it forbids, we sometimes fail to notice the way that the Uzbekistani state selectively promotes certain Islamic practices, figures, or beliefs as a double-edged foil to both liberal narratives pushed by the West and Islamist politics promoted by groups like the IJU/IMU. By carving out a space and defining approved “Uzbek Islam” that it can define to its own ends, the state empowers some Muslims to speak–provided they remain within the boundaries of acceptable speech and practice.
The previous article in the “Context” series led with the surprising freedom enjoyed those who are deemed authorized to speak within the lines the drawn for this “useful” religious speech. In this one, we will look two examples of important state-sponsored Islamic media and draw some conclusions about what kinds of Islamic narratives the state is trying to create or amplify and how it draws those lines. We will close, appropriately, with a final case of someone who found out the hard way that he had crossed them. These authorized voices are, in the view of the state, the most important competition for the ideology of the violent Islamist organizations. Each time the state cuts one of them down, the VEO groups and their sympathizers can adopt the victim as a martyr in a common cause—as they have with Abduvali qori Mirzoev, Muhammadrafiq qori Kamalov and Obidxon qori Nazarov in the past, in spite of the fact that none of these imams supported political Islamism or violence.
Religion in the Living Room: State-Sponsored Islamic TV
The state-sponsored religious establishment—usually called the Muftiate—is the primary vehicle for defining Muslim Uzbekness in a way that serves the government’s purposes and state media is a part of that strategy. State-owned Channel 1 regularly produces a program called Hidoyat Sari (The Path to Guidance) that attempted to create the first government-sponsored Muslim media celebrity in Uzbekistan, the head Imam of Tashkent Anvar qori Tursunov. Hidoyat Sari is remarkable for its religious content on the country’s biggest broadcasting platform, among a lineup that is otherwise overwhelmingly dedicated to stale “traditional Uzbek” music or dancing, innocuous soap-operas, or heavily propagandized news programs and documentaries.
By putting him on national television, the state gives imam Anvar qori access to an audience far larger than he could get if he could speak from every minbar in the at once, where only about 9% of the country attends mosque on a weekly basis. In exchange for this massive audience, however, he is careful to stay on message. Hidoyat Sari largely mirrors content from typical propaganda campaigns, but from a religious perspective: it frequently warns viewers against “foreign influences,” extols the virtues of the Uzbek government and the personal guidance and wisdom of President Karimov, and urges viewers to give thanks to God that they are lucky enough to have such a just and prudent leader.
This is perhaps the primary guideline the Uzbek state offers for how to be a “good” Muslim: be grateful to God for Islam Karimov. The extent to which the state openly uses Tursunov and Islam as a tool for its own agendas cannot fail to be both frustrating and embarrassing for some Muslims who tune in for religious guidance from one of the country’s highest ranking ulama. Some programs directly condemn anyone for being unhappy with the status quo, for wanting something to eat other than bread, and for failing in the eyes of God to love their President as much as they love their parents. One episode from November of 2009 even went so outrageously far as to hint (through another speaker, not Tursunov) that dissatisfaction with the status quo would cause God to curse people with diseases like tuberculosis.
This mobilization of religious imagery and somewhat innovative theology in the government-controlled media to define what is and is not acceptable for Uzbeks is relatively new, and is a good example of the way the state promotes Islamic beliefs but incautiously attempts to bend and mold them for its own purposes
The “Presidential” Arab Spring Sermon
Overall, it’s probably fair to say that one of the reasons the state feels it can be creative with Islamic theology is that it is largely indifferent to it. The state is highly suspicious of organized activity and individual social agency, and so in the sense that it takes theological stands on issues it often does so accidentally and in contradictory ways. For example, for as long as the Muftiate has existed, it has used the platform given to it by the state to promote a modernist, reformist theological platform that that emphasizes individual agency, piety, and responsibility and downplays religious authority that rests on tradition rather than text.
The state appears to be indifferent to the theological nuances of this platform, but often pushes back against the individual agency and existential outlook of reformist Islam; instead it pushes social conformity and deference to elders, just as in the extreme example above the Imam Khatib of Tashkent had to go on television and with a straight face tell his audience that Allah commands them to love their president as much as their parents.
Many of these theological interventions focus specifically on the president, none more so than when last year in a televised speech on the eve of Independence Day, Karimov personally demanded religious leaders make citizens aware of the dangers of the Arab Spring from a religious perspective. By October the Muftiate kicked off a national workshop for imams to brief them on the government’s talking points. In November these imams delivered an officially crafted sermon simultaneously from every minbar in the country, warning that the wave of democratic reform in the Middle East was in fact an anti-Muslim plot hatched by colonial powers, reminding them that dissension (fitna) is a grave sin in Islam and claiming that [excerpted/non-sequential quotes]:
The plans hatched and launched by the new colonizers –who have not abandoned their desire to divide up the world– especially including the “Arab Spring” crises have not brought peace, calm, or better lives to any of the places that have been their victims. On the contrary, the “Arab Spring” has turned into the “Arab Oppression…
Blood upon blood has been expended in the attempt to achieve a sense of peace and happiness. In every era our elders have opened their hands in prayer at every kind of ceremony—no matter at a funeral or a wedding—to ask for peace in the homeland, prosperity for our people, that our tables will be full [rizqimiznig keng bo’lishi] and our children have everything they need [farzandlarimiz kamolini].
We, the Muslim sons of this land, are society’s conscientious [ongli] and active members: protecting peace and stability in our country—and recognizing the value [qadr] of the blessing of peace—we are obligated to ceaselessly give praise to our Creator for this great blessing Allah has given us.
The sermon does something very interesting with the way it defines “fitna,” a standard Islamic concept, in a way that subtly shifts in the course of the text. It begins by referring to fitna as sectarian dissent among Muslims that leads to bloody civil war like the one in Syria, and evolves by the end of the text to include any political dissent, social disagreements, and even generally being discontent with or ungrateful for the status quo, emphasizing the Uzbek concepts “osoyishtilik” and “barqarorlik” that roughly mean “quiet” and “stability,” to a meaning that emphasizes stagnation as a virtue. That is, you must be satisfied with what you have and should view change as a threat. By the end of the sermon, then, fitna is not being satisfied with what you have, with asking for change, and as every imam from every minbar in the country helpfully reminded their listeners, according to Baqara Sura verse 191, “Fitna is a more serious crime than murder.”
Finding the Hard Boundaries: Hayrullo Hamidov
As cartoonish as all this may seem, we should emphasize that these discourses are not representative of what many Muslims think, talk about, or are interested in. These extreme examples are meant to illustrate the way the state sets the boundaries for the discourse: remain loyal to the regime, to the president, and to the status quo, and you are free to discuss social and theological issues that sometimes go right up to these lines, provided you are authorized to speak or do so in an authorized venue. Abu Muslim and his two dozen websites and discussion boards are a good example of that, and his stance on the Arab Spring and the Syrian war demonstrate that it’s possible for some people to go right up to these lines without crossing them. There is a vibrant, living Islamic discourse in Uzbekistan that exists independent of the state, but can be difficult to anticipate when those lines might shift and you suddenly find yourself on the wrong side. Abu Muslim is acutely aware of this, because his colleague and another of Shaykh Muhhammad Sodiq’s close disciples, Hayrullo Hamidov, found himself in exactly that position.
Because Anvar qori Tursunov, the host of the government’s first Islamic television program, in fact failed to become the country’s first Islamic media celebrity. Hayrullo Hamidov beat him to it. Already a nationally famous sportscaster and journalist, the quietly charismatic Hamidov became a disciple in the Shaykh’s circle in the early 2000s and by 2007 began to use his training in broadcasting and his remarkable talent as a poet for the Islom.uz media conglomerate just as Abu Muslim expanded the effort online. Hayrullo hosted one of the most popular commercial radio programs in the country and drew a wide following, especially among those who like him came of age in an independent Uzbekistan.
Hamidov’s theological approach was basic and wholly uncontroversial. His religious programs were approved by the muftiate and prepared under the oversight of the country’s most respected Islamic scholar. He never criticized the government, spoke about politics, or questioned the president. While it is possible that he was ultimately cut down for his popularity alone, he refused to stay within the government lines of contentment with the status quo or downplaying individual agency and responsibility for social reform. He rejected the message that Uzbek society was on the right path and that everything was fine or soon would be. In his most famous poem, “What is becoming of the Uzbeks,” he says:
Mo’minligi da’vodan tashkil,
Hayoti kayf-safodan tashkil,
Ehsonlari riyodan tashkil,
O’zbeklarga nima bo’lyapti?
Chetdan kelgan har qanday odam,
Hayron bo’lar tashlasa qadam,
Hamma uchun tunda yoqqan sham,
O’zbeklarga nima bo’lyapti?
[Our] piety is built on empty words
[Our] life built on debauchery
[Our] good works built on hypocrisy
What is becoming of the Uzbeks?
Any kind of foreign-born person
Who accidentally stumbles into Uzbekistan
Is candle lit for everyone in the night
What is becoming of the Uzbeks?
In 2010, Hamdiov was sentenced to six years in prison for “founding a terrorist or extremist organization.” It is tempting to argue that at times the Uzbek government is its own worst enemy in its effort to create an Islamic discourse that competes with the one offered by Islamist organizations who politicize religion. When talking about everyday life from a religious perspective, when questioning the state or challenging the status quo becomes a political statement there is little room left for anyone to talk at all. As the state steadily cuts down the most popular figures who are willing to address the problems of everyday life from a religious perspective that so many Uzbeks find useful and meaningful, they do the VEOs an undeserved favor by eliminating their competition—the thoughtful, intelligent voices like Hamidov who offer a solution (to borrow an Uzbek proverb that Karimov loved in the early 1990s) for rebuilding the house from its foundation instead of burning it down.