Date: Thu, 6 Nov 1997 23:22:16 -0600
Uzbek leader fears strong Islam in desert nation
By Chris Bird, Reuters, 6 November 1997
ANDIZHAN, Uzbekistan, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Two boys walked out of class at the Devaneboi mosque. A wave of young voices reciting the Koran followed them through the door into a hushed courtyard where an elderly man swept up leaves.
Islam is regaining its pre-revolutionary strength here in Andizhan, a town in the cotton farming Ferghana region in Uzbekistan's remote eastern corner.
The 300 pupils at Devaneboi, their bicycles stacked against a squat minaret, will be next century's spritual guides for the ex-Soviet state's largely Moslem population of 23 million.
But secularist Uzbek President Islam Karimov's deep fear of Islam and his heavy-handed response to a tiny group of outspoken clerics gives them an uncertain future.
"The main lesson here is the reading of the Koran," said Mohammed Ayub, a 21-year-old teacher at the mosque, a blue-black skullcap perched on his shaven head. "We also teach mathematics, the Uzbek language and Arabic script," he said.
Arabic jars with Karimov's drive to change the state Alphabet from cyrillic, a hangover from Russian and then Soviet colonial rule, to a Latin one, much as secularist Kemal Ataturk did in Turkey earlier this century.
AFGHAN-STYLE FUNDAMENTALISM FEARED
Karimov made the pilgrimage, or "haj," to the holy sites in Mecca soon after he changed seamlessly from the republic's communist chief to become president of independent Uzbekistan.
But for Karimov, Islam is important only in its role as a cultural thread running through a garish new national identity he has woven for the republic. Before Russian rule, Uzbekistan was a disparate set of warring khanates.
Having crushed the secular opposition, the mosque remains a potential focus for political opposition to Karimov, whose now stalled economic reforms have brought severe hardship to many Uzbeks.
Karimov's drive against the independent clerics gathered pace last year when Kabul fell to the Taleban militia in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The Uzbek leader has railed against the Taleban's radical brand of Islam, warning the militia's black-turbaned fighters could spark a fundamentalist explosion in the Central Asian states and cause Afghan-style chaos.
Ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks straddle the Amu Darya River, their common frontier, and stray shells fired by warring Afghan factions landed on Uzbek territory in September.
Karimov's dreaded Islamic "bacillus" is also found in neighbouring Tajikistan, where an armed Islamist opposition is hammering out a power-sharing deal with the government, much to the Uzbek president's distaste.
"Karimov's fears over Afghanistan are genuine," said a Western diplomat based in the capital, Tashkent.
MOSQUES RUN BY RADICALS LOCKED UP
The young teachers at the mosque were nervous at the mention of the Taleban. "That's a political question," said Muzafar Kamabarov, 19, quickly changing the subject.
But even the teachers in this state-approved mosque have an Islamic vision of the country's future. "We're not an Islamic republic, we're a young country. But in a few years time we would of course like to be," said Kambarov.
Most women in Andizhan see a headscarf as enough to keep to Islamic strictures on modest dress, but long black veils are numerous. Mullahs call the faithful to prayer after a 70-year silence under communism.
The number of mosques in the republic has increased from 80 after independence in 1991 to over 5,000 today and more are under construction. Devaneboi mosque is being extended to make room for more worshippers and scholars.
But several mosques and religious schools run by more radical clerics have been locked up by the government. Tashkent's two religious schools were closed in February.
Andizhan's main Jami Mosque, built before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, was closed in 1995 after its chief cleric, Abdu Ali Mirzayev, fell foul of the government.
Mirzayev, part of the radical Wahabi sect, disappeared on his way to Moscow for an Islamic conference in the same year. He has not been seen or heard of since.
"Many people followed him, thousands turned up to hear him speak at Friday prayers and the government didn't like this," said Abdu Gani Mirzayev, the imam's older brother.
Tears ran down Mirzayev's cheeks as he talked at his farm house near Andizhan of his brother and his sermons, tapes of which now circulate clandestinely.
CLAMPDOWN ON CLERICS UNNOTICED IN WEST
"Under (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev things were more democratic," said Mirzayev. "Now it's full totalitarianism here," he said.
The Wahabis in Andizhan have been banned from the mosques, but they have not gone away -- male adherents can be identified in the town's streets by their long, unkempt beards.
Western states, whose first concern is Uzbek independence from Russia, have voiced only mild concern at Karimov's human rights record. Islamic clerics get even less attention.
"We continue to be disturbed by reports of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment of various religious groups in Uzbekistan," U.S. Republican senator Alfonse D'Amato and others wrote in an open letter to Karimov in June.
But the letter singled out only harassment of Christian groups, with no mention of the same troubles faced by Moslem clerics in the overhwelmingly Moslem country.
"Everything always looks quiet here," said the diplomat. "But they (the government) are clamping down much harder on the Islamists," he said.
Karimov can have little hope of succeeding in containing Islam where Soviet rule failed -- most senior Communist Party officials in Uzbekistan kept their Moslem faith.
"Our society has been broken by the last 70 years," Mirzayev said. "A society without religion is a broken one."
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