Islamic observance booms in Uzbekistan after oppressive restrictions lifted
Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has lifted restrictions on Islamic practices, sparking dramatic changes in the dictatorial Central Asian state.
The Uzbek government lifted a ban on wearing headscarves in public in July, allowing their numbers to multiply.
Mirziyoyev’s administration has abolished restrictions, like the need for exit visas before travelling abroad and limitations on foreign exchange.
Men with full beards under the first Uzbek president Islam Karimov were often detained, forcibly shaved and interrogated about alleged Islamic radicalism.
Monitoring organisations reported that thousands of Muslims who worshiped away from the state-sanctioned mosques were jailed.
Karimov died in office in 2016.
After taking the presidency, Mirziyoyev released many Islamic dissidents and eased religious freedoms. But this process has now been reversed with more Islamist suspects being detained, according to the US Council on International Religious Freedom.
Economic hardship and unchecked corruption are also seen as feeding the move towards religious radicalisation.
Covid has overshadowed some of Mirziyoyev’s societal reforms and economic gains, increasing unemployment and the cost of living.
The Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan in August has inspired many Uzbek Muslims to take to messaging apps and social media to demand a similar movement.
The Taliban sent delegations across the former Soviet Union to reassure secular states that it no longer allies itself with international Islamist organisations like al-Qaeda. It told Tashkent it would respect Afghanistan’s large Uzbek minority.
Uzbeks are increasingly political with approximately 300 anti-government protests held over the previous three years, which would have been unimaginable under Karimov, a former Communist Party official who initially resisted the Soviet Union’s breakup.
Uzbekistan has Central Asia’s largest population of 36 million. Under Soviet rule, it absorbed waves of migration, including hundreds of thousands of citizens, including many Jews, after the 1941 Nazi invasion.
Entire deported ethnic groups arrived like the Crimean Tatars, Pontic Greeks, Volga Germans and Koreans from Russia’s Pacific regions. The 1966 earthquake brought tens of thousands of labourers from across the Soviet Union to help rebuild the capital, Tashkent.
Many Uzbeks sent their children to Russian-language schools and most Uzbek males completed two years of military service, where they spoke Russian.
The 1981-91 Soviet war in Afghanistan gave thousands of Central Asian conscripts exposure to a devoutly Muslim society and religious observance was never completely crushed in the densely populated Ferghana valley.
Islamic buildings in Uzbekistan’s historic, Silk Road cities are used as shops rather than respected as places of worship or religious learning. Picture credit: Eurasia Times