Islam and politics

Although Uzbekistan is officially a secular state, the government makes great efforts to co-opt and control Islam. Control is exercised through the same institutions as in Soviet times—the Muslim Spiritual Directorate or Muftiate and the government Committee for Religious Affairs. Clerics who assert their independence from these institutions have been removed, arrested, and even assassinated. A law on "freedom of conscience" passed in 1998 made it illegal to establish a religious organization, to build a mosque, or to teach theology without official permission. It also made it illegal to wear religious clothing, including veils, in public. Karimov established the Tashkent Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic  Institute in 1999 to train religious leaders according to the principles of state-sanctioned Islam.

Islamists involved in numerous terrorist acts

Despite strict state control, Islamist extremists are believed responsible for numerous assassinations, bombings, and other terrorist acts committed since 1997. Explosions rocked the center of Tashkent in 1999, and several incursions by militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) occurred over the next few years. The Karimov regime responded with mass arrests and increased monitoring of religious activity. There was a series of suicide bombings and shootouts in Tashkent and elsewhere in 2004, but it is unclear whether banned religious groups were responsible. Thousands of people were jailed for participation in banned Islamist groups, particularly the IMU and the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation).

The IMU’s bases in Afghanistan were destroyed during the 2001 U.S. invasion. Some surviving IMU fighters fled to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area. By 2007 many had become embroiled in fighting between Pakistani authorities and rival groups, far from the organization’s origins in Uzbekistan. The co-founder and leader of the IMU, Tahir Yuldashev was killed in the border area in 2009.

The IMU announced that Yuldashev’s successor, Osman Adil, was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan in 2012.

Andijon, May 2005

An armed attack by supporters of 23 local businessmen on trial for membership in a banned extremist Islamist group precipitated a bloody series of events in Andijon, a town in the Fergana Valley, on May 12-13, 2005.

During the night of May 12, attackers occupied a police station and military base, seized the prison and released the businessmen and hundreds of other prisoners. They also seized the regional administrative building, but failed to capture the local offices of other security forces.

During May 13, a large demonstration formed in the Andijon Central Square. Subsequently, Uzbek troops opened fire on  people in the Square as they took control of the area. According to unofficial reports, as many as 1000 people may have been killed. Karimov, giving the official version, focused on the casualties of the security forces. The official death toll of 169 was much lower than unofficial reports.

In the trial that followed, 15 alleged organizers of the jailbreak were sentenced to 14 to 20 years in prison (although they could have been sentenced to harsher verdicts). An unusual moment in the otherwise well-orchestrated trial occurred when a female witness for the prosecution testified that government forces had indeed opened fire on innocents.

Overall, over 100 people were convicted for participating in the events.

Government authorities have continued to harass, detain and imprison opposition and human rights activists, as well as journalists, investigating or reporting on the Andijon events.

Threat from the IMU?

According to the Uzbekistan border Service, violations of the country's border from Afghanistan has increased in 2013.  Whether this is a smuggling phenomenon, or an effort by the IMU to reestablish itself in Uzbekistan, is yet to be determined.  In any case, the borders between Afghanistan and central Asia are porous, and as NATO forces depart Afghanistan in 2014, will likely become more so.