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Being a secular state, Uzbekistan has to constantly fight radicalisation

Bektosh Berdiev, Associate Professor at the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, Tashkent

Bektosh Berdiev is a noted political scientist in Uzbekistan.  He serves in the Ministry of Innovative Development of the Republic of Uzbekistan and is currently Dotsent (Associate Professor) at the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. One of the academy’s objectives is to promote a secular understanding of Islam. His focus areas are Geopolitics and International Relations, but he has also been engaged in the Uzbek government’s deradicalization of Islam.

In this interview with Aditi Bhaduri he talks about how Islam in Uzbekistan has always been different and moderate, how it is necessary for Uzbekistan to uphold both the freedom of religion as well as to promote a secular understanding of Islam to keep the country secular and why deradicalisation programs for radicalized fighters is important among Uzbek youth.*

AB: Is there more interest in religion in Uzbekistan now? Have people in Uzbekistan in recent times become more interested in religion?

BB: Yes, since the breakdown of the USSR, people began to turn to their pre-Soviet identities and to their heritage. Uzbekistan has a great Islamic heritage.  Cities like Bukhara and Samarkand were great centres of learning once. During the Soviet period religion was driven underground and we had Communism. After independence more people wanted to connect with their roots and pre-Soviet past.

Earlier, during the time of [late] President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was a new state, and people did not have an idea of what really Islam was. They went here and there, without a proper understanding of Islam, gathering bits and pieces of information and knowledge from different sources, not all of them credible. Moreover, lots of preachers and influence from countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan helped in spreading radical ideas amongst some naïve people.

In essence Islam in Uzbekistan was different from that which is practiced in the Arab world or in places like Afghanistan. When the Taliban came to power there was a huge influence and many Uzbeks went to Afghanistan and became radicalized. So [late] President Karimov was forced to adopt a very firm, even oppressive position on religion. Sometimes there were people jailed even for just donning a beard. He wanted to retain the secular form of governance. This had its down side too. Uzbekistan was blamed by countries in the West for violation of human rights. Our relations with many Muslim countries deteriorated.

Today in Central Asia there is an information boom, which is often not Uzbek or from other Central Asian countries but from other sources – Russia, Turkey, Arab countries, etc. Till 2015 Russian information and propaganda was dominant. With the spread of English and Persian people began to receive information from sources like Turkey, BBC, CNN, Iran, the Arab countries etc. However, religiosity does not mean extremism.

Now, with Uzbekistan becoming a more mature state, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is adopting a policy of more freedom for religion and dialogue. And we want to ensure that. People can be religious and not extremist or radical. We are a Muslim majority country but a democracy. Over the past few years more people are going to mosques and many are praying five times a day. Many women have begun wearing the hijab as they feel free to do so and to experiment with fashion. When they want to stop wearing it, they similarly have the right to do so and many women you see wear the hijab now will most probably stop wearing it after a few months as that has been the trend for some time now. This is a symbol of personal freedom and democracy of Uzbek society.

AB: How many religious schools in Uzbekistan?

BB: Uzbekistan has 14 regions, and all have madrassahs, which are equal to middle school. Such a person does not have the right to teach or even give addresses in mosques. Its just a preparatory course for admission to university or institute. Uzbekistan has three institutes for higher Islamic studies. These are located in Bukhara, Andijan, and Tashkent. We also have the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, which imparts secular studies and scholarship of Islam and heritage of Islam in Uzbekistan.

AB: Tell us about the objectives and work of the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.

BB: The institute works to develop a secular understanding of Islam to do away with radicalism and extremist understanding of Islam. Here students learn about subjects like economy and tolerance in Islam, about other religions and their relationship with Islam. For instance, we teach Arabic at the academy but for that we invite scholars in the Arabic language and not religious scholars knowing Arabic.

We prepare scholars who can develop and promote tolerance in society, because Islam in Uzbekistan has always been different. We have been at the crossroads of the Silk Route for centuries, where we have been impacted and influenced by different cultures and ideas, including that of Buddhism.

The main objective of this Academy is to foster tolerance in society and peaceful coexistence in society with other religions. It was founded in 1999 as a university under President Karimov. In 2017 it became an academy and President Mirziyoyev set down new objectives: dialogue and deradicalization. Now we are trying dialogue and transformation.

AB: So Uzbekistan faced a problem with radicalization of its people?

BB: Yes, we have had significant radicalization since the time of independence. As I said different preachers and ideas came to Uzbekistan from different countries. The Taliban in Afghanistan had a significant influence. The Turkish “Nurchilar” schools began functioning in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries imparting radical ideas and they had to be closed down.

Most of the radicalized people came from Tashkent were there are more people, more freedom to access information and interact with others. For centuries people in Tashkent, Andijan, and Namangar have been very religious. After Uzbekistan became independent many people began travelling to Turkey and to Arab countries. Now in Uzbekistan the Hanafi fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) is more prevalent, but that is not practiced in these other countries. There our people learn a narrower version of Islam, come back, and start preaching the same. That is how Islamic State (ISIS) ideas too gathered a following.

There has been a huge influence of ISIS in Uzbekistan. This came from those Uzbeks who went to Turkey and Arab countries to work and then wanted an Islamic government and Caliphate at home. But ISIS is not the only threat to us.

There is also a lot of danger to us from the Hizb ut Tahrir supporters. They are very dangerous as they work silently and mostly on ideology. The Hizb has silent workers in many countries. We have other threats too: from Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hizb ur Tahrir, ISIS – KP, Katibat ul Imam Bukhari, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which has now morphed into the Islamic Movement of Turkestan. So the threats to Uzbekistan are many.

AB: In your observation what were the main reasons for the radicalization of people?

BB: I would say the first was social isolation. When people feel unwanted in society, or seem to be different from others and are marked out and ignored or othered, then they often turn to radical ideas. The next was unemployment, and so they turn to more religion. The third factor would be radicalization at home, where children grew up with parents who hold extremist or radical views. The fourth is the environment, if you are in an environment or community – for instance sometimes Uzbek migrants working abroad get together and begin to hear radical preaching and begin to follow them. Finally, technology has been a major reason for radicalism where radical ideas from different sources from across the world became easily accessible to people, even on their phones.

AB: Tell us how the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan works on deradicalisation.

BB: At the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan we believe in deradicalisation and dialogue. For instance, when [Uzbek] women (mostly widows and wives of fighters) returned from war zone of Syria, most of them were very radicalized. We established special centres for them where they were first and foremost given treatment and counseling. We allowed them to heal first from the lives they lives in the war zone. Then our specialists began discussions with them, emphasizing and explaining the humane angles and dimensions of Islam.

We then found them jobs according to their skills, for those who did not have any specialized skills, we gave them training for skill development, and then found them jobs accordingly. We saw to it also that they completely severed ties with those who had abetted their radicalization process or facilitated their journey to the war zone. To many of these women we also offered the possibility for further studies if any of them so wanted.

AB: What are the other measures to counter religious radicalism?

BB: We try to get people to study more, before they begin participation in religious activities. We also try so that people began to engage in religion only after completing 18 years of age. We are trying this from the school level.

When we see anyone consider or supporting radical views on religion we reach out to people with such views. We want to enlighten them through a form of dialogue and understanding. We try to inculcate in them the basis of Uzbek Islam.

AB: The constitution recently declared Uzbekistan to be a “secular” state.

BB: We felt the need to do so. The threat of Islamism is always present [here]. We have 130 nationalities and 16 different faiths practices on our territory. We need to preserve their rights. We want to live in a democracy and not in an Islamic state. We have a secular civil code. The law here does not allow for polygamy. We do not have the talaq system here, but civil courts where people apply for a divorce. Inheritance is also governed according to secular laws.

Also, many of the terrorist groups I named are sponsored by other powers to destabilize Central Asia. So we felt it necessary to amend the constitution through the referendum and most people support this.

*The interview was conducted in Russian.  This is the English translation.