Karimov's Uzbekistan is a neo-Communist Dictatorship
by Stephen Schwartz
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The post-Soviet regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan represents a complex of problems for Muslims, for supporters of global democratization, and for countries with Central Asian regional interests, including Turkey.
Uzbekistan's borders are artificial, having been carved out by the Soviets in an attempt to divide up the Islamic cultures of the Asian heartland. Its political order is also artificial, perpetuating a classic party-state police dictatorship almost undistinguishable from the Marxist-Leninist order that preceded it.
Because it is remote and little-known, Muslim authorities and Western states alike have made significant mistakes in dealing with the Karimov government. Soon after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 Uzbekistan was accepted as a worthy partner of the U.S.-led coalition in fighting radical Islamist terror.
Westerners noted the role of the now-defunct Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in the al-Qaeda front. The U.S. Defense Department took over the Karshi-Khanabad or K-2 airfield as a base for operations against the Taliban.
But the IMU was annihilated in Afghanistan. It had never struck roots among the Uzbek people; rather, it recruited a small number of poor and misled Uzbeks for combat in such other countries as Tajikistan, in addition to Afghanistan.
Karimov and his stooges could have taken pride in the failure of IMU to stir support among their people. Uzbekistan could have gained credit with the world as an exemplar of moderate, Sufi-oriented, Hanafi-Sunni Islam. Instead, however, Karimov followed the example of Russian demagogue Vladimir Putin in preferring to exaggerate the threat posed by the IMU and various other marginal Islamist groups.
The massacre of Andijan and more
For Karimov, there can be only one strategy: to proclaim all opposition and even criticism of him as jihadist. Merchants and other disaffected elements protested against the interference of Karimov's repressive system with commerce in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijan in May 2005. The Uzbek ruler responded as Tsar Nicholas the II (a.k.a. Nicholas the Bloody) did in 1905 in St. Petersburg and as Stalin dealt with recalcitrant peasants during the forced collectivization of the early 1930s. Ordinary people in Andijan were massacred in the hundreds and then falsely-labeled as Islamist radicals.
Soon after that, Karimov compelled the United States to carry out a decision that the Pentagon had pondered for two years: the K-2 airbase was closed.
But until Andijan the reactionary and brutal policies of Karimov were little understood in the West. Wahhabi agitators from Saudi Arabia conned Western human rights gadflies, whose ignorance of Central Asian Islam was and remains painfully obvious, into believing that failure to accept Wahhabi infiltration of Uzbekistan was a violation of Muslim religious rights. At the same time, because Uzbekistan possesses a uniquely rich Islamic heritage, some Muslims in the West were fooled by the Karimov regime into thinking that public money spent on the restoration of tombs was an affirmation of Islamic spiritual revival. Both perceptions were distorted, and each mirrored the other. Uzbek Islam did not need Wahhabism to make it authentic, and official concern about Wahhabi "missionization" was justified. Calls by Western NGOs for dialogue between Uzbek authorities and Islamist radicals were absurdly misconceived.
But neither did Uzbek Islam require lavish expenditure on elaborate monuments to encourage the rebirth of Sufism, much less public relations efforts by Western Sufis and their acolytes to make Karimov appear a defender of traditional Islam.
Western democrats, Muslims everywhere – but especially those interested in Sufi spirituality – and representatives and friends of the Turkic heritage in the Islamic world should agree on one thing: There is no justification for defending the Karimov dictatorship, which is merely a pawn of Putinism. And Muslims who allied with him and other neo-Communists will find much to regret when they are called on to reflect on their errors.