Uzbekistan: President Appeals to Muslims "Gone Astray"
The custom in Uzbekistan has for many years been to speak about suspected radical Islamists in terms of sinister plots to sow death and destruction.
Accordingly, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s public remarks during a visit to Andijan over the weekend marked a curious development — albeit one the significance of which it may take some time to decipher.
In May 2005, Andijan was the site of a mass uprising that culminated in a bloody crackdown. Rights activists maintain many hundreds of people, mainly unarmed demonstrators, were among the dead. The official account allows for around 187 people killed and has cast a loose association of pious Muslims, known as Akromiya, as leading instigators and organizers of the unrest intended to bring about the overthrow of the government.
In a speech televised on the evening news on June 4, Mirziyoyev alluded to Akromiya at length.
"I want to say that people should be loyal to the motherland. If they are, they will serve the homeland and become patriots. But if they display no devotion and faith — by sitting on two chairs in anticipation of the system changing and the subsequent arrival of Akromiya — they will become traitors to the homeland. And then they they will cooperate with them,” Mirziyoyev said, speaking to a group of vetted civil society activists.
The speech appeared addressed first and foremost at the city’s clergy and devout community — to say, in essence, you are with us or against us.
Mirziyoyev’s tone was one of conditional acquiescence to those that have held out against the government heavy-handed and relentless campaign to bring non-compliant Muslims into the fold.
“There are people who have gone astray that want to return to normal life. We should make those people our friends and beckon them to spirituality,” he said.
In the remarkable passage that followed, however, he appeared to admit the perceived problem of extremism may in part be the fault of the authorities.
“On the other hand, executive organs are also to blame that some citizens seek to join various religious currents. You cannot exert pressure on the relatives of such people,” he said.
This is a curiously ambivalent commentary by Mirziyoyev on a profoundly thorny area and shows that the government remains anxious about the persisting influence of religious forces outside its control.
Rights activists and scholars, most notably Sarah Kendzior, have cast doubt on the formal existence of Akromiya as a formal organization. Kendzior has argued in detail that the Uzbek government has gone to great lengths to fabricate the myth of Akromiya as a dangerous group intent on the destruction of the state.
The group is said by the authorities to have been created by Akram Yuldashev, an informal religious leader who penned a philosophical treatise in the 1990s called The Path to True Faith. The themes in the work were actively adopted by sections of the business community in Andijan who were attracted by Yuldashev’s cocktail of self-improvement advice and cod-spirituality.
In a practice reminiscent of Hizb ut-Tahrir, to which Yuldashev is believed to have belonged, followers of the Akromiya message typically provided general welfare support to their employees and strived to pay salaries well above the official minimum rate.
Yuldashev was jailed in 1999 on suspicion of involvement of a string of bombing attack in Tashkent on February 16 that year. He was charged with several terrorism and extremism charges, among others, and convicted to 17 years in jail following a cursory trial in which no witnesses were summoned.
Some years later, authorities insisted that Yuldashev had directed the unrest in Andijan with a mobile phone smuggled into his prison cell.
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that they had received information from prison officials that Yuldashev had died of tuberculosis while in prison.
The remarks in Andijan are made a greater relaxation toward the demands of Uzbekistan’s devout Muslim population. In early June, local media reported that Uzbekistan plans to apply to Saudi Arabia to increase the 2018 quota for Uzbek nationals wishing to perform the umrah — which is distinct from the hajj in that it can be done at any time of the year — up to 10,000 people. Around 6,000 Uzbeks per year currently perform what is known as the “little pilgrimage.”
In 2017, the overall quota for Uzbek pilgrims wishing to travel to Saudi Arabia was increased by one-fifth, to 13,200. This year, some 7,200 Uzbek will perform hajj, while another 6,000 will do the umrah.