Uzbekistan: Authorities Restrict Muslims' Travel to Mecca, Religious Art
Just a few months ago, Uzbek authorities seemed to be easing up on Muslims in Uzbekistan. At the end of Ramadan; unlike past years, President Islam Karimov issued an unprecedented decree deeming Eid ul-Fitr, the day marking the conclusion of the month-long fast, as a national holiday, EurasiaNet reported. (It fell on August 31st this year).
The Uzbek dictator allowed religious celebrations to be organized and even ordered state media to provide "comprehensive and positive" coverage. Of course, all the festivities were under state control, as all religious activity is in Uzbekistan. The purpose seemed to get some imams to praise Karimov as providing stability and security -- ostensibly by contrast with the countries of the Middle East/North Africa that were experiencing the "Arab Spring." Even so, it seemed as if the parameters for religious belief in Uzbekistan might be expanding.
Yet when it came time for the faithful to depart for Mecca this year, the Uzbek government reverted to its long-standing practice of severely limiting the number of people allowed to travel.
According to Forum 18 News Service, the Oslo-based religious news organization, only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 set by Saudi Arabia for Uzbekistan were allowed to travel to Mecca for the hajj:
As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the hajj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.
About as many pilgrims traveled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, although it is more than five times more populous and 90 percent of its 26 million people consider themselves Muslims.
In another troublesome sign of increasing government control of Islam, the Uzbek national security service (SNB) recently issued a strict warning to the country’s leading artists against using religious themes in their work, the independent news site uznews.net reported.
At a meeting at the Tashkent Academy Theater, an SNB representative told leading theater and film professionals, writers, painters and musicians that the use of any kind of religious theme in their works was strictly forbidden. The impetus for the warning appeared to be the recent popularity of a film by a young Uzbek actor and director Farroukh Saipov, who was arrested and charged with belonging to a banned religious organization.