Since the beginning of 2020, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan has reported three cases of suppression of illegal extremist acts; in two cases, it was the detention of organized groups engaged in the propaganda of radical ideas, recruitment of youth to the ranks of international terrorist organizations.
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Even during the COVID-19 quarantine, illegal ideas continue to spread and win over minds of an uneducated people from the Muslim community of Uzbekistan. Thus, a 32-year-old resident of the Navoi region of Uzbekistan, following the quarantine rules, was “infected” online with radical extremist organizations’ ideas. On April 7, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan reported that the young man signed up in Odnoklassniki.ru under fake identity and accessed various illegal online resources through this account. The young man downloaded the sermons of the spiritual leader of the banned in Uzbekistan international terrorist organization and shared them with his virtual friends.
Earlier, on February 26, law enforcement authorities suppressed the illegal activities of a group of persons influenced by international terrorist organizations and radical extremist organizations. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the republic, they held illegal religious meetings in Tashkent and Tashkent region promoting the ideas of the international terrorist organization operating in Syria, and planned to join it. As part of the criminal case against these persons, searches were conducted in 24 places and police officers detained 21 people. Investigative activities are ongoing.
In another case, in early January of this year, joint activities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service allowed to suppress the activities of “Jihadists” group, the radical extremist organization banned in Uzbekistan. “They performed the orders of terrorist organizations, promoted and spread their ideas among the population on the territory of Uzbekistan. In addition, they persuaded the youth to follow their ideology and join the international terrorist organizations operating in Syria,” stated the republic’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The “Jihadists” religious movement was included to the list of banned in Uzbekistan organizations in September 2016.
In 2018-2019, the State Security Service of the Republic, together with foreign intelligence, prevented nine terrorist attacks, two of which – in Uzbekistan.
“According to the messages on TV channels of the Al-Jazeera media group in Qatar, by various estimates, over a thousand Central Asians are fighting in the ranks of international terrorist organizations in conflict zones. International terrorist organizations’ militants were involved in recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, St. Petersburg and New York.
In addition, analysing the impact of the global terrorist threat on the Central Asian countries’ security, experts at the Al Jazeera research center note that these terrorist groups consider Central Asia as a “resource region” for replenishing their ranks. This is a threat to the security of the whole Central Asian region,” said Shavkat Ikromov (Tashkent), expert on Middle East and researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies.
Viktor Mikhailov, director of the Center for Studying Regional Threats, answers questions from CABAR.asia about the policy of countering extremism in Uzbekistan.
What is the current policy of countering terrorism and extremism in Uzbekistan? How did it change over the past few years?
Luckily, over the past 15 years, not a single terrorist attack has been carried out in Uzbekistan. However, a threat of youth radicalization remains, due to penetration and spread of violent extremist ideas in the country. Such processes take place in other Central Asian countries as well. That is why the government of Uzbekistan is actively trying to counter: (1) the spread of violent extremist ideas, (2) the radicalization of society, especially youth.
These two main issues are now concerning the government. To be fair, I must note that the prevention of crimes among young people, especially those of a terrorist nature, has always been a priority in Uzbekistan’s state policy.
The liberalization processes that we have observed in Uzbekistan over the past few years, have also affected the spiritual life of society. During 2017-2018, more than 20 thousand citizens were removed from the list of suspected terrorists. Many media call such citizens “blacklisted”. At the end of last year, the country’s Ombudsman Saidbek Azimov stated, “We no longer have any blacklist. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion”. The liberalization process also directly affected those convicted of involvement in the banned radical extremist organizations and those imprisoned. In 2018, 646 people imprisoned for participating in the banned radical extremist organizations returned to their families. I should also mention the liquidation of the Jaslyk prison, famous for the harsh conditions of prisoners’ detention, many of whom were imprisoned for the participation in the banned radical extremist organizations.
In addition, in recent years, we observe more humane (than before) court decisions when imposing punishments on persons influenced by radical ideas. Until 2016, judges sentenced to long terms of imprisonment (from 5 to 15 years) in criminal cases involving the participation of convicts in radical extremist organizations. Now, the courts limit the punishment to either suspended sentences or imprisonment up to 5 years. We are also witnessing the release of convicts who participated in illegal radical extremist organizations from the courtroom under the guarantee from the Mahalla Committee, the Youth Union and other public organizations.
Simultaneously, the state, which has undertaken the obligation to further liberalize the public life, under the new conditions, must effectively counter the spread of violent extremist ideas that lead to radicalization and terrorism, especially among the youth.
Unfortunately, we also have to state that the more liberal the policy is, the greater the possibility (level of freedom) of the penetration and spread of violent extremist ideas in society. We can compare such processes in countries with a democratic and liberal structure of public life, including the spiritual life of society, to the states that control the religious sphere more tightly. Not surprisingly, it is easier for many international terrorist organizations to recruit young people into their ranks in democratic countries. Under the liberal religious policy, it is natural to expect the recruitment of a larger number of the population, including the youth, to religion.
During the past two years, we have observed a significant increase in the number of worshippers attending mosques, for example, during Friday prayers. It is natural that society tends to live a spiritual life, because sincere faith in God warns people from many unworthy acts.
Unfortunately, there are people who continue to try (and they are unlikely to ever stop) to spread radical and destructive ideas leading to terrorism among worshippers. Despite the fact that most believers do not accept radical views and reject them, there is still a few people, especially young, who are very sensitive to such ideas. From the perspective of countering the spread of violent extremist ideas, these young people are in the risk zone, therefore, for radical extremist organizations, these people is a potential audience or, even worse, a recruiting source for replenishing these organizations’ ranks.
In your opinion, how is this influence projected?
Today, one of the main tools to spread such radical ideas is Internet, without which we cannot imagine our lives. PR managers of various radical extremist organizations are very experienced in using online tools to influence the minds of those sensitive young people. The ideological roots used in the promotion and propaganda of the violent extremist ideas are the simple answers to complex questions that young people have. Such answers are based solely on religious dogmas, primitive quotations from Quran’s suras, verses, and hadiths of the prophet. Thus, they methodically first try to “reformat” the young people’s minds, and then gradually move on to calls to “fix the world around us” through violent “jihad” methods.
Nowadays, what are the state’s efforts to counter the spread of radical ideas in society, especially among the youth?
I will list three main efforts in this aspect, although, of course, there are many more.
First. Influential imams in mosques interpret the Quran and hadiths of the prophet in accordance with the Hanafi madhhab for worshippers. In their sermons, they explain and clarify the religious attitude towards certain issues, problems related to life situations. We know that at all times, only highly educated religious scholars could correctly interpret certain Islam dogmas. Indeed, the Quran studies require deep knowledge accumulated over many centuries by Islamic philosophers and interpreters (including those who worked on the territory of modern Uzbekistan).
The state is implementing several pilot projects aimed at countering radicalization, and even deradicalization. One of these projects was implemented in the Almazar district of Tashkent. In this district, a local Department of Internal Affairs created a consultative center, which employed experienced theologians, Islamic scholars and imams. Any Tashkent resident could anonymously contact the center and ask the experts any question related to Quran interpretation or Islamic dogmas. Parents asked about their children’s decisions in various difficult life situations, when young people were confused in religious dogmas and were ready to make wrong decisions. There were visitors who brought their friends for a consultation who had heard many “jihadist” ideas online. This was a very interesting and important experiment with a positive effect.
A very important initiative in Uzbekistan is the creation of the largest in the region center of Islamic science, schools for Quran and Arabic language studies, Hadith schools. These educational institutions are open to all wishing to learn the basics of Islam.
Second. The strict prohibition (criminal offense) of the activities of radical extremist organizations and international terrorist organizations, as well as distribution of literature and other materials (including video and audio), promoting the violent extremist ideas. State authorities have supported this position for many years (unlike in other countries), limiting the potential distributors of destructive radical information.
Third. During many decades, the internal structure for scholars’ training has been formed in Uzbekistan: secondary and higher religious educational institutions, including the Islamic Academy for the training of the muftis, imam-khatibs, Islamic scholars and religious scholars. It is very important that the training of such scholars within the country eliminate the necessity to send them to study the basics of Islam abroad to Arab countries where students absorb Salafi ideas that are alien to the Hanafi madhhab. Through its religious policy, the state is trying to develop among the citizens, on the one hand, the immunity against a radical Islam understanding, to cultivate tolerance and awareness of the religious diversity that developed in Uzbekistan, and on the other hand, the instinct of self-preservation against the youth recruitment to the radical extremist organizations and international terrorist organizations. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan together with the Committee on Religious Affairs carry out a very effective policy in this direction.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»