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Uzbekistan: How Can the State Find a “Happy Mean” In the Field of Religion?

“Uzbek society is at a historic stage of its development: “modernize or disappear”. This stage requires significant changes in the current development model of Uzbekistan and the ideological values underlying it. Islam as a reference can play both positive and negative roles in this crucial moment in the evolution of Uzbek society” noted a political scientist Sardor Salim in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Summary of the article:

  • The peculiarity of the modernization process in modern Uzbekistan is the deep cultural and ideological and political split of society, both in relation to the previous stages of modernization, and to the main directions of further evolution of the state and society; 
  • The short-term “thaw” since the fall of 2016 to the summer of 2018 in the religious sphere was only a tactical step; the fundamental vector has not changed; 
  • Any modernization model (including secularization) turns out to be deformed and unviable at transplantation to unprepared and even unfavorable soil for this;
  • The Muslim intelligentsia must offer an “image of the desired future” of Uzbekistan, in which both the followers of the secular way of life and representatives of other religions and cultures would feel comfortable.
The Uzbek secular elite, which determine state policy, consider religion as a threat (here from is the “securitization of Islam”). Photo: Sadat / Xinhuanet.com

With the collapse of the USSR, the time of a single-source existence of Central Asia within the framework of the communist doctrine ended. Uzbekistan opened up new paths of development. The peculiarity of the modernization process in modern Uzbekistan is the deep cultural and ideological and political split of society, both in relation to the previous stages of modernization (for example, the transformations of the Soviet period) and to the main directions of further evolution of the state and society. Educated people do not have a consensus on the society in which they would like to live, which they consider to be modern. Paradoxically, the country revived disputes about the role of religion in social development, which were going on in Uzbek society more than a century ago. These disputes were an echo of broader discussions that have been going on in the Muslim ummah since the end of the 19th century, and which continue to this day.

Transformation of Muslim Communities

Since the end of the 19th century, the processes of urbanization, the introduction of mass education, more accelerating and expanding cross-country and interpersonal communications, new types of public institutions and methods of mass political mobilization, a radical restructuring of the economy and other problems of contemporaneity (modernity), along with colonialism, began to influence, transform traditional Muslim societies. A feverish search began for the causes of the underdevelopment of the Muslim world and ways to overcome this gap. Depending on the proposed solution to the problems of the Muslim world, Muslims divided (and are still dividing) into four categories:

  1. The Secularists. This is the part of the population which believes that it is necessary to imitate the West in everything, modernization is understood as westernization. This ideology is very influential among the elites at the beginning and in the middle of the 20th century (Ataturk in Turkey, Reza Pahlavi in ​​Iran, Baathist regimes in the Middle East, current post-Soviet elites in Central Asia, etc.) eventually lost its appeal, but still remains a key and influential ideological trend.
  2. Religious modernists. The part of Muslims who believe that modernization should be associated with the tradition of the Muslim society; its unique social memory, cultural heritage, religious beliefs; this heritage, traditions and beliefs can and should be critically reviewed in accordance with the requirements of the time, but not at the expense of fundamental norms of Islam.
  3. Traditionalists / Conservatives. They are those who believe that no critical reflection in the sphere of religion is required, since the founders of theological and legal schools in Islam have foreseen everything. Modernization is understood “narrowly” as technological or economic re-equipment.
  4. Fundamentalists / radicals. Such marginal groups as “Al-Qaeda”, ISIS, the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan”, who believe that Modernity is a form of Western domination and the only solution to all the problems of the Muslim world lies in a return to “pure” Islam.

This classification is very conditional; in real life the boundaries between these groups are changing and transparent. It can be said that the entire political history of the 20th and early 21st centuries in the Islamic world (and in particular, in Uzbekistan) was the history of the struggle between these groups for the minds of the population. Religious modernist, traditionalist and radical discourses to some extent revived in modern Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan here is not alone. Islam began to take the form of a political doctrine that helps a huge community of people from Bosnia and Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia to survive in the conditions of modernization. As Adib Khalid writes: “Islam is by no means a simple set of rules and concepts given once and for all. Rather, on the contrary, there are endless opportunities for development in it, continuing as long as Muslims are keenly interested in the issues of their religion and are arguing about it[1].

The policy of “militant” secularism

A distinctive feature of the current political elite of Uzbekistan brought up in the Soviet development paradigm (which is based on French-style “militant” secularism) is the belief in the inevitability of modernization, the single-line nature of its trend. It results in simplified ideas about the direct connection of the secularization of society with the processes of modernization and that modernization inevitably leads to a decrease in the influence of religion both in society and in people’s minds. The Uzbek secular elite, which determine state policy, consider religion as a threat (here from is the “securitization of Islam”) as an annoying disturbance in the “education” of the people, or at best, as a cultural artifact. Accordingly, the entire state policy in the sphere of religion is based precisely on these assumptions. This approach was most pronounced during the government of Islam Karimov, the brightest representative of the secular elite.

Even after the current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, nothing fundamentally changed in the state religious policy. After the fact, it turns out that the short-term “thaw” since autumn 2016 to summer 2018 in the religious sphere was just a tactical step; the fundamental vector has not changed. Since August 2018, there has been a dramatic rollback and tightening of approaches in religious policy. A law on school uniforms, which explicitly states the prohibition of religious clothing (hijabs) was passed in August. Although there is no legal prohibition, women and girls are not allowed to wear religious clothes in public places, especially in universities. There are cases when girls in hijabs were excluded from their studies even at the International Islamic University, not to mention other secular educational institutions.

Also in August 2018, several bloggers who openly wrote on religious topics were detained “for disobeying the legitimate demands of the authorities”. “Preventive” conversations were conducted with them, and after a short-term administrative arrest, they were released. Moreover, this release strangely coincided with the working visit of the special envoy on religious freedom of the US State Department Sam Brownback to Uzbekistan.

In September 2018, the imam of the “Omina” mosque Fazliddin Shakhobiddin appealed to the president as the guarantor of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan to take measures against the intensified persecution of religious attributes (hijab, beard) and to ensure freedom of religion[2]. As a result, he was fired from work; an emergency meeting of imams was convened at the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (MBU), who condemned Fazliddin’s speech as “defaming positive reforms in the country in the field of religion”.

The former imam of a mosque in Tashkent, Fazliddin Shakhobiddin (Parpiev), stated that he had to leave the country after receiving a warning about the ban on publishing “political posts” in social networks. Photo: sng.today

The practice of “preventive conversations” with religious intellectuals continues. The competitions of the Koran readers were closed. Some participants of those events were allegedly questioned on the subject of clandestine learning of Koran. The TV programs on religious subjects were also closed. The call to prayer (azan) through loudspeakers, which entered into practice in the first year of the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was also terminated. There is also a ban on proselytism and any other missionary activity. Teenagers are still not allowed in mosques. At the beginning of the summer holidays of 2018, the parents in many schools signed up to pledge to “not allow children to go to mosques, hot spots and places dangerous to health, such as ponds,” etc. Since October 2018, not only the Hajj, but also the umrah (small Hajj) are taken under state control. It is now forbidden for Muslims of Uzbekistan to travel to Saudi Arabia for umrah through private travel agencies. The Committee on Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan stated that this decision was made because the committee can organize tours for umrah better and more efficiently than private travel agencies[3].

At the same time, the political elite continues to use Islamic rhetoric. Public condemnation of “western” pop culture, luxurious weddings, miniskirts of girls, up to deprivation of a license for the concert activities of some performers for their immodest look and behavior on stage, etc., prepared by reference to national traditions and Islamic values, however, such measures either do not work, or their effectiveness is very low.

All these sometimes contradictory trends show that the conceptual question about the method of resolving the dichotomy of “secularism versus re-Islamisation” remains open.
Speaking to the participants of the imams’ congress in Tashkent on June 15, 2017, Mirziyoyev stressed the need for a more flexible policy in the sphere of religion. But as recent events show, the secular elite lacks understanding of the right balance between secularism and religiosity.

The post-communist secular elite proposes to the society in a voluntary-compulsory manner a model of westernization in the form of “catching-up capitalism” and “militant” secularism, while the religious renaissance in Uzbek society is under way.

For example, more and more people are in need and attend mosques during the hours of prayer. The celebration of Uraza Bayram and Kurban Bayram in Uzbekistan is becoming more and more large-scale and demonstrative. Intellectual elite is a conductor of this renaissance and is becoming increasingly Islamized.

If we understand modernization as a transition from a traditional society to a modern one, then not every nation that began this most difficult path could achieve the desired result. As Ronald Inglehardt states, in order the modernization to be successful, not only the desire and effort of the authorities is necessary, but also a number of prerequisites that lie in the sphere of culture rather than economics or state power. A culture that does not contain these prerequisites is not suitable for modernization[4].

His conclusions are confirmed by Sergey Abashin, who, using the example of an Uzbek village in Fergana Valley, traced the history of transformations in Central Asia from the end of the 19th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union. If to summarize the modernization of the Soviet period, writes Sergey Abashin, the reforms carried out by the Soviet authorities that were supposed to level the differences, did not achieve their goal – the Central Asian republics remained a different, special world within one state[5].

Any modernization model (including secularization) turns out to be deformed and unviable at transplantation to unprepared and even unfavorable soil for this.
The fact that under Soviet rule the Uzbek society did not become completely secular (rational and so on) does not mean that it did not change at all or that these changes were not radical. Failures with the experiments of socialism have shown that any modernization model (including secularization) turns out to be deformed and unviable at transplantation to unprepared and even unfavorable soil for this.

As a result of experiments, first with socialism, and now with westernization, a situation has developed in Uzbekistan, which can be called “false modernization”. By “false modernization,” the researcher Piotr Sztompka implies an inconsistent, disharmonious, internally contradictory combination of three elements: 1) modern features in certain areas of social life; 2) traditional, pre-modernist characteristics in many other areas, and 3) everything that was dressed in clothes designed to imitate modern western reality[6].

In order the modernization in Uzbekistan from the “false” to become real, it is necessary to identify and activate the internal impulses of development. Modernization involves the launch of a comprehensive socio-cultural process. The “Culture”, which refers to the entire network of formal and informal institutions responsible for the production, destruction, transmission and dissemination of values, is traditionally carried out by intellectuals.

For the time being, the competition in Uzbekistan between representatives of three different elites – secular, political and social, whose representatives, as a rule, are religious-minded intellectuals, is going on in a hidden, implicit form. Their views on socio-economic development do not coincide very much and the vector of further development of Uzbek society largely depends on the outcome of this confrontation. Intellectuals themselves cannot turn the course of the modernization process, but at one or other critical moments they are able to significantly influence it.

Conclusion and recommendations

Uzbek society is at a historic stage of its development: “modernize or disappear”. This stage requires significant changes in the current development model of Uzbekistan and the ideological values underlying it. Islam as a reference can play both positive and negative roles in this crucial moment in the evolution of Uzbek society. First of all it depends on the ability of the secular elite to recognize the return of religion to the scene and adapt accordingly.  Secondly, it depends on the ability of the reformist-minded representatives of the Muslim intelligentsia and activists to act as mediators between Islam and modernity, and find a way to modernize Uzbek society. The challenge faced by both secular and religious intellectuals, political figures is that it is necessary to formulate a version of modernity that will simultaneously meet the requirements of the modern era and the Uzbek system of values.

Recommendations for the social elite and public officials

  • With the new leadership coming to power, appeared a window of opportunity for revising the paradigms regulating relations with the Muslim majority in favor of models that direct the Uzbek governance towards liberalization and fruitful cooperation, while preserving social stability;
  • The first and most important condition for achieving sociocultural, positive political transformations in the future is a strategy of gradual political liberalization and separation of powers i.e., increasing the opportunities for participation in the political life of the country for all stakeholders, provided that they guarantee the rule of law;
  • In the official religious policy, it is necessary to switch from the confrontational position of the last decades in favor of the version of secularism, where there is a place for religion (from the French model of “militant” secularism to the Anglo-Saxon model of liberal secularism);
  • The secular elite should review both formal norms (such as a ban on religious attributes in public places) and informal anti-religious practices, such as prohibition of adolescents in  mosques;
  • Many Uzbek citizens are still unaware about the shortcomings of the “Islamic form of government”, so excluding reformist and moderate Islamic discourses from public space can potentially play into the hands of semi-legal, conservative and clandestine radical discourses;
  • The assuming threat from non-violent or liberal Islamic movements should be reviewed;
  • The main priority should be the quality of both religious and social education:
  • Representatives of the Muslim intelligentsia who advocate reformist discourse should be identified and appointed to key positions in religious institutions, as well as in the Committee of Religious Affairs and in the service of an advisor on religious issues under the presidential administration.
Although in Uzbekistan these recommendations seem incredible, as the experience of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as most other states with a predominantly Muslim population, shows, these are the only possible conditions for preserving the regime and long-term social stability.
Recommendations for Islam-oriented public figures                                                                                                         

  • The Muslim intelligentsia must offer an “image of the desired future” of Uzbekistan, in which both the followers of the secular way of life and representatives of other religions and cultures would feel comfortable;
  • Creatively rethought ideas of the Jadid movement of the early 20th century can serve as the basis for a new concept of national modernization (“Islamic modernity”);
  • Such a vision of modernity can counter the influence of utopian, radical, literal and overly chauvinistic interpretations of Islam;
  • Muslim leaders must commit themselves to act within the legal framework of democratic and pluralistic basis;
  • Power sharing with the secular elite is the only way to participate in political life and gradually move towards a long-term social and political change based on Islam;
  • Muslim intellectuals and activists as well as Jadids must formulate their messages in a language that is understandable to the masses.

Recommendations for international participants

  • Since the time (and demography) in Uzbekistan is on the side of social and political movements based on religion, the most logical and effective policy is to maintain a dialogue with such movements and leaders, if they appear;
  • The appearance of a politicized Islam in a non-radicalized form should also be featured in any policy strategy aimed at a long-term stability in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is now facing the end of “secular policy” and is probably on the threshold of the “Muslim politics”. The inability of the secular elite to fully understand the meaning of such changes will undoubtedly only increase internal tensions and lead to the likely collapse of the state. In addition, the threat of destabilization is also borne by the inability of the Muslim intelligentsia to offer an “image of the desired future” of Uzbekistan, in which both the followers of the secular way of life and representatives of other religions and cultures would feel comfortable.

In order the modernization in Uzbekistan from the “false” to become real, it is necessary to identify and activate the internal impulses of development. A properly understood religion could greatly facilitate the tasks of national modernization.

Source of information:

[1] ADEEB KHALID, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. University of California. Press, 2007.

[2] BBC Uzbek. Toshkentlik imom maktablarda ro‘molni taqiqlashga qarshi chiqdi. (Imam from Tashkent opposed the ban on wearing headscarves in schools). ). Accessed 20 September 2018. https://goo.gl/NSGPDT

[3]  “Chastnym turfirmam zapretili otpravlyat uzkestantsev na Maliy Hadzh”, Radio “Ozodlik”, 10 October 2018. https://rus.ozodlik.org/a/29533190.html

[4] Inglehart, Ronald & Welzel, Christian, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005

[5] Sergei Abashin. Sovetskiy Kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modetnizatsiyey. M.:NLO, 2015.

[6] Piotr Sztompka, The Sociology of Social Change. Wiley-Blackwell, 1993


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia». The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor. 

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