After years of state oppression, many Uzbeks are finding stricter interpretations of Islam on the internet. Some experts say it could have radical consequences.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan—In March, around 100 people gathered in Uzbekistan’s capital in a violent rally against LGBTQ rights. Members of the mob marched toward the city’s main square in search of LGBTQ community members, chanting “Allahu akbar” and brutally beating at least two teenagers who passed by. The violence followed an online debate between conservative religious commentators and LGBTQ activists over calls to change Uzbekistan’s penal code, which criminalizes same-sex relationships. The same day, masked men attacked Miraziz Bazarov, a provocative blogger who supports LGBTQ rights, outside of his home.
Although police are investigating the assault, the government has blamed Bazarov—who often mocks religion—for instigating the unrest. The blogger faces charges of hooliganism for allegedly organizing the riots, and public figures issued statements in the wake of the violence denigrating the LGBTQ community. “In our country, where the majority of people are Muslims, the society does not tolerate unnatural men and women (LGBT)! Our holy religion, Islam, does not allow it,” Komil Allamjonov, a former government official seen as Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s unofficial spokesperson, tweeted days after the rally.
The violence and the government response reflect swift changes to Uzbekistan’s religious landscape. Since Mirziyoyev took power in 2016, the country has experienced a political thaw. New voices have emerged on once-blocked online platforms. After years of oppression under the previous regime, pious Muslims can now discuss their religion in the public realm, and religiosity appears to be rising. The opening also provides space for commentators to spread stricter interpretations of the faith. Some have called for obligatory hijabs, the introduction of sharia law, and bans on secular holidays, such as Navruz, which celebrates the beginning of spring.
Mirziyoyev’s government now faces a challenge to strike a balance between openness and control of religious expression. The state still monitors activity it deems radical. But wary of alienating the increasingly religious masses, officials have begun to embrace stronger language that is pro-tradition, pushing back against Western liberal values. Last month’s events have raised concerns among human rights groups. Experts say the current environment could portend further violence and persecution of minority groups if they are not condemned by the state, jeopardizing nascent relations between Uzbekistan and the international community.
The government’s recent language marks a sharp turn from Uzbekistan’s previous regime. Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in power for nearly 30 years, launched a war against religious movements deviating from the official state interpretation of Islam. Security services surveilled pious Muslims, sometimes jailing men for merely having a beard. Karimov banned mosques from broadcasting the call to prayer and women from wearing hijabs. A blacklist of suspected religious extremists grew to contain thousands of names.
“By the late 1990s, the Karimov government started rounding up thousands of peaceful religious believers, often for things as miniscule as wearing a beard or attending a mosque in a tradition that was not within the state’s rigid controls,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer focused on Central Asia and an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Coinciding with the beginning of the U.S. war on terror, Karimov initially presented his own fight against certain brands of Islam—including infamous cases of torture—as part of a global effort, serving as an important regional partner for the United States.
Mirziyoyev, elected after Karimov’s death in 2016, broke with the legacy of his predecessor, embarking on political reforms intended to open Uzbekistan to foreign investment. He released a number of high-profile religious prisoners and rehabilitated Muslim clergy members once condemned as extremists. In 2017, the government removed 16,000 names from the notorious blacklist. Last December, the U.S. State Department took Uzbekistan off of its watchlist of countries of particular concern for violations of religious freedom.
But after years of oppression under Karimov, many pious Muslims distrust the official version of Islam, which puts mosques under state control and limits the interpretation of religious texts. Moreover, Mirziyoyev’s government still exerts pressure on believers. Unsanctioned religious activity remains a criminal offense, and unofficial religious groups still face pressure from security services that have retained power to monitor and detain those the state deems as radical. “The spiritual directorate of Muslims operates a virtual monopoly on mullahs and imams and the sermons they give, and it’s clear that the security services still play a role in controlling the religious establishment,” Swerdlow said.
Without rigorous social research, reliable estimates of religiosity in Uzbekistan are hard to come by. But new mosques are being built across the country, and the revival is particularly apparent in Tashkent. Several years ago, hijabs were rare in the capital, but now, many women cover their hair. Traditional Islamic clothing fills the bazaars—it’s what sells.
Those who left Uzbekistan during Karimov’s rule express surprise at how quickly it has both opened up and reembraced unofficial forms of Islam. Feruza Izzat, a Muslim feminist activist, immigrated to Turkey in 2011 after being unable to stand the pressure the state exerted on religious Muslims. She had refused to remove her hijab as a university student. “I was threatened that I would be removed from university and even when I was in class, the teachers would write that I was absent,” Izzat said. “Nowadays, people are getting more religious but, unfortunately, also more radical.”
Official religious institutions particularly offer little to the younger generation, who seek freedom to practice Islam outside of the rigid rules of worship and have called for reform. But with growing internet freedom, young people can easily access sermons by imams who the government views as radical in Uzbek, Russian, and English. They also see public figures who have embraced stricter forms of Islam. Popular singer Jahongir Otajonov abruptly ended his career in December 2020, saying public performances violate sharia law. “I realized that the Almighty wants me to say goodbye to my profession because some of its provisions are unacceptable in sharia,” he said.
“It’s a little hard for [older generations] to accept, but the young generation reads the Quran and hadith and becomes more religious,” said Akbar, a 19-year-old student who requested anonymity for his safety. “We can watch Islamic videos on YouTube, and the number of religious bloggers is growing too because the number of Muslims is growing.”
Uzbekistan’s religious revival and the blossoming of unofficial interpretations of Islam was perhaps inevitable after so many years of repression. But in the absence of credible religious leadership, the growing number of people finding Islam through the internet could lead to radicalization, according to Victor Mikhailov, the head of the Tashkent-based Center for Studying Regional Threats. “Freedom of interpretation often gives fuel to political Islam, and when people start making arguments that there is no alternative to Islam, it means that it should replace the secular state,” he said.
Already, the proliferation of radical Muslim commentators online has led to violent language, including death threats, against Uzbeks’ fellow citizens. Religious commentators who promote strict interpretations of Islam have targeted liberal journalists and bloggers with messages of hate, threats of violence, and accusations of Western plots to destabilize Uzbekistan.
Sanjar, who also requested anonymity for his safety, saw the daring jokes he made about Islam in a private group for Uzbekistani atheists go viral last October. Screenshots appeared in various Muslim groups on Facebook and Telegram, followed by his phone number and home address. “People have been calling me on social networks, writing that they would kill me,” Sanjar told Foreign Policy. “Police officers in plain clothes have been guarding my home.”
Mikhailov points out in some cases, such online activity portends more serious violence. “Radicalization of the youth may not be a big deal, and it is not very dangerous. But there is the next stage—recruitment to terrorist organizations,” he said. That is not yet a domestic threat: Most of Uzbekistan’s citizens who have joined jihadist organizations were recruited abroad, particularly in Moscow, according to Mikhailov. The discrimination and alienation that migrant workers face, paired with deep religiosity, provide fertile ground for recruiters.
These conditions do not currently exist in Uzbekistan, where young people are often strongly connected to their communities. But last month’s violence and some of the threats Sanjar has received show violence inside the country is not unthinkable. In the years ahead, the government faces a difficult task—and it can no longer ignore the growing movement of believers now calling for interpretations of Islamist teachings beyond its control.
By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a freelance journalist in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, focused on human rights and conflict in the post-Soviet space.