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Uzbek Islamic Groups Unfairly Labeled By Government, Scholar Says

(Washington, DC--July 15, 2003) The policies pursued by the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to restrict religious practice cause young people in the country "to look for underground ways" to gain religious information. These restrictive policies help to explain the rise of Islamic groups in the country. Azizulla Ghazi, an expert on the region, says these groups, which often have peaceful intentions, are quickly and unfairly accused by the Uzbek government of having ties to terrorism, in order to restrict and control their activities.

Ghazi expressed concern that some Islamic groups, which are actually "more political groups than religious", are characterized as terrorists by Karimov's regime. Ghazi pointed out a lack of proof for the government's terror accusations, saying it is "very easy to accuse [these groups] as an international terrorist" because the Uzbek Islamic groups do have anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-American views. The majority of these groups simply promote political and socio-economic change, but Ghazi says there is "government inability to deal with some violent elements." The Uzbek government, according to Ghazi, is too quick to "put all of them into one basket and call them terrorists."

Ghazi, a senior analyst based at the International Crisis Group's office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, presented an ICG report describing relations between Islam and the state in Central Asia at a recent RFE/RL briefing. Ghazi discussed Uzbekistan as a case study from the report, because of its position within the region -- with the largest population and military and political power.

Ghazi said the Uzbek government's religious policies developed during the 1990's, when groups with both religious and political interests tried to overthrow the secular regime. This began a government crackdown on Islamists that continues today. Ghazi said many officials in the Uzbek government still view religion as "backward"; a leftover bias of the Soviet era. Ghazi said the religious strictness of the Karimov government exists mainly because they are "afraid of the popularity of religion and religious leaders."

Ghazi suggests that the majority, moderate Muslim population in Central Asia might be the key to reform within government, so that all Islamic groups are not without cause characterized as terrorists. He said an American strategy of "positive engagement" with the Uzbek government could encourage reforms. Ghazi said that by doing so, a reformed Uzbekistan "greatly will influence the future development of all neighboring countries."