In the first week of September, reports surfaced that Uzbek authorities had detained a handful of conservative religious bloggers, many of whom had been proponents of a greater role for Islam in Uzbek society and critical of some of the state’s religious policies.
Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow told The Diplomat the arrests have “added to the sense of fear and unpredictability among online communities, journalists, and human rights activists.”
In June, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed applauded Uzbekistan’s parliament for adopting a roadmap to implement a dozen of the rapporteur’s recommendations made following his October 2017 visit to the country. The roadmap, Shaheed said, “demonstrates the political commitment to improve the situation in the country and to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all.”
Unfortunately, roadmaps rarely denote potholes along the route.
In the past week, human rights advocates say, the Uzbek interior ministry in coordination with the State Security Service (SGB, previously known as the National Security Service, or SNB), has detained as many as eight bloggers.
Eurasianet identified four as detained between August 28 and September 1: Adham Olimov (“Musannif Adham”), Ziyavuddin Rahmon, Otabek Usmanov and Miraziz Ahmedov. Swerdlow provided four other names to The Diplomat of bloggers believed to have been detained, including Hurshidbek Muhammad Rozikov, Dilshodbek Halilov, Tulkin Astanov and Sulaymon Erkin.
Human rights advocates say that some of the arrests occurred at late hours, with individuals taken by security personnel in plain clothes and without identification, their dwellings searched and computers seized without warrants.
“Several bloggers have been detained on charges of ‘resisting arrest’ and detained for 15 days on administrative charges,” Swerdlow said. “The hearings have occurred in some cases without access to attorneys and without providing the bloggers an opportunity to even contact their loved ones and report their whereabouts,” leading to a lack of clarity about who has been detained by the authorities.
Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, was fiercely secular. After a series of bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999 — attributed to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) by the government — thousands of religious Muslims and critics of the regime were arrested. Another crackdown on regime opponents and those accused of membership in extremist groups followed the 2005 Andijan massacre.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has characterized Uzbek state religious policies as severely restrictive and premised on the threat posed by Islamic extremism. “In 2017,” the commission noted in its 2018 report, “hope was widespread in Uzbekistan that the stated reformist course of newly elected President Shavkat Mirziyoyev would lead to a relaxation in the repression of religious freedom.”
Mirakmal Niyazmatov, attorney and co-founder of Tashabbus, an NGO dedicated to promoting the rule of law in Uzbekistan, suggested to The Diplomat that this hope had prompted increasingly vibrant discussion of religious matters in the public sphere.
“Uzbekistan’s online community is vibrant, and should stay that way,” Swerdlow said, “but this strikes right at the heart of free speech, creating a serious chilling effect.”
Niyazmatov said that the recent arrests came after a government decree regarding school uniforms, which effectively banned the wearing of hijabs. In Uzbekistan, a Muslim majority country, the decree caused “outrage,” he said.
Central Asia’s governments have long struggled to balance the principles of religious freedom and secular governance. During the Soviet period, Islam was brought effectively under state control and religiosity pushed firmly into the private sphere. With independence, as Central Asia’s new states sought to define themselves, its peoples sought to embrace their cultures, including Islam. Yet despite being Muslim majority states, fears of extremism have led to paradoxical policies in Central Asia. For example, Kazakhstan banned hijabs in schools in 2016, a decision that continues to spark protests. Tajikistan in 2017 ordered women to tie their headscarves the “Tajik” way, warning against “nontraditional” clothing as a signal of radicalization. In 2015 Uzbek authorities reportedly pursued a campaign to de-veil women, rounding up hijab-wearing women and forcing them to remove their headscarves.
As noted above, Uzbekistan’s new leadership appeared to be backing off from its predecessor’s harsher policies. The recent decree regarding school school uniforms, however, dashed hopes among the country’s more conservative faithful.
Conservative religious commentators took to Facebook and other platforms, where some, Niyazmatov said, “started blogging heavily and were talking about demonstrating to let the government know the people are not happy about this new regulation.” This, Niyazmatov argued, “was the primary trigger for the government to go after them because they were mobilizing lots of people.”
While Niyazmatov categorized some of the arrested bloggers as being conservative and focused on religion, he described a wide variety, from those upset by a popular Turkish soap opera — calling its fans “bad Muslims” and demanding the government ban the show (it did) — to more constructive voices seeking to navigate the balance of secularism and religiosity in Uzbekistan through open discussion.
“[The] one thing that most [of the bloggers] had in common was that they asserted the importance of a greater role for Islam in Uzbekistan’s society and public life,” Swerdlow, of Human Rights Watch, said. “The topics and conversations these bloggers initiated and led are thorny, often controversial, and reveal some of the difficult questions of identity Uzbekistan’s society is trying to negotiate.”
“There’s considerable anxiety among many sectors of the population about the views being advanced by some of the conservative bloggers, especially with regard to women’s rights, but the way to deal with them is to allow for open, vigorous debate. Silencing controversial views will only push them underground,” Swerdlow argued.
Niyazmatov worries that the government’s silencing of the bloggers could backfire. “Going after the constructive voices, I think, would give more voice to the extreme side. Extreme groups could be saying ‘see, there is no place for normal practice of religion in Uzbekistan,’ so the only way to gain their ‘rights’ as Muslims is using force and getting rid of the secular government.”
While some of the bloggers have been sentenced to at least 15 days administrative detention, it’s unclear whether there will be additional charges. This episode may stand as a slap-on-the-wrist warning denoting the boundaries of Tashkent’s tolerance.
Niyazmatov noted that the Uzbek government has “made significant progress in strengthening the rule of law,” but that “if it is serious about consolidating the reforms, it must not tolerate arbitrary arrests of those who are exercising their basic freedom of expression rights.”