On March 9, journalist Narghiza Saidova was appointed a deputy head of the State Agency of Media and Information. The secular journalist’s government appointment was met on the Uzbek corners of Facebook with an intense bullying campaign.
Numerous hashtags used by apparently fake accounts — many with Russian names — called for her punishment and even a death sentence for her alleged insult of the Prophet Mohammed in her reply comment to a provocative post on polygamy. Further shares and public comments in support of the online protesters demonstrated the popularity of religious (mostly radical) sentiments among virtual users. Saidova was forced to take a leave of absence from work and provided 24-hour security at home. On April 12 Saida Mirziyoyeva, the daughter of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, replaced Saidova in her post.
This case shows the deep fragmentation of Uzbek society at a time of increasing openness. Open discussions pull out voices that were tacit under late President Islam Karimov’s rule, revealing the fragmentation of society between the extreme religious end of the spectrum and secularism. Past repressive policies against religious groups and believers, and the poor quality of secular education, have fostered a return to traditionalism and even radical interpretations of Islam. In addition, the authoritarian rule of Karimov brought about an atmosphere of ubiquitous fear and a reluctance to even analyze, much less criticize, trends in society.
The current government’s policy toward religious groups remains unclear. In September 2018, several religious bloggers were arrested for their posts on social media. Previously, the government had freed a number of religious activists and excluded them from the notorious blacklists. Because the legal system does not clearly define the term “radicalization,” a return to oppression is not inconceivable. A lack of academic and sociological research on popular sentiments and overall public opinion precludes building an informed strategy for tackling the problem of radicalization.
The Saidova case cited above exposes the splits within Uzbek society, which can pose a serious challenge for the government for years to come. How is the government going to address radicalization? The first option that comes to mind is tightening the screws. This is a very familiar strategy from the Karimov regime. It is the easiest to enact and promises quick results; it can also have extremely negative consequences in the long run.
Following this “all-around sticks” strategy, the government would proceed with accusations and arrests, refilling the “blacklists” of dangerous believers. These actions could indulge the secular part of society, which is scared after the emergence of traditionalist and Islamic rhetoric in social media. Moreover, producing a discourse akin to Karimov’s narratives on fighting against radical Islam could help to legitimize the power of the present leader.
The side-effects of this kind of policy, however, pose even greater risks. Uzbekistan is still on the long road to earning approval of international human rights organizations, and attracting tourists and investments, which are listed as key parts of the government’s reform plans. A repressive policy direction risks putting the government’s reform plans in reverse.
According to unofficial sources, a few arrests took place after the incident with Narghiza Saidova, but these have not been officially confirmed. Government officials have not commented publicly. They reverted to old processes: staying tacit on boiling issues, leaving vagueness on the ground.
Komildjon Allamjonov, Mirziyoyev’s former press secretary and currently the head of the State Agency of Media and Information, said nothing. For someone who is claimed to be one of the best PR-technologists in Uzbekistan, silence at a time like this is unusual. The cyberattacks against his deputy, Saidova, were aimed at discrediting him, say unofficial sources. These suggestions were spurred by the fact that the Facebook and Twitter accounts that stirred up the online mob had Russian names, which is hardly consistent with the segment of the Uzbek population that would have traditionalist Islamic views. Twitter has never been popular in Uzbekistan, so its use in this case is also conspicuous. It seems the planners behind the attacks did not properly research the social media ground in the country.
The silence of officials on the issue again points to the risk of sliding down into “all-around sticks” strategy. There have been no discussions on improving the legislation on radicalization or cyberbullying. The prominent journalist Nikita Makarenko published an article advocating for amendments into the law on insult and libel, introducing an additional paragraph referring to the internet. Yet fears arise that the law may potentially be used to shut down ordinary citizens. People refer to a March 2019 case in which a man was sentenced to 15 months of imprisonment for libel against the mayor of Khankin district in Khorezm region — he’d accused the mayor of taking bribes. The law has never worked the other way around: No official has ever been prosecuted or convicted for insult or libel against ordinary citizens.
Given that some Uzbeks are disappointed by the government’s reforms to date, or continue to be skeptical about its grand promises, it’s clear that we need new thinking – based on analysis and objective surveys into Uzbek society and its problems.
For example, some experts say that the issue of radicalization is exaggerated in Uzbekistan. It is hard to draw a clear line between those who favor attention to traditional Islamic values and those who demand change in the existing state order. Uzbek Islamic traditionalists are hardly keen on giving up their secular freedoms for the sake of a caliphate in Uzbekistan. They are likely more eager to introduce some Islamic values into everyday life, especially retreating to more conservative social roles for women, in particular.
The Uzbek state should keep its eye on the ball and respond to these traditionalists in a more sophisticated way. The old-style policy of shutting down all freedoms in response to either dissent or challenge can contribute even more to the radicalization of certain groups, which feel estranged and socially unconnected. Efforts to tame religiosity and traditionalism with repression will not work, and will cost the government popular support even among those with strong secular sentiments.
The government should demonstrate its devotion to its proclaimed policy of openness and transparency in order to attract international investments and tourism. NGOs and academic institutions can help to collect objective data on public sentiments and the level of popular sympathies to religious groups. This research will not require additional funding from the state, but could provide it with key information for wise policy.
Raising trust in civil society institutions is a long-run approach. That’s why steps need to be taken immediately. More space for analytical reporting and journalism will improve the country’s nascent political culture. More room for secular discussion, and a stronger secular education system, will balance the voices of religious groups in public discourse. The development of civil society institutions, along with increasing trust in them, will reduce radicalism by legal means.
Returning to the recent case of Narghiza Saidova, it is important that the answer to cyberbullying not be the usual tightening of the screws against the overall population. Such a step will strengthen radical groups in their rhetoric and make them attractive for new recruits. It will also lead to criticism of the government of Uzbekistan by international organizations and Western countries. The reformist discourse of Uzbekistan today will be jeopardized both by raising radical Islamic outbursts as well as a return to unlawful arrests and unsanctioned “blacklists.”
Uzbekistan has already committed itself to democratic ideals and is aiming at upgrading its reputation in the international community. It is a top priority for Tashkent to show its adversaries that it is going to beat them within the confines of the law, not with arbitrary repression.
Any abuse of the law, be it cyberbullying or unlawful actions by the authorities, risks long-term harmful effects for Uzbekistan. We should not choose a return to repression, but invest instead in better legal protection for all Uzbek citizens and greater understanding of public sentiment. Public sentiments ought to be expressed in open and civilized discussions, rather than through bullying tactics. We can protect both the state and its citizens exclusively by lawful means, where the universal rights of people have an undisputed supremacy.
Nozima Davletova is a fellow at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program. Her research interests include Central Asian politics and women’s development issues in Uzbekistan.