The day after a human rights activist was assaulted by three masked men near his apartment in Tashkent, leaving him with a fractured leg and a concussion, among other injuries, the Uzbek Interior Ministry put out a video statement blaming the victim of the attack. Then Komil Allamjonov, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Public Foundation for Support and Development of the National Mass Media, tweeted a video with English subtitles making a similar argument.
The attack against Miraziz Bazarov, a well-known activist and blogger with a distinct and provocative style, occurred against the backdrop of discussions about Uzbekistan’s continued criminalization of sexual relations between men.
In the Interior Ministry’s telling, Bazarov provoked the attack on himself by calling on “individuals with nontraditional sexual orientation” to hold mass demonstrations near the Hazrati Imam mosque and Amir Timur avenue in downtown Tashkent.
RFE/RL’s summary of the statement noted:
The ministry said in its video that Bazarov “had deliberately ignored” social-behavior rules by distributing videos with contents “not typical for the Uzbek nation,” and “demonstrating his perverted behavior to the society.”
“[Bazarov], acting with the assistance and support of destructive external forces and ill-intentioned international nongovernmental organizations, attempted to propagate homosexualism and similar evils, despite the fact that it is banned by Uzbek law, and created the atmosphere of protest and intolerance,” the ministry’s statement said.
Allamjonov, formerly the acting director of Uzbekistan’s Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMK), made similar comments in his video, stating that society in Muslim-majority Uzbekistan “does not tolerate unnatural men and women (LGBT)! Our holy religion, Islam, does not allow it.” He then commented: “For example, Bazarov, what was the consequence of speaking without thinking?!”
Bazarov is well-known for issuing harsh criticisms of the Uzbek government on social media, particularly via Telegram. He had recently urged the government, among other things, to decriminalize same-sex relations. Per RFE/RL’s reporting, while he does not consider himself an LGBT activist, he “believes that being gay is a personal issue and that laws should not be created to regulate it.”
Before the attack that left Bazarov hospitalized and in serious condition, a weekly event that he organizes for Japanese anime and K-pop fans was disrupted by a crowd of men shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Videos of the march show Uzbek police calmly walking through the crowd which, in nearly any other context in Uzbekistan, would have warranted a harsh response.
In the Interior Ministry’s telling, the crowd of men was a “group of our citizens who considered [Bazarov’s] calls as an insult… [and] created a situation compromising public safety by staging mass disorders.” The ministry said individuals “responsible for the disorder” had been arrested.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Uzbek government is comfortable pegging blame for all the chaos, and the assault, on Bazarov.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the only countries in Central Asia that continue to have laws on the books banning sexual relations between men. It’s worth pointing out that neither criminalizes sexual relations between women.
One aspect to highlight is that the rationale used by the Uzbek Interior Ministry in its statement is old hat. Recall, the statement accused Bazarov of “acting with the assistance and support of destructive external forces and ill-intentioned international nongovernmental organizations, attempted to propagate homosexualism and similar evils…”
This taps into well-trod territory of blaming external actors for what are domestic problems, as well as equally familiar arguments that same-sex relationships are a Western invention and nefarious export. That Western governments have advocated for tolerance toward LGBT people, urged the Ubzek government to change its laws, and reacted strongly to Bazarov’s attack further feeds this sentiment, but does not prove it to be valid.
This line of argument assumes that absent these “destructive external forces” there would be no LGBT Uzbeks. But there are, indeed, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Uzbeks. Furthermore, if same-sex relationships were simply a Western plot, why then have Western societies themselves struggled to tolerate and accept LGBT people?
In the United States, it was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional. (“Sodomy laws” being a catchall term for laws criminalizing certain sexual acts, often left undefined but understood to be “immoral” — almost always referring to anal and oral sex, among other things). Before 2003, same-sex sexual relations were illegal in 14 states, Puerto Rico, and in the U.S. military. Over the past decades there have been shocking attacks on LGBT people in the United States and a firm objection to not just same-sex marriage but tolerance of LGBT people simply existing in society.
Over time, attitudes shift and cultures evolve. But Allamjonov approaches this truism with twisted logic, calling on media to “stop covering the topic of LGBT relentlessly.”
Discussing these issues will kill people’s sensitivity. We will begin to take this very unpleasant topic as a regular one, as it goes. In fact, such statements should be perceived to such an extent that one trembles when hears them.
In essence: Do not discuss these matters because discussing them normalizes them and people’s attitudes might be changed.
Additionally, Allamjonov makes the argument that if anti-LGBT laws were relaxed, “and such categories start to show themselves on the streets, the number of lynching[s] may increase.” He goes on to say, “Even if no formal punishment is imposed [on LGBT people], the Muslim community will not leave them alone anyway.”
The struggle between conservative social norms and progressive values is something that has occurred around the world, across religions, and throughout time. Uzbekistan is no different in this regard.
There’s a central paradox to Allamjonov’s argument: While he says “Of course, human rights are an important issue and every citizen, regardless of their behavior, is under the protection of the state” everything that follows undercuts that sentiment.
Uzbekistan is a secular state, one with a long history of cracking down on iterations of Islam its leaders have perceived as radical, or Islamists who seemed to challenge the state’s grasp on authority. Yet Allamjonov and others reach to Islam for justification to denigrate the LGBT community and excuse attacks against it (and its supporters).
Allamjonov also reaches to democracy, stating that “the word ‘democracy’ means the rule of the people. Since the majority of the people are against something, it is necessary to take into account their wishes, and this is democracy!” Yet who has asked the Uzbek people their wishes? And which Uzbek people? If the confirmed public stance of the government and its officials is that beating up LGBT supporters is somehow justified, why would any Uzbek — gay or not — utter a word in defense of the LGBT community? There’s no safe path toward a civilized conversation when a topic is de facto off limits. Rather than cooling the debate, urging calm and respect for the rule of law above all else, the Uzbek government’s response to Bazarov’s beating is poised to only stoke the flames of contention.