As protests unfolded in Karakalpakstan in early July, popular religious figures and representatives of religious institutions rushed to remind the people of Uzbekistan that peace is the greatest blessing.
Islam has a deep influence on locals in Uzbekistan and its role in society has only been growing. The State Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent estimates that 94 percent of the people in the country are Muslims. The U.S. government places its own estimate slight lower, with Muslims making up approximately 88 percent of the population. As of 2020, 2,097 of 2,281 religious entities officially registered across the country are Islamic entities (mostly mosques), including 15 centers and 13 education institutions. To compare, there are just 38 registered entities of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Karakalpaks went to the streets on July 1-2 to protest proposed constitutional changes that would erase the region’s autonomous status. Immediately thereafter, popular religious figures and representatives of Islamic institutions of the country started making public addresses regarding the situation. In most cases, they prioritized peace and unity over possible losses. On July 2, Shamsuddin Bahauddinov, qozi (judge) of the Muslims Judiciary of Karakalpakstan, in a video message called people to appreciate peacetime, for “peace is a great, priceless blessing.” On July 3, Mufti Nuriddin Kholiqnazarov, chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, who was in Mecca at that time, shot a video address for the people of Uzbekistan, reiterating that “peace and prosperity of the country is the most important matter.”
Notably, they did not cast blame on any side for the unrest.
These public comments are important as they underscore the growing prominence of Muslim leaders in Uzbekistan. In everyday life, excluding politics and security matters, adherence to the canons of Islam has become important for locals during the past couple of decades. The public turns to Muslim scholars seeking guidance for various matters. Given the respect religious leaders enjoy among the locals and their growing audience, it is also possible that Bahouuddinov and Kholiqnazarov were actually asked to make public statements on the unrest.
In Uzbekistan, Muslim religious scholars and imams do not usually discuss political matters or offer their analysis of political situations, be it global or local. They mostly teach on socioeconomic matters, such as Islamic lifestyle, behavior, economic activities (trade, loans, business), marriage and divorce, food, etc. Yet, amid the Karakalpakstan unrest, some other popular Muslim preachers went a little further than vague calls for peace.
Abror Mukhtor Aliy, a famous blogger, the deputy head of “Teaching Qur’an Tajweed” department at the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, and an honorary doctor of the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, reminded his audience that there are “jackal politicians” eyeing Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. He blamed conspiracies and incitement for the unrest, constantly referring to an unnamed “alcoholic, dishonorable” person who provokes others. “Conspiracy is like a sleeping snake. Whoever wakes it up, will be cursed by Allah,” he concluded in a video that has been watched by over a quarter million people so far on YouTube alone.
In his next address on July 3, Aliv called for everyone to stay at home, urged parents to prevent the youth from joining the protesters, and urged young men to go back home for the sake of Allah. Specifically accusing “globalists, gays” and bloggers inside the country, Aliy maintained that “all those who are trying to ‘liberate’ the people of Karakalpak are traitors. Because the Karakalpak people are not slaves.” Although Aliy specifically mentioned journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka, el-tuz (a local satiric online journal), Ko’zgu.uz (a local online mass media outlet) and couple of others, accusing them of on-and-off provocations on different matters, he did not name anyone in particular whom he deemed responsible for the unrest in Karakalpakstan.
Another famous Muslim scholar, Mubashshir Ahmad, in a written address on July 3, asked locals in Karakalpakstan to be “calm,” “cautious,” and not to fall under the influence of “external forces.” He also noted that given the ongoing environmental crisis in the Aral Sea basin and socioeconomic problems, “demand for independence might lead to a lot of losses.”
The latest relevant piece on the significance of peace was published at the official website of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, on July 19. In this short article, the imam of the Sayfiddin Boharzi mosque in Bukhara, Ravshan Kamolov, quoted a couple of hadith on how Muslim people must not fight each other. Remembering the unrest in neighboring Kazakhstan (not the Karakalpakstan unrest), Kamolov noted that the riots caused a lot of grievance “in that country” and “as a result, many innocent people died, children were left without fathers, women were left without husbands.”
It is worth noting that while some prominent religious figures have pointed the finger at all sorts of “others” – both among the fellow citizens and outsiders alike – for the unrest, there isn’t clear evidence to date of external influence on the Karakalpakstan protests.