In response to a surprise attack by Hamas on October 7, Israel launched a new siege on the Gaza Strip. Bombings by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have killed over 9,000 Palestinians, many of whom are women and children. Uzbekistan’s many Muslims wonder – what should be done to help Muslims in Palestine? They are looking to country’s leading imams for answers.
Uzbekistan is a Muslim majority country – around 90 percent of its 35 million population follow Islam. For many, praying for their Muslim brothers in Gaza does not seem enough. On October 29, around 100 people gathered in Amir Timur Square in Tashkent to hold a peaceful pro-Palestine demonstration. Preceding the event, social media channels were abuzz with promotional messages such as “Shoulder to shoulder with Palestine” and “15 days don’t scare me,” alluding to the potential 15-day detention for engaging in an unsanctioned rally, as well as the resounding call, “If there are many of us, they will hear us.”
Local media reported that after the demonstration, more than 100 people were taken to police departments for chats with law enforcement agents. A majority of those were released the same day, while some faced administrative charges. At least three were reportedly jailed for 15 days.
Following the attempted rally, on October 31, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced “strong solidarity with the people of Palestine and support [for] their right to establish their independent state” and allocated $1.5 million in aid. It was the first time Mirziyoyev had addressed the escalation of conflict in the Middle East since the October 7 attack. At the same time, the president called on the youth to not indulge in false propaganda or get involved in illegal activities.
Enter the imams.
All the notable Islamic figures in Uzbekistan hold strong solidarity with the people of Gaza, but their statements vary. Grand Mufti of Uzbekistan Sheikh Nuriddin Khaliknazar, after maintaining a reserved silence for weeks, simply shared Mirziyoyev’s announced support for Palestine’s right to form an independent state on the official website of the Muslim’s Board of Uzbekistan and the Board’s social media pages on October 31.
Another famous religious figure in Uzbekistan, Hasankhon Yakhyo Abdulmajid, a deputy imam of the Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf mosque, seized the moment to impart a lesson for Muslims and encourage his followers to pursue knowledge. Against the backdrop of Israel’s severance of internet access for Gaza residents and the subsequent pleas to Elon Musk for aid via Starlink, Abdulmajid voiced his apprehension. “Nearly 60 countries that are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with 2 billion Muslims, have not developed a single spatial network or programs for themselves. Today, begging others … This situation is contrary to the teachings of Islam,” he underscored.
As people across the world called to boycott companies with ties to Israel – McDonalds and Starbucks most prominently – local bloggers in Uzbekistan also started doing the same on their social media pages. Imams too have voiced their opinion.
On November 1, Mubashshir Ahmad, another popular Muslim scholar, took to Telegram to shed light on the issue of boycotting companies that lend support to Israel. He noted that while trading with non-believers is permissible during peaceful times, boycotting their products during periods of conflict is equally allowed.
“If we intend to boycott goods and services of non-believers who are at war with us – in order to show [whose] side [we are on] and in order to weaken their economy, we will be rewarded for our good intention, God willing,” he wrote. Quickly referring to the fatwa against trading weapons and resources utilized for weaponry, including iron, uranium, and oil, Ahmad also seemed to subtly criticize Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan for selling oil to Israeli forces.
The most vocal on the escalation in Palestine has been Dr. Abror Mukhtor Aliy, a controversial religious blogger and deputy head of the Teaching Qur’an Tajweed department at the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. He is present on nearly all social media platforms and engages with his followers almost on a daily basis. His religious-politico-historical talks cover a wide range of topics related to the conflict. He has been speaking on the topic for years and asking youth not to attempt to go to Palestine for jihad, holy war. Since October 7, on his YouTube channel where he has over 600,000 followers, Aliy has posted at least 16 video discussions related to Palestine and Israel – most with hundreds of thousands of views.
In the discourse surrounding the boycott, Aliy underscored the importance of seeking alternatives for products subject to boycott. “For example, I left Pepsi, I don’t drink Cola already, I won’t drink Starbucks anymore,” he said on his YouTube. “I agree with the embargo in a political sense. But friends, we need to develop quality [replacements] of these products.”
In an almost three-hour discussion on YouTube, posted two weeks ago, Aliy made a special effort to prevent the growth of nationalism and antisemitism among Muslims in Uzbekistan, explaining the difference between Zionists and orthodox Jews. “In the hadiths [narration of the sayings, doings or approvals of the prophet Muhammad], our Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said, ‘The Jews among my ummah,’” Aliy said. He referred to several sahabas (companions) of the Prophet Muhammad, including one of his wives, Sofia, all of whom were converted Jews. Cursing the Jewish people as a whole would mean cursing those companions, explained the imam. The video has 600,000 views already.
On October 31, the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a Qatar-based theological organization, issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, calling Arab and Islamic nations to intervene militarily.
“[J]ihad and sustenance of Palestine are a religious obligation,” especially to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – the countries that surround Palestine, said the fatwa. To note, the IUMS was founded by Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi in 2004. A number of Arab nations have considered the IUMS a terrorist organization since 2018. Despite that, the fatwa circulated widely on social media, with many wondering if jihad is now obligatory for all Muslims.
Addressing Al-Qarawadi’s fatwa, Aliy took to social media to warn Uzbek Muslims against “intrigues” and “provocations.” Citing Imam Nawawi, a jurist and hadith scholar from the 13th century, Aliy noted that “when there is an attack on a [Muslim] country, it is obligatory for the Muslims within the travel distance to help that country.” According to Aliy, Muslims in Uzbekistan should only follow fatwas issued by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.
Solidarity with and concerns about Palestine are not a new development among Uzbeks. As the conflict continues, inquiries about what Uzbek Muslims should do remain topical, especially among the young generation, and given the importance of Uzbekistan’s imams in the country they are leading the discussion.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is a significant Uzbek presence in Israel, with over 10,500 Uzbeks residing there. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan, most of them are from Samarkand and 95 percent of them are employed in elderly care. They do not want to return to Uzbekistan as they enjoy well-paying jobs in Israel. Seventy students and family members of Uzbekistan’s diplomatic mission to Israel, however, have been brought to Uzbekistan following the October 7 attack. The ministry acknowledges that they lack specific information regarding the presence of Uzbeks in Palestine, but “there may be some of our women [who] married there.”