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Imams in Uzbekistan Asked to Stay off Social Media

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Imams in Uzbekistan Asked to Stay off Social Media

Uzbek imams and religious bloggers occupy an influential space online in Uzbekistan.

Imams in Uzbekistan Asked to Stay off Social Media

Main hall of the Minor Mosque in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Credit: Catherine Putz

On May 27, imams working at mosques in Uzbekistan were reportedly warned against going on social media platforms and engaging with any content. The assistant chief imam of Tashkent city, Ergash Rustamov, sent an audio message on Telegram to regional chief imams, instructing them to monitor the social media activities of the imams under their purview. “Our next task is not to go on social networks. We will strictly control it. It also applies to those who are/have been on Hajj (pilgrimage). …  Also, we must not ‘like’ any topic  on social networks,” read the message.

Uzbek imams and other religious bloggers occupy a relatively large space on the internet, boasting millions of followers. Between 2017 and 2021, imams in official roles launched 58 websites, 166 Telegram channels, 200 Facebook pages, and 21 YouTube channels carving out a significant digital footprint. These numbers have grown since then. Apart from that, sermons or discussions of religious teachers (ustoz, sheikh, domla, and other locally titled religious figures) are video and audio recorded by their students and followers to be posted on social media platforms. Occasionally, however, their teachings cause debate among the public, and those debates could have been the reason for the warning. 

Most controversial social media incidents involving Uzbek imams are not related to terrorism, extremism, or radicalism, as some might assume; instead, they primarily focus on social, economic, and cultural matters. In May 2023, for example, the chief imam of Toshlaq district in Fergana and imam of a local mosque, Shukurullo Egamberdiev, known as “Shukurullo domla,” was dismissed from his chief imam position. The dismissal reportedly happened after a contentious discussion about labor migrants.

Another imam, Ishoqjon Begmatov, who worked at a mosque in Tashkent, was removed from his position in August 2023. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan conducted a review of Begmatov’s public statements following a controversial remark regarding taxes and the cashback system, in which customers can register receipts and received a rebate of 1 percent of the purchase, which stirred public debate. In a video in which he answered a question about the cashback systems, Begmatov criticized the mandatory nature of cashback regulations for merchants, expressing the view that such requirements were a form of oppression for both businesspeople and consumers. 

Both imams acknowledged their errors and expressed regret, presumably at the request of the Board.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, noted other cases over the  last couple of years where imams’ statements were met with public discontent. 

Sometimes it is due to a failure to communicate religious understanding to a secular public. In 2017, for example, the chief imam of Mirzo Yusuf mosque in Tashkent, Rakhmatullokh Sayfutdinov, criticized male gynecologists, insinuating that male doctors examining the private parts of women is not acceptable in Islam unless there is a dire need. 

“Brothers, today one of the issues that we need to correct is to stop sending our boys to study in obstetrics and gynecology. Let’s stop this shame,” he said in a Friday sermon. This sparked a heated public debate. Later, in an interview with Ozodlik, Sayfutdinov clarified his remarks, explaining his words were misunderstood. “In this statement, I called for girls to be taught gynecology and obstetrics. It was a call to create jobs for women,” the imam reportedly said in a phone call.

This is not the first time the activities of imams have been restricted. In April, Ozodlik reported that imams were asked to submit their travel passports to the Board. Rustamov explained that passports were being collected for registration purposes only. 

“We are returning the passports after registering them. We are entering the passport data into the database and returning them,” he said to Ozodlik. 

However, this explanation raised doubts, because the committee could have more easily asked for passport details or copies. The timing of the request, following the Crocus City Hall attack in Russia, further fueled suspicion that the authorities  wanted to make sure imams could not leave the country at that time. 

Whether or not the warning against social media use was sent to the imams at the request of the Uzbek government remains unknown. If it was, Tashkent is missing a critical point – there is far more value for the country and for the government in imams making public appearances and speaking freely on social media than costs, even with occasional troubles over sensitive statements. Uzbekistan’s religious figures, especially those who hold formal positions at mosques or other institutions, mostly discuss socioeconomic issues on their platforms. Very rarely do they talk about politics and they almost never challenge the leadership. Occasionally they might criticize some regulations, such as when female students were not allowed to wear headscarves at universities or schools, but they seldom venture beyond their scope, and their criticism targets universities or schools rather than government institutions. Many imams, if not all of them, call on the public to pursue peace and issue warnings against terrorism, extremism and radicalism. 

During the 2022 protests in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, popular imams, including the mufti, were among the first to call on people to stay home and speak against unrest. Similarly, they often explain to the youth, many of whom are eager to go to protect Palestine or fight jihad in other countries, why those are not options for Muslims in Uzbekistan. Religious bloggers such as Abror Muhktor Aliy often criticize any suggestion of joining Islamic military groups abroad. 

Imams also constantly call for moderation. Last year, Grand Mufti of Uzbekistan Nuriddin Kholiqnazarov yet again called people to follow Islam moderately, explaining that the Hanafi school followed by a majority of Muslims in Uzbekistan does not require women to cover their faces or hands or wear full black outfits. 

“[B]oth the companions of our Prophet (peace be upon Him) and the ulema of our school in many of their instructions recommended that the beard should be no longer than one kabza (the width of the palm) and should be kept in order,” said the mufti in a speech that was later posted to the Telegram channel of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

Most importantly, imams remain one of the few influential groups that constantly call on people to love the country and to respect the government. There are over 37 million people in Uzbekistan  and approximately 90 percent of them identify as Muslim. While many are cultural Muslims, who observe a secular lifestyle, there are equally as many devout Muslims, who listen to imams and take their words to heart. Imams play an important role in fostering patriotism, especially among the youth in Uzbekistan. Limiting their public appearance to live sermons at mosques only will not serve the country in the long run.