The Eye of the Uzbek Storm

Uzbeks gather around wreckage left by a government crackdown in Andijon this month.
Uzbeks gather around wreckage left by a government crackdown in Andijon this month. (By Efrem Lukatsky -- Associated Press)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 29, 2005

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan -- It was after midnight when Yudgoroi Yuldasheva's husband shook her awake.

"Sweetie! I've finished the manuscript," she recalled Akram Yuldashev whispering that spring night in 1991. "I think if people read this, the world will become a better place!"

His eyes were moist with emotion, Yuldasheva recalled, a sight that filled her with a mix of admiration and pity for this thin, balding man she had loved since grade school.

So Yuldasheva sat up in bed and read through all 44 handwritten pages of the text Yuldashev had taken nearly two years to complete. Titled "The Path to Faith," the manuscript was, in her view, essentially a religious self-help pamphlet exhorting readers to place spiritual values ahead of material desires, in accordance with the Koran.

The government of Uzbekistan sees it differently. Two weeks ago, Uzbek troops killed hundreds of demonstrators and an unknown number of armed rebels in the country's Fergana Valley region to suppress an anti-government revolt. Officials in the capital, Tashkent, lay ultimate blame for the uprising on Yuldashev, now 41 and serving a 17-year sentence in a Tashkent prison, and his tract. They contend that the rebellion was launched by gun-toting followers bent on establishing an Islamic state based on his teachings.

But Yuldashev's wife and many of his relatives and admirers, interviewed in the tent camp in Kyrgyzstan where they took refuge after escaping the crackdown, say he is anything but political. According to them, he is a self-taught spiritual leader, a humble man who found God. His teachings, they say, inspired local businessmen to try to create a peaceful economic utopia, a cluster of companies operating on Islamic principles, offering religious instruction to employees and funding charities.

Many Western scholars who specialize in the region echo that characterization. "Maybe he's pulling the wool over my eyes, but Yuldashev seems so introspective and innocuous," said Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School who has monitored trials of Uzbeks accused of Islamic militancy. "There's nothing that involves a challenge to government."

Rather, these analysts suggest, the fierce response to Yuldashev stems from the government's deep fear of any religious group that operates without official sanction in the Central Asian republic, which was born from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been ruled since then by a former communist functionary, Islam Karimov.

"The government perceives any grass-roots movement with hostility, whether it's Islamic or not," said Alisher Ilkhamov, an Uzbek sociologist and resident fellow at the University of London. Labeling groups as terrorist resonates in a region where several bona fide armed groups emerged in the 1990s, Ilkhamov and other experts say.

Yuldashev's experience "is not a story about an Islamic militant threat," said Barnett R. Rubin, a Central Asia expert at New York University. "It is a story about a corrupt, authoritarian government raising the specter of Islamic militancy to get the support of the United States." Uzbekistan hosts a major U.S. airbase, which was used in the war in Afghanistan, and is to receive $21 million in U.S. military aid this year.

By repressing moderate Islamic movements, Rubin and others say, Karimov may actually push them toward militancy.

With the country sealed off, there has been no independent account of who organized the rebellion in the eastern city of Andijon on May 13, in which armed men freed hundreds of people from a prison, including 23 local businessmen charged with being followers of Yuldashev.

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