The ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan is the largest and wealthiest of the core states of Central Asia, and it is home to 23 million citizens, 88% of whom are Muslim. Few Americans can find it — or its capital, Tashkent — on a map, a point that was highlighted in a popular American TV sitcom, “The George Lopez Show,” in which a teenager complained that she had failed a test for that reason, and on an educational channel, which offered the station’s donors an atlas to help them locate the country the next time they heard about it.
Uzbekistan also has friends in few places, with three exceptions: In the Pentagon, whose leadership has not forgotten that Islam Karimov, the leader of Uzbekistan — which shares a common border with Afghanistan — signed on within hours of the attacks on September 11, 2001, as an ally of the U.S. in the war on terror; in Israel (the national airline, Uzbekistan Airways, serves Tel Aviv as well as Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates), and in the borough of Queens, which has become home to as many as 40,000 Jews from the ancient Uzbekistan city of Bukhara.
In contrast, the nation’s roster of severe critics is a robust, distinguished one, ranging from the U.S. State Department to the editorial page of The Washington Post to famed playwright Tony Kushner. Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised the country’s cooperation in the war on terror, which includes hosting a U.S. military base, Uzbekistan is routinely described by Westerners as a hellish dictatorship in which any pious Muslim is subject to arrest and deadly torture.
But on a recent visit, I found little evidence to support such charges, or the claim that the country remains one of the most rigid of the ex-communist states. Dictatorial Soviet habits were imported by the Russians, and it is very difficult for me to imagine the Muslim Uzbeks, known for their interreligious tolerance and relaxed attitudes toward work and life, supporting a police state. The place is simply too remote from the threats and fears found elsewhere on the globe. Even nearby Afghanistan seems distant from Tashkent, where people have their own concerns, centered on their homes, families and immediate economic pursuits.
An example of Uzbek public lassitude may be the ubiquity of jaywalking, a national characteristic. Nobody in authority seems to notice that, in the middle of its wide roads, built by the Russians but not used by many vehicles, locals wander back and forth like bullfighters teasing a lazy animal. Regardless of the totalitarian appearance of the uniforms sported by the regime’s police, few Uzbeks tremble in fear when discussing politics, and even fewer silence their criticism of the post-Soviet policies of Karimov, a former communist apparatchik at a time when the revival of Islam was indeed indiscriminately treated as subversive.
That was the complaint of a former terrorist trainee in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an ally of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. A young man in his 30s, Hoyaberda Aripov defected from the IMU, and has returned to his native village in the Ferghana Valley, still considered a danger zone by outsiders. When I interviewed him, Aripov candidly stated that he had joined the IMU, in which he served six years, because Uzbek officials had mistreated him and others for nothing more than studying Islam. But his happiness to have returned to a normal existence seemed unfeigned.
Other former extremists with whom I met — as well as an academic expert on the Islamist problem, Farkhad Tolipov — openly condemned the existence of a “party line” in Uzbek public life and the underdevelopment of intellectual and political pluralism in the country. But the defeat of radical Islam in Uzbekistan appears more a consequence of the indifference of local Muslims — who cleave to a Sufi tradition of Islamic spirituality and respect for other faiths — than of repression by Karimov’s government. The IMU, vicious as it was, fought more in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chinese Turkestan than in Uzbekistan itself.
No such nuances were exhibited in public comments in Washington at the beginning of March. The State Department issued a report describing the country as “an authoritarian state with limited civil rights.” The Washington Post, in a March 4 editorial, complained that promises by Karimov to institute “a far-reaching democratic transformation,” in exchange for U.S. military aid, had yet to be implemented — as if many other former communist countries had, on a short schedule, successfully instituted democracy by order from above, in the absence of economic development.
On March 8, Kushner weighed in on The Post’s op-ed page, employing Uzbekistan as a pretext for his own agenda. The alleged repression of an openly gay writer, Ruslan Aripov, in Tashkent, was blamed on American politicians opposed to gay marriage, rather than on the predictably unsophisticated attitudes toward publicly acknowledged same-sex relationships in an isolated Muslim country. “The world is listening,” Kushner admonished, employing a cliché unworthy of his creative reputation.
But notwithstanding Western scolding, I found Uzbekistan, including the Ferghana Valley, to be a place of open mosques, where Muslim worshippers fill the streets on their way to and from Friday prayers. In addition, nothing could better demonstrate the real nature of Uzbekistan than a visit to Tashkent’s two Jewish communities — one representing the Farsi-speaking Bukharan Jews, who have been present in the region for 2,500 years, and the other now a Lubavitch center.
The Bukharan Jews, who define themselves as Sephardim, segregate women in a separate gallery during prayers (in contrast with the mixed genders visible on the benches at the Tashkent Islamic University) and, as an Uzbek government official pointed out to me: “They have been here longer than our people, who are Turkic.”
Across town, I found the Community of European Jews, a building operated under the supervision of Lubavitchers, to be like many other Ashkenazi outposts in the former Soviet Union. Out strode the “chief rabbi of Uzbekistan,” Abba David Gurevich, with a resplendent wide beard. Gurevich praised Karimov’s tough stance against Islamists, while one of his colleagues drew me aside to note: “The local people here are so isolated they haven’t heard of antisemitism.”
Uzbekistan has been slow to produce prejudices known elsewhere, as well as the forms of governance the U.S. State Department considers indispensable. Timelessness may have its virtues, whether or nor they are recognized by the rest of the world.