Perspectives and scenarios for regime transition in Uzbekistan.
* The Arabic: طاغوت(taghut) means to “cross the limits, overstep boundaries” or “to rebel” vis-à-vis divine authority. Traditionally a term connoting idolatry, it is mentioned in the politically significant Qur'anic verse 4:76. During the medieval period, it has was used by Muslims to describe the rampaging Mongol khans and their vassals. Today, in contemporary Islamic political theory, it has come to be used to describe dictatorships, i.e., as violating the will of God.
Although it can take some more years, eventually it's only a matter of time before Uzbekistan's ruthless authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, dies from old age. In a three-part analysis series, Ghent University's Dr. Bruno De Cordier and NewEurasia.net's Christopher Schwartz examine whether indeed all hell could break loose when he finally does, and whether the Karimov regime's choices, both now and in the future, shall place their country on a direct path to Islamicization.
Part III: An Uzbek “Caliphate”?
In the second part of this series, we disscussed how and why, in our view, a Nicolae Ceauşescu-like scenario in Uzbekistan with respect to Islam Karimov's passing would probably entail the rise of a “shadow junta” ruling the country. At the conclusion of that analysis, we mentioned how we believed that such a situation could actually foster the rise of an even more transformative moment for the country: the shift from secular, post-Marxist ethnic-nationalism to something more Islamist. To conclude this series, we shall now take a few moments to explain more precisely what it is we're intuiting about Uzbekistan's future, but we first need once more to start with the question of Karimov's succession:
As one can see, none of the scenarios we described in the previous two parts of this series actually foresee an Iran-like Islamic revolution, but that is because we see the re-Islamification of Uzbekistan happening slowly and reaching its culmination probably during or after Karimov's successor. A post-Karimov Uzbekistan will unavoidably be “more Muslim”. The reason has everything to do with the grassroots realities of the country. Set against the daily reality of many Uzbeks, the decadent lifestyle of the Karimovas and Tashkent's jeunesse dorée and nouveaux riches comes as an insult and a humiliation. We shall say it in no uncertain terms: the Uzbek people feel that the regime hates them and they are seeking nothing less than deliverance, as much spiritual as physical, from their oppression. Indeed, it seems to us that the regime and the privileged are developing the attitude of an aristocracy, in which they do really envision themselves as an elite that has to fight off the “primitive” and uncontrollable masses from the provinces. The feeling that the Karimov regime hates its own people was further strengthened with its blunt refusal to intervene in favor of the beleaguered fellow Uzbeks during last year's violence in Osh.
Of course, this is not the message of propaganda. Internally, official media proclaims that the country is entering nothing less than a golden age of economic prosperity due to its “unique” development strategy, the so-called “HYPERLmodelEof a “socially oriented market economy”. The central feature of this model has been the shirkat, a joint-stock company farm, which provides the backbone of the Uzbek economy: cotton exports, accounting for 10% of world trade in the resource, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and profits worth more than $500 million, according to an official Uzbek news source. Official statistics tell a great story: supposedly Uzbekistan touts a real GDP growth of 8.5% in 2011, according to the CIA World Factbookbased upon official government reports, as well as the region's most consistent, at an average of 5.6% since 2001. The surge in prosperity has become so immense that the government recently boasted the launch of a new high speed train between Tashkent and Samarkand. And, naturally, with economic success comes international recognition, even fame, as according to the government, the world is increasingly impressed by Uzbekistan's development.
But let's think for a moment, as the Uzbek people themselves do: wouldn't those GDP statistics be rather miraculous considering that GDP was -1% GDP in 2000, much less when compared against Kazakhstan's more realistic bumpsover the same 11-year period? And are the shirkats really so avant garde? According to the World Food Programme(WFP), they are really just a re-branding of the kolkhoz, the Soviet-era collective farm, often including the very same leadership. Moreover, are the shirkats really so robust? As of 2003, they constituted 52% of Uzbekistan's arable land, but considering that roughly 60% of the country is rural, it is illustrative to learn that, according to the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP), in the same year 26.2% of the population could be classified as poor, and moreover, approximately one third of all poor households as extremely poor. The situation does not seem to have gotten any better eight years later, for according to the CIA World Factbook and the International Monetary Fund, Uzbekistan is second only to Tajikistan in having the lowest per capita income in the former Soviet sphere – and Tajikistan had a devastating civil war while Uzbekistan has known fairly steady peace.
The picture becomes darker when you look at demographic indicators: Uzbekistan commands Central Asia's largest population at approximately 23 million in 1994 and over 27 million inhabitants as of 2009, according to the United States Library of Congress. Yet, in 2005, 95% of documented migrants in Russia came from former Soviet republics, and of these Uzbekistan's citizens constituted 17.2%, according to Euromonitor International– significantly more than from Kyrgyzstan (8.8%), whose migrants, alongside Tajikistan's, have received much more press coverage. Remittances from Russia are increasingly proving to be the life-line for many families left behind in Uzbekistan (to the point that one can imagine a possible spark for Gaddafi or Assad-scenario revolts being an attempt on the part of Uzbek authorities to take a larger cut).Today, Uzbekistan has a net migration rate of -2.74 migrants/1000 people, according to the CIA World Factbook, compared to Tajikistan (-1.24) and Kyrgyzstan (-2.6). In other words, there is something happening demographically to the very flesh and blood of the nation – little wonder that Uzbeks derisively refer to their nation's state-run journalism as the “Paradise News Service”.
But that is not just fatalistic irony, for many Uzbek people are, in some sense, seeking deliverance. What needs to be watched closely is how stark social changes, migration, oppression and the state's ideological bereftness are merging to create a nexus of discontent, information, social mobility, and transformation. In a sense, there are two movements going on: a horizontal one in the form of physically moving migrants and a vertical one in the form of figures and groups in the daily and informal economy who are not directly attached to the state. Both of these are confronted with powerful elites whose rapaciousness seems to know no bounds. Their strategic and ideological choices could have a decisive impact upon the future of the country – and the one to which these not unimportant segments of society are tacitly but increasingly turning toward is Islam.
But what do we mean by “Islam” in this context, much less a “turn” toward it? What we envision is a strengthening of ethnic-national identity along religious lines: a development somewhere between political Islam (“Islamism”, “Salafism”, “radical Islam”, “revolutionary Islam”, etc.) and a native conservatism re-articulated via religious language. At the ideological level, the transformation should prove fairly clear to see: whereas today in Uzbekistan the ethnic-nationalist character of the state is rigidly secular, in the future we see as possibly coming, that character is elevated to and mingles with the sacred. However, the practical results, e.g., at the level of legislation, will be complex.
It might help to compare the possible outcome with what happened to Pashtunwali, the traditional lifestyle and ethical code of the Pashtuns, during the so-called “Islamic Emirate” period of Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, it was blended with the Hanafi tradition of Shariah jurisprudence (albeit, a particularly hardline version, courtesy of Saudi Arabia and Deobandi proselytizers), to the point where it was difficult to determine where the one began and the other ended. The fact that historically Pashtunwali typically buttressed or did not contravene basic Islamic principles only made disentangling the two more impossible. Was the burqa a Pashtu or Islamic practice? No one could say with certainty, as the Qur'an enjoins Muslim women to cover themselves but does not stipulate how. Now, we do not believe at all that Uzbek women shall eventually be donning flowing black or blue robes from head to toe. Yet the relationship between traditional morality and Islam in Uzbekistan is similarly ambiguous and mutually penetrating – all the more so when we also take into consideration the ghosts of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
We should note that even the true nature of political terminology would be difficult to discern: would an eventually re-Islamized Uzbekistan be the kind of militantly expansionist state that is often brought up in mass media pop analysis about the modern “Caliphate”, or would it be, in fact, an attempt to return to the stability and social safety of the foregone Soviet system? Even were it to seek some kind of dominance over its neighbors, would that be due simply to the logic of “Jihad”, or would its origins lie in the Soviet experience? Such would be the complexities of a “more Islamic” Uzbekistan, although we should note that by raising such doubts, we do not mean to suggest that there would not be any authentic Islamic content, either, as the Muslim faith is by nature more than just a set of private personal practices; rather, it is also a tradition of social and political praxis. But now we are digressing.
The point is this: Islam and political Islam provide a social and ideological framework much different than that currently promulgated by the authorities and that is, ironically, arguably better-rooted in certain realities of Uzbek society – most of all, its frustration and yearning for a true alternative. It might take time, but we could eventually be hearing the Qur'anic verse 4:76being chanted on the streets of, say, Tashkent, Kokand or Urgench: “The believers fight for God's cause, while those who reject faith fight for an unjust cause.Fight the allies of Satan: Satan's strategies are truly weak.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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