Islam Abdug’anievich Karimov was born in Samarkand, Uzbek SSR in 1938. His parents worked at a factory that preserved and stored produce. For unknown reasons they gave him up to an orphanage at the age of three and took him back a year later. According to some sources, he started to display some signs of brutality after the orphanage, such as seriously hurting his siblings and peers, and his parents therefore placed him back in the orphanage in 1945, where he would stay for the remainder of his childhood (Lenta.Ru).
After finishing high school and leaving the orphanage, Karimov graduated from a technical school in 1960 as а mechanical engineer, after which he began working for the ‘Tashsel’mash” plant, which produced heavy machinery for agriculture. In 1966 he switched careers and began working for Gosplan [State Budget Commission] of the republic. A year later he graduated from the Tashkent State University of Economics, and slowly started working his way into the political sphere. His political career was very mundane until 1986 when he became a finance minister. In 1989 Karimov, with the support of the central government in Moscow, was elected First Secretary for the Communist Party of Soviet Union in Uzbekistan. Two years later, during the coup against Gorbachev, Karimov saw an opportunity to seize absolute control over Uzbekistan by declaring independence and becoming the head of the State. He asserted his authority with force and his brutal nature fully manifested itself during his authoritarian leadership through his policies on religious groups, torture, and border controls.
On August 31, 1991, Karimov declared Uzbekistan independent and positioned himself as a leader in the name of the Uzbek state’s best interests. This maneuver made him very popular with the people. Shortly after independence, the government changed the name of the Communist Party to the People’s Democratic Party, and in December of the same year presidential elections were held. Karimov won with 86 percent of the total vote, his only opponent, Muhammad Solih, the leader of the Erk (Freedom) opposition party received about 12 percent of the popular vote (Haghayeghi, 141). Incidentally, during Gorbachev’s rule many of the political and Islamic organizations that emerged in Uzbekistan posed a serious threat to Karimov’s hold on power. In order to maintain his control over all of the state’s affairs, Karimov launched a campaign against the opposition, earning a reputation as a brutal dictator in the process.
The first serious political confrontation happened in Namangan in the Ferghana Valley immediately before the December elections. During his official visit there, he refused to meet the representatives of “various informal groups, many of them religious,” such as Adolat (Justice), who wanted to meet with Karimov to present their ideas (Khalid, 140). This in return provoked Adolat to organize a mass rally, where people demanded Karimov’s return to discuss the issues of “legalization of Islamic parties and the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan” (Khalid, 140). The situation started to get out of hand and Karimov was forced to fly back in order to pacify the crowd (Khalid, 140). While Karimov survived the incident politically, these events had a great impact on all his future policies on religion and political organizations.
Karimov quickly put religion under strict state control, and deemed any practices “that he has not expressly authorized” (Khalid, 141) to be criminal. The Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM) that was established in 1943 was renamed the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (MBU), and became a direct link between a mosque and the State. Today MBU, vigilantly supervised by the government, composes curricula in the madrasas (religious schools), provides and sanctions all religious literature, hires the “right,” “politically literate” imams for mosques. This includes mandatory memorization of the national anthem, an ability to pass the test based on the knowledge of Karimov’s writings, a display of unwavering loyalty, and expression of support “for the established constitutional order and for the services of the president” (Khalid, 171). MBU is considered the highest authority over Uzbekistan’s religious organizations. In Uzbekistan the government issues laws for the state and the MBU issues fatwas (“authoritative opinions by one expert or one group” (Khalid, 9)), for the practitioners of the Islamic faith. According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, the state and the MBU should be independent of each other, although this is not the case under Karimov’s rule. Most of the fatwas issued since his inauguration are demanded or have to be approved by the State (Khalid, 171), which provides the current president with complete control over all state and religious affairs.
Karimov also used mahallas (“a residential community knit together with ties of mutual support and obligation” (Khalid, 180)) to secure control and power. These communities have been the centers of social life in Central Asia for a very long time. Today mahallas are “formal administrative organs of the state, responsible to regional governors and tasked with the implementation of government decrees and policies” (Khalid, 181). These organs work directly with the police forces and have the right to investigate any private home to determine “who prays, who has a beard, and who teaches children about Islam” (Khalid, 181). Under Karimov’s regime, Uzbekistan is taking the form of a Stalinist state more and more.
In the first years of his presidency, Karimov replaced those who might pose a threat to his authority. When Shokurollah Mirsaidov, Vice-President of Uzbekistan, started publicly disapproving of Karimov’s methods of leadership and began associating himself with the opposition’s Erk Party, he was removed from the position on “alleged corruption charges” (Haghayeghi, 157). Under the president’s directive, secret services, on the pretext of minor transgressions, repeatedly arrested people who allegedly posed a threat to Karimov’s authority; these people were often tortured in order to produce full confessions. There have even been reports of prisoners being boiled alive (Khalid, 184).
Since becoming the President of Uzbekistan in 1992, under the pretense of fighting religious extremism and terrorism, Karimov went full-force against all religious organizations lacking state approval. In a little over a decade, the police imprisoned thousands of people and accused them of treason and declaring them “enemies of the state.” Many of the prisoners, due to poor conditions and torture, did not survive even short sentences. In many rallies and demonstrations of public dissatisfaction, Karimov emphasized his brutality by sending armed forces to open fire on unarmed crowds. The first incident was a minor strike in 1992 of Tashkent University’s students, who demanded ration coupons to purchase food and basic needs (Khalid, 155). This strike culminated in a massacre in 2005 in Andijan, during which hundreds were killed (Khalid, 155, 192). Ostensibly to protect against extremist groups, Karimov closed the borders with neighboring states and even mined expansive regions along the Tajik border. These mines have accounted for numerous deaths of local peasants and shepherds who work this land.
These continuing practices pose a serious problem to a country that is supposedly trying to reach democratic status, as it is apparently devolving more and more into a totalitarian regime. Karimov appears to become increasingly fearful of losing his power, and his methods to maintain that power appear to be coming more and more brutal. As noted by Mehrdad Haghayeghi, Uzbekistan is “lagging behind in [its] democratization efforts” (Haghayeghi, 132). It appears that Karimov is the least interested in the democratization of the State, because democratization would likely result in diminution of his power, which, rather than the well-being of his people, seems to be his primary concern.
- Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2007).
- Mehrdad Haghayeghi, Islam and Politics in Central Asia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).
- ©ZAO “Lenta.Ru” (1999-2009) Litsenziia Minpechati El No 77-4400 Dizain – Студия Артемия Лебедева, 2004. http://www.lenta.ru/lib/14160040/