Uzbekistan's recent anti-religious measures present a worrisome trend for its Muslims

People gathering for a Friday prayer outside the Minor Mosque in Tashkent. Photo by the author. Used with permission.

On February 2, the police in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, arrested at least 10 bearded men and took them to a police station, where they were forced to shave off their beards under the threat of imprisonment. The incident occurred at the Malika market, specializing in selling home appliances and electronics, when the shop owners returned to their workplace after attending Friday prayer at the nearby mosque. 

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service Radio Ozodlik, which reported this story, highlighted that this was one of several such raids that have taken place at the market over the last several years. According to those arrested during these raids, they were forced to remove their beards because of religious reasons. This is the latest incident of an increasingly worrying trend that has seen the Uzbek authorities adopt anti-religious measures, violating the freedom of religion and the right to practice one’s religion. 

In September 2023, it was reported that the authorities shut down at least 10 restaurants in Tashkent because they positioned themselves as halal and did not sell alcohol to customers. Their owners revealed receiving informal hints from the authorities that they would be allowed to reopen if they agreed to sell alcohol. There have also been reports about the law-enforcement agencies asking shop owners who sell Islamic literature, perfumes and clothing to change their stores’ Islamic names and remove Arabic signs from their windows. 

These incidents took place shortly after the government meeting on the “growing religious radicalism” in the country, held in the beginning of September 2023. It was chaired by the Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and focused on issues related to praying in the workplace, polygamy based on Sharia, and officials’ attendance of religious events. At the meeting Aripov allegedly issued an ultimatum to the officials, stating that they cannot simultaneously work and practice religion in the civil service.

This is not the first time Muslims in Uzbekistan, who make up 94 percent of the population, face persecution due to their beliefs. The recent draconian measures harken back to the rule of the first president Islam Karimov, which lasted from 1991 until his death in 2016. Karimov’s rule was characterized by systematic violation of freedom of religion and arrest and torture of citizens for any public display of religiosity, which was conflated with extremism. This placed Uzbekistan on the US Commission for International Religious Freedom’s list of the worst offenders of religious freedoms in the world, where it remained until 2020. 

Here is a YouTube video with stories of the survivors of religious repressions carried out during Karimov's rule.

Uzbekistan’s removal from this dreadful list was due to the reforms implemented by the current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev after this arrival to power in 2016. Notable positive developments that have taken place since then include the closure of the infamous Jaslyk prison, where political and religious prisoners were kept and tortured, amnestying and releasing those charged with extremism, and removing 16,000 people from the security services’ “blacklists,” which contained names of religious individuals the authorities suspected of being extremists. 

However, the religious reforms seem to have already peaked without the prospect of any further legal and institutional changes in sight. While there is a consensus that the situation with regards to religious freedoms is significantly better under Mirziyoyev, it is undeniable that there is also a lot of room for improvement. In this regard, the recent backsliding is a worrisome trend for Uzbek Muslims eager to openly practice their religion. 

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