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Uzbekistan Cracks Down On 'Religious Extremism' In Aftermath Of Moscow Terror Attack

Uzbek police conduct a raid in Tashkent on April 12.
Uzbek police conduct a raid in Tashkent on April 12.

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan has intensified measures against "religious extremism" and "terrorism" recently, raiding the homes of suspected extremists, warning parents against sending children to Islamic schools abroad, and preventing imams from leaving the country.

The tough actions by Uzbek officials come on the heels of the terrorist attack that killed 144 people at the Crocus music venue near Moscow on March 22 -- allegedly carried out by Tajiks and planned by the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

Some observers link the crackdown to Uzbek government anxiety from the tragic event that has led to xenophobic treatment of Central Asians in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks work.

Security officers in the capital, Tashkent, carried out 45 raids on April 7 on the homes of people alleged to have joined "radical extremist groups," police reported.

"Suspects are being arrested," authorities said in a statement accompanied by photos of security forces visiting a private home and masked officers taking several men into custody.

Suspects are detained in Tashkent on April 12.
Suspects are detained in Tashkent on April 12.

Police also advised people to avoid following Muslim extremist groups on social media and to closely monitor their children's activities online.

On April 12, the authorities warned parents against sending their children to "illegal and unregistered" schools abroad or letting them to stay abroad "unsupervised." They reminded parents that the law stipulates up to eight years in prison for parents and legal guardians who fail to obey court orders for their underage children living abroad to return home.

Uzbeks have also been urged to report to the police any attempts to spread "extremist" ideas in their neighborhoods.

In a separate measure this month, the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan ordered all imams to turn in their passports in a move described by some religious figures as part of the government's efforts to keep tabs on Islamic leaders in the aftermath of the attack in Russia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service obtained a copy of an official letter sent to all mosque officials in Uzbekistan.

"We are collecting the passports of the imams and deputy imams of all mosques and will hand them over to the representatives of [the Muslim Board]," it read.

"District imams are responsible for collecting the passports and should start now," says the letter, which was sent via Telegram by Erghash Rustamov, assistant to Tashkent's chief imam.

Rustamov and at least two officials told RFE/RL that at least two officials at the Muslim Board claimed the passports were being taken for "data registration" purposes. "We will put the information in the imams' passports into our database and then return their passports," he said.

A Muslim Board official said the agency wanted to ensure all imams "have their passports ready" for potential tours abroad, such as the hajj pilgrimage and other state-organized business trips. "Our imams recently traveled to South Korea, Russia, and America," the official claimed. "Our aim is for imams to have their passports ready in case they're selected for such trips."

Tashkent Anxious After Crocus Hall Attack

Several Uzbek imams who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity dismissed the officials' explanation, saying it was "devoid of any logic." They said the authorities, on the contrary, want to prevent imams from travelling abroad.

One Tashkent imam said the measure is a response to the Crocus attack. "After the [attack] in Russia, it was expected that Uzbekistan will take serious measures against imams and religious people in general," he claimed.

"There has been too much pressure on imams in recent days, hence the authorities fear that some imams will leave the country because of it," he told RFE/RL, without elaborating on the Uzbek government's "pressure" on religious figures.

There are about 2,040 mosques in the Muslim-majority Central Asian country of 35.6 million. Each has an imam and usually one or more deputies depending on the size of the congregation. The order to hand over passports applies to all of them.

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Another imam in Tashkent said the government move to collect religious leaders' passports was "illegal" and the explanation "does not make sense."

"Imams are not small children from whom you take away their passports under the pretext that their documents should be always ready in case they go on a business trip," he said.

The imams said there was no need to "confiscate" the passports of more than 7,000 Muslim officials while "the number of Uzbek imams who go to the hajj and 'umrah' pilgrimages will not exceed 300 at the most."

Dozens of Central Asians have been arrested in recent years in Russia, Turkey, the European Union, the United States, Iran, and Afghanistan for allegedly carrying out or plotting terrorist attacks.

Some 6,000 Central Asians -- including at least 2,500 Uzbek citizens -- joined IS in Syria and Iraq when it seized swathes of territory there a decade ago and tried to set up a so-called caliphate.

Most Central Asian governments repatriated hundreds of their citizens, mostly women and children, after the IS's defeat in 2019.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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