Shave it! Uzbekistan between religious freedom and restriction8 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Politics
While some consider long beards trendy, Central Asian governments see them as a symbol of radicalism. To eradicate it, long beards must be shaved off. 

Religious freedom has never been the strongest in Uzbekistan, but after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 and started introducing political, economic, and social reforms, people began to believe there would be change. After almost five years, it seems like no substantial change is coming. Religion is still strictly controlled, and men are still forced to shave their faces. 

When I was travelling in Uzbekistan in 2019, I do not recall seeing anyone with a long beard. What I do recall, however, is the atmosphere. It was right after Uzbekistan opened its borders and President Mirziyoyev promised to support tourism. This was new for Uzbeks who had been living for 27 years in a country isolated from the rest of the world and controlled by repressive President Islam Karimov. It is no surprise that after Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 and started introducing reforms to open and modernize the country, people saw him as a catalyst for a change. 

Inviting tourists to the country was not the only change Mirziyoyev introduced. He launched several economic reforms to attract foreign investments and kick-start economic growth. Along with his efforts to integrate Uzbekistan into the global economy, Mirziyoyev has also sought to alter the image of Uzbekistan from a repressive country violating human rights. In 2017 and 2018, he released hundreds of political prisoners. In 2019, he closed Jaslyk jail – a “house of torture” for political prisoners, considered a symbol of Uzbek repressiveness. Many of those freed from Jaslyk and other prisons had been sentenced for their alleged links to extremist organizations. As religious freedom had been practically non-existent during the years of Karimov, improvements in this area proved to be crucial in changing the bad reputation of Uzbekistan in the field of human rights and democracy.  

Islam vs Islam 

Although ruling over a Muslim country, Karimov imposed fierce restrictions on Islam. After the fall of the USSR and the deprivation of a major ideology and identity, Islam became an important part of nation-building strategies in Central Asian countries. With the poor social-economic situation in the region and new connection with the wider Muslim world, some saw Islam as their new ideology. This gave birth to local extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which seeks to change the secular regime and establish an Islamic State. 

Infographic of Islam in Uzbekistan

Karimov, initially promoting Islam as a part of Uzbek heritage, was forced to change the policy and approach to the religion. Timing played well in his cards as, after 2001, the global war on terror allowed him to impose tough restrictions on religion and to liquidate this opposition in the name of a counter-terrorism campaign. He closed down mosques and other religious institutions, imposing quotas on the annual Hajj pilgrimage, allowing students to only study Islam in state-sponsored religious schools, discriminating against men with beards and veiled women, and arresting thousands. 

Towards freedom of religion? 

After this repressive period, Mirziyoyev’s release of prisoners was the first sign of improving religious freedom. In 2018, Uzbekistan’s parliament approved a resolution on the 12 recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shadid. Following that, the government simplified the rules for registering religious organizations, provided logistical and financial support to those participating in the Hajj and Umrah, opened a higher educational institution dedicated solely to Islam, allowed publishing of religious books to select institutions and removed thousands from the blacklist of potential extremists. For these efforts, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) removed Uzbekistan from the list of countries of particular concern for violating religious freedom in 2018.  

All that glitters is not gold

While it is true that since the inauguration of Mirziyoyev as President of Uzbekistan has made significant progress in the field of religious freedom, it is still far from being a free country.  In 2019, Uzbekistan re-appeared on the list of countries of particular concern and in 2020, it was moved to the list of countries “Recommended for Special Watch”. Although improving the conditions for the practice of religion, Uzbekistan’s government keeps strict control over religious activities. According to the USCIRF’s 2021 report, Uzbek authorities continue to “harass, detain, and imprison Muslims who practised Islam independently of strict state controls or possessed unauthorized or allegedly “extremist” sermons and other religious texts in print or electronic form”.

Moreover, lately, there have been reports suggesting that authorities in Uzbekistan are getting more repressive once again. On 21 June, the Uzbek Service of Radio Free Europe reported that more than 1500 Uzbek students of Islam in Turkey and Egypt have been recalled and more than 1800 students seeking to study at religious schools abroad were stopped at the border in 2021. Similarly, the government keeps arresting people under charges of extremism. The vague definition of this term raises concern that Mirziyoyev continues in Karimov’s efforts to liquidate political opposition and religious individuals in the name of counterterrorism.  

Shave it!

The government has also placed restrictions on physical appearance. In 2018, the Ministry of Education issued rules for the length of hair and clothes for all students in public and private schools. Students were even forced to take off their headscarves when entering the newly opened International Islamic Academy. Similarly, there have been reports of Uzbek girls being expelled from school for wearing a hijab. This type of traditional Islamic veiling is still forbidden not only in schools but also in offices

There is a similar problem when it comes to beards. Although there has never been an official law banning facial hair, bearded men were often discriminated against or targeted by police, interrogated, and forced to shave during the rule of Islam Karimov. In 2005, the Institute for War and Peace Journalism reported that an Andijan resident was not issued a new passport because he wore a beard in his passport picture. In 2016, football fans were not allowed to enter a stadium and were ordered to shave their beards if they wanted to see the match. 

During the term of Mirziyoyev, this trend has not disappeared. Instead, since 2019, the media has recorded increasing intolerance for both hijabs and beards. Radio Free Europe reported that in 2019, police detained dozens of men at a market in Tashkent and shaved off their beards before releasing them. This was not an isolated case – independent media reported on a number of cases from the previous three years and, most likely, there have been more of them. 

At the beginning of June, dozens of Muslims from the city of Angren were forced to shave. “Police warned us that if we refuse to shave our beards, they will do it using force. They took our pictures before and after the beards were shaved,” one of the locals told Radio Free Europe. When the outlet asked local authorities for a comment, they tried to justify the incident by claiming that the men were asked to shave in order to correspond to the photos in their documents.

Long beards? Not our Islam 

Long beards, as well as headscarves, are considered by Central Asian governments to be a symbol of exported Islam, alien to local history and culture. Central Asian Islam was very much influenced by the Soviet ideology which repressed religion for more than 50 years. After gaining independence in 1991, religion became one of the tools of nation-building which aimed at fostering new national identities corresponding to independent republics of Central Asia. Islam was, however, perceived as a part of the culture rather than a doctrine to follow. 

As Adeeb Khalil writes in his book Islam After Communism,’ Muslims that visit Central Asia are often shocked that Islam in public life is muted. This is why local governments consider fundamentalists and political Islam as something imported. Veiling and long beards was something hardly seen in the USSR. Looking at it from the governments’ perspective – having a long beard means that the man adopted an imported version of Islam and is only one step from radicalisation. By shaving his beard off, they would not only prevent him from further radicalisation but also from upsetting the rest of the population which adheres to the “local post-Soviet” Islam. 

Between reforms and restrictions 

The fear of government officials is not completely unfounded, as the threat of radicalisation is present in the country. Journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska noticed that since 2016, the number of voices calling for stricter interpretations of Islam has increased. The younger generation has become more religious but, since the state does not provide sufficient support, they turned to the Internet. Mirziyoyev’s government and its half-hearted reforms complicated the situation as they created a space to talk about religion and share new ideas but keep its practice strictly under state control. With more people calling for different interpretations of Islam, the government will be forced to answer these calls. We can only guess whether or not it will be by further reforms or restrictions.

Featured image: Samarkand / Jonathan Greenaway
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