Sunday, November 5, 2017

Not Only Uzbeks

The terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan Oct 31st allegiantly committed by an Uzbek fellow who came to US in 2010 on the diversity visa program (Green Card lottery) was a horrific news. The next day many major publications had analytical articles pointing out that Uzbekistan became a major supplier of Islamic terrorists. Many of them attributed it to an authoritarian regime and a lack of religious freedom in Uzbekistan. In the American Russian community there were some ugly, hateful conversations that there is no place in the US for Muslims and Uzbek terrorists. I was born in Tashkent and the news and reaction to them touched me personally since I grew up in a community with many Uzbeks.

A few words about Uzbekistan history. Uzbekistan is located in the middle of the Silk Road. The Silk Road is an ancient trade route on which goods travel from Far East to the West since about 200 AD. Many people of different looks, religion and culture stopped and passed by for almost 2000 years. Because of this location the economy and culture of the region developed based on trade and tolerance. Under Soviets Uzbekistan had a large infusion of population from other Soviet Republics – Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Ashkenazi Jews and many more. The majority of them came as Soviet evacuated civil population from the Western part of the country during WWII. Another wave of non-Uzbek came after 1966 to help rebuild Tashkent after strong earthquake. Many newcomers stayed in Tashkent attracted by it’s hospitable locals, nice climate and delicious Uzbek food.

One of the strongest childhood memory is of an Uzbek wedding. I was probably 8 or 9 years old. We just moved in the new flat in the center of the city. The flat was part of an apartment complex which had about 20 modest 4 store apartment buildings. The entire city center was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake. The Uzbek neighbors were celebrating a wedding. Long tables, covered with delicious fruits, hot naan bread and tea, were setup in the courtyard between apartment buildings. Vodka and brandy were served from tea pots to cover up drinking alcoholic beverages at Uzbek wedding 😊. Every neighbor, every kid and every stranger who pass by were invited! The celebration lasted for three days.

Not everything was rosy. Traditional Muslim culture was still repressive to women. It was particularly noticeable when in university I encountered many girls who came to Tashkent from the rural areas. They always looked down initially, but very quickly without family control living in dormitory developed somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards boys. Promiscuous and strict at the same time. But after a while most of them recovered and proceeded to have a normal life. I went to the best school for gifted children in Tashkent and our school’s principal was an Uzbek woman with a lot of power and very experienced in how to handle complex political situations which were a large part of her job. I met in school and at work many successful and very modern Uzbek women. As I learn later in life this is not typical in majority of other Muslim countries.

During my youth in Uzbekistan probably the most important trend was receding traditional Muslim culture and modernization of Uzbek society. With all the problems Soviets had, the severe limiting of many religious traditions did more for women equality then feminist movements on the West. My mother’s generation (born in 1920-1930) had most women of all ethnicities working and many of them in professional fields.

What happen in Uzbekistan after I left and after the fall of the Soviet Union, I know only vaguely and understand even less. I know that Uzbek president Karimov struggled to balance return to more traditional Uzbek culture while maintaining some level of modernity and secular attitude. At the same time geo-political challenges were coming in region with ever increasing frequency. When Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union it was protected from Middle East regional problems by the Soviets. But as this protection disappeared, the problems started to knock at the door. One of the biggest challenges were Saudis. The Uzbeks are traditionally Sunnis, but because of their history not particularly traditional or religious. Saudis decided that Uzbekistan now is a green field to expand Wahhabism. To restrict their influence already authoritarian Uzbek government became even more severe. The most serious revolt against Karimov’s government occurred in Andijan Valley in 2005. In the West, the events were covered as a human and religious right abuse. I’m sure it was a lot of that. But considering Saudis activities in Uzbekistan, the most likely alternative would be a coup to overthrow the sitting government and create an Islamic State govern by Sharia laws similar to Saudi Arabia.

Karimov died a year ago and from my limited knowledge, Uzbeks and remaining non-Uzbek population felt that Karimov, with all his shortcomings, lead Uzbekistan without major crisis through very dangerous times in the region which boils with religious wars and revolutions.

Now going back to Uzbeks in America. I personally know many very successful Uzbek Americans, but we are not talking about them. The coverage of why Uzbeks are rapidly becoming one of the main population on the West which susceptible to ISIS recruiting completely ignores that they became radicalize here in US and in the West, were ISIS propaganda widely available and surprisingly in concert in what they learn from US press about suppressing religious freedom in Uzbekistan. Writing an article about how authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan breeds terrorism when Uzbeks get indoctrinated here is not helping to deal with the problem, but rather leads to a dangerous path of fighting the wrong battle.

But there is a bigger picture. And it is not just about Uzbeks. It doesn’t matter how bad is an idea, even when the fallacy of the idea was proven by history many times, the powerful players will use and reuse it to brainwash people to do horrible things. The resurgence of fascism in US and other Western countries is just another demonstration. It is also a reminder that it is not just Muslims who are susceptible to dangerous ideas. It looks like democracy is not a cure of this illness. What is? I don’t have answers. But to attribute the spread of bad ideas to something we deservingly don’t like such as authoritarian regime and lack of freedom, when the evidence doesn’t support this, only leads us to more problems.