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Uzbek theologians expose extremists

By Maksim Yeniseyev

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Muslims pray in Tashkent in the summer of 2015. [Maksim Yeniseyev]

TASHKENT -- Targeting of Uzbekistani youth by extremists is continuing to anger the country's authorities and clerics.

Recent cases show that the danger has not passed. Hundreds of radicalised Uzbekistanis have joined militants in Syria and Iraq since 2011.

In mid-August, a court in Fergana Province sent two women who were spreading extremism on social media to prison.

However, authorities are encouraged to see a vigorous competition to gain admission to Tashkent Islamic University, a bastion of mainstream education.

The country's grand mufti, Usmonkhon Alimov, has spoken out repeatedly on the need for all of society to stand up to extremists who distort Islam and deceive vulnerable youth.

At an August 4 Ulema Council meeting in Tashkent, theologians decided to have imams promote traditional Islamic values more vigorously and to publish more books on the subject.

Courts hand down punishment

Meanwhile, law enforcement is arresting and prosecuting extremists wherever it can find them.

"A court convicted two women in Margilan, Fergana Province, for spreading extremism online," general prosecutor's office spokesman Arif Atajanov told Caravanserai.

The women, who used Odnoklassniki to urge overthrowing the government, received terms of five and seven years in prison, he added.

Odnoklassniki has become a popular forum for extremists, Tashkent political scientist Valerii Khan told Caravanserai.

"In one incident in 2014, eight women from Tashkent Province were convicted of promoting extremism on the site," he said. "In 2013 ... director Khilol Nasimov even shot a film [Zabludievshchiesja/Strayed], which tells the story of youth whom extremists recruited through Odnoklassniki."

Clerics reach out to public

Uzbekistani Islamic scholars who attended the August 4 Ulema Council meeting are expressing their intent to step up counter-extremism outreach.

The clerics at the conference "resolved to spiritually enrich the faithful by publishing literature that [unmasks] ... extremists who hide behind Islam", Shavkat Khamdanov, a spokesman for the country's Committee for Religious Affairs, told Caravanserai."

"We will work harder to reach out to the public," Alimov, the grand mufti, said during the Ulema Council.

Already, the Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of Uzbekistan (DUMU) has started publishing articles online that explain deceit by extremists.

In its online publications, DUMU already has pointed out the misuse of terms like "jihad" and "shahid" by extremists.

Jihad, in Arabic, "means zeal or effort undertaken on the way to faith", Andijan Province chief imam-khatib Mirzomaksud haji Alimov wrote in a piece published by DUMU online August 11. "Some people who call themselves Muslim say that the term has to do with war."

Another misused term, "shahid", means witness in Arabic, Andijan Province imam-khatib Mirzomaksud haji Alimov continued. "It describes someone who has given his [or her] life to defend homeland, family or faith. Terrorists today blow themselves up and claim to become a shahid ... But that's a suicide bomber, not a martyr -- a sinner."

Not enough Uzbekistanis know more "than the basic rituals associated with birth and death", Tashkent resident Otabek Makhtumkulov told Caravanserai. "That's why extremists easily spread their ideas ... It's critical to have a broad swath of Muslims study the fundamental tenets of Islam."

Recent admission statistics from Tashkent Islamic University hold out hope for those wanting to see the growth of moderate Islam: in August, 1,293 high school graduates applied for 135 slots in the freshman class.

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