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Uzbekistan: Religious Freedom vs Extremism

Uzbekistan: Religious Freedom vs Extremism
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Discussion about religious freedom in Uzbekistan at the National Press Club, Washington DC, 25 July, 2018.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Speaking of security, deep Islamic culture and reforms that are taking place in Uzbekistan, I have a three-fold question. There is so much discussion about wearing hijab and beard in Uzbekistan - on social media and also among the public. This is definitely a controversial issue in the country. Where does the government stand on this? Where is the red line in terms of religiosity? When it is no longer about religious freedom for you?

Secondly, all of you have indicated that there are candid, open discussions within this system about how to move forward. Do you ever worry that in the lack of real, legitimate political opposition in the country, a lot of people could, specifically youth could still be attracted to extremist groups as alternative platforms to express their opposing views.

Dr Saidov, I have a special question for you. As a lawmaker and the head of the national human rights center, what would you say are the best ways to promote secularism in the country now, in this current context? Thank you.

Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov: Okay, I'll start with the first question, regarding whether there is a ban to wear beards or hijabs in Uzbekistan. There is no legal requirement not to wear any kind of beard in Uzbekistan. Regarding hijab as a religious cult, closing, there isn't an article in the code of administrative infringements where it says that it is prohibited to wear cult or religious clothing in public places, but there is a big case law about that, many precedents when it wasn't admitted properly and it was not unanimous approach interpreting this kind of legislation.

Having this in mind and admitting and conceding that there were problems with using this law in practice at the moment, as I told initiative of some members of parliament, to review some articles of the code. And how the new article will be put in paper, I cannot say because it is a process, but I will say that it is the European experience that many countries adopt the standard when people cannot cover their faces completely, for security reasons, of course, that have new IT system of identifying persons and new security systems in place and there were many cases where people brought cases before Court of Human Rights. There was even a case in European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, but the courts insisted that the states had the power in restrictions in wearing religious clothing. We'll stick to the international standards on that, but at the moment, the fact is that.

Senator Sodiq Safoyev: The second question... You were looking at me, so I think it was a question for me. Frankly, I disagree with you that the growth of opposition and extremism might go side by side. On the contrary, the strengthening of democracy, broadening of democracy, is the best way to confront the rise of extremism. Extremism is not a political opposition. It is beyond that... beyond the legal zone. It's a crime. That's why it is something not within the framework of the legal movement to my understanding... The absence of political opposition and real democracy, perhaps leads to the creating of gray zone, and when people who are not able to express their discontent, their disagreement of some injustice, corruption, etc, they go to extremism. Violent extremism is perhaps the function of the absence of the open society and political life. The point is that the political parties in Uzbekistan, non-governmental organizations, expressing the will, expectation, and the hope of the people will not leave a chance to the extremist groups, radical groups, to represent their minds.

As I said during my initial remarks, the weak states, first of all, they're frail and weak because there is no way to translate the disagreement of the people towards the government, and as Minister Davletov said today, the social life, and the political life in Uzbekistan is completely different from what it was one year ago, one year and a half ago. Today, there are many channels for people, youngsters to channel their pitch to the government, and there is an interactive dialogue between the government and population.

In short, I think that democracy, open society, is the best way to confront the rise of violent extremism and radicalization.

MP Akmal Saidov: It is a very interesting question. This is one of the concrete recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed. As you know, our Uzbek constitution introduces the principal of secularism: separation of state and religion. We want build to build a secular state, secular education, secular court, the rule of law principles in the field of religious relationships. It is very important, and Mr. Ahmed Shaheed is right.

Encourage open debate on the meaning of secularism to overcome the current restrictive interpretation and attitudes within the administration and law enforcement agencies. Secular commitments should provide space to positively accommodate it: religious diversity in society without discrimination or fear. We agree with this recommendation of Ahmed Shaheed and in this field we want organize several positive steps.

Firstly, we formed the Council on Faith Matters and the Committee of Religious Affairs.

Secondly, we want to organize a roundtable on the topic. A secular state principles, and implementation mechanisms at the present stage.

Thirdly, we conduct the psychological studies on the topics of religiosity of the population of Uzbekistan and religious tolerance in Uzbekistan. And, we want to organize a serious events] with the involvement of the representatives of ministries and agencies to explain the concept of secularism to state bodies. And, we want to organize, to form a national pool of journalists who cover religious matters in the religious media. This are our concrete steps and aims in this field. Thank you.