For nearly three years, Uzbekistan has been a key ally in the U.S.-led war against global terrorism. But an independent human rights group and religious dissidents say the Uzbek government is using its anti-terrorism campaign to crack down on Muslims who practice their religion outside the government prescribed boundaries.
Friday prayers at one of Tashkent's largest government-controlled mosques bring out thousands of faithful. It is a peaceful scene with prayers and chants and talk of the Muslim brotherhood.
But lately there has been other talk in Uzbekistan about Islam, talk in which independent human rights organizations and religious dissidents accuse the government of Islam Karimov of illegally cracking down on Muslims. Those Muslims allegedly targeted choose to practice their faith peacefully, but outside of state-controlled institutions.
The government has routinely denied using the global war on terrorism as a pretense to punish Muslims in Uzbekistan, but it declined repeated VOA requests for an interview.
This young Muslim man, speaking after Friday prayers, said he had no problems being a practicing Muslim in Uzbekistan today. Still, he would talk only on condition his name not be mentioned.
"You can see a lot of people praying freely. There is no problem," he said. "But the main thing is if you oppose the government then you will have a problem, because we do not have opposition here. It is politics, but with religion you do not have a problem. You can pray anywhere."
The senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, Allison Gill, says there is freedom of religion in Uzbekistan, but only if practiced according to government guidelines.
"The Uzbek government controls mosques, it actually controls the sermons that Imams are allowed to use. Imams have to have their sermons approved by a state committee on religious affairs before they are allowed to use them," she added. "Religious education is tightly regulated, religious literature is tightly regulated and, not only that, the criminal code gives criminal penalties for violations of articles that describe peaceful religious practices."
Ms. Gill says such practices as reading unauthorized religious literature, engaging in private religious study or attending an unregistered mosque are subject to punishment.
She says that means Muslims who try to practice their faith outside government institutions or control are the target of government-sponsored religious persecution. She says what the government describes as war against terrorism is actually a government campaign to suppress any form of dissent.
But leading independent Uzbek Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammad Sodik Mohammad Yusuf disagrees. He says the government has made small, but significant changes on human rights regarding religious freedom.
Sheikh Yusuf, who maintains close contact with the government, says it has since entered into a dialogue with those imprisoned after the 1999 and 2004 terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, as well as with different independent agencies and organizations. He adds that dialogue has resulted in the release this year of about 1000 political and religious prisoners, all of whom he says were given amnesty.
But Ms. Gill is highly critical of the amnesty process as well.
"The amnesty is like a revolving door," she noted. "People are then re-arrested very often. And we saw that after the bombings and shootings in March that people who had been amnestied were then re-arrested and brought back into the system, or new people are arrested so its sort of a revolving, cyclical kind of thing."
She added that the Uzbek government can do a lot to stimulate peaceful practice of religion in Uzbekistan.
"We would very much like to see renewed momentum on reforming the criminal code. As an initial step, the government should decriminalize peaceful religious practices, it should decriminalize proselytism, it should decriminalize private religious study. Those would be very good starting points," she concluded.
Sheikh Yusuf is also pressing for change, but of a decidedly different kind.
He says the first thing that is needed in Uzbekistan is, what he calls, the right Islamic education. He says that is now missing in the country, with everyone studying the religion on their own, in their own way or from others' perceptions. He says Islam has gotten mixed up along the way and because of this he says extremist ideas, and ideas from terrorists have filtered in.
He cites this lack of a unified, government-controlled policy on religion as the root cause of what the government claims is a growing Islamic extremist trend in Uzbekistan. He says with a determined government program, terrorism and extremism could be avoided, while Islam could flourish.