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Emboldened, Some Uzbek Imams Turn on Loudspeakers to Call for Prayer

FILE - A boy plays with a kite at Khast Imam square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
FILE - A boy plays with a kite at Khast Imam square in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Some mosques in Uzbekistan are starting to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from loudspeakers for the first time in a decade as they take advantage of a more tolerant official attitude toward Islam since President Islam Karimov died last year.

The imams are amplifying the Adhan call to prayer without asking for government permission. Under Karimov, an imam who took such a liberty would have faced losing his job or possible imprisonment.

The new boldness is a response to decisions by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to liberalize the ex-Soviet nation of 32 million people whose main religion is Islam.

Mirziyoyev has overseen the release of several prominent political prisoners, relaxed some security measures and this week he pardoned 2,700 convicts, saying that in the past many sentences had been unjust.

Western countries and human rights groups accused the government of repression under Karimov who ruled the Central Asian nation from 1989 until his death in September 2016.

The leader cracked down on public displays of Islamic practice including hijabs and beards because he feared the country was vulnerable to Islamist militancy.

His government blamed militants for bombings in the capital in 1999 and unrest in the city of Andijan in 2005. Around 200 people died in all, according to official figures, and the incidents were the bloodiest since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

After government troops clashed with armed protesters in Andijan, Uzbek mosques stopped using loudspeakers for the call to prayer though the practice was never formally banned.

Taking the initiative

Over the last few months, however, some imams have begun to broadcast the Adhan from mosques again. A Reuters reporter heard it at three mosques in Tashkent, though it was only audible to people near the buildings.

The call is part of the soundscape in many Muslim cities, blasting from speakers on minarets five times each day and extra loud on Friday, which is the day of prayer. Worshippers in Tashkent welcomed the change.

"People should hear that it's prayer time. That's what Muslim life is about," said a young man outside one of the mosques. He declined to give his identity.

A cleric at one of Tashkent's main mosques said the matter was being discussed within the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, which is close to the government. No ruling has been made.

"Some imams took the initiative" and turned on their loudspeakers at their own risk once the talks with the Board had started, said the cleric who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Another source close to the clergy said some imams had argued that without a formal ban there was no need for formal permission to restart. There have been no reports of clerics being prosecuted for breaking the informal ban.

The government declined to comment on the matter.

Return from exile

Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon, an Uzbek writer who recently returned to Tashkent after living in exile for more than a year, said he saw the cautious return of Adhan as a sign of a broader change in the state's attitude to religion under Mirziyoyev.

"[Mirziyoyev's] decree on developing and introducing Halal standards was another important step," he said.

Mirziyoyev ordered the government last month to develop standards for food products that adhere to Islamic dietary laws, which prohibit the consumption of pork and alcohol among other things.

The move could boost Uzbek sales of halal food both domestically and overseas.

"Previously, we were banned from using the word 'halal.' I know because I used to work at ... a religious magazine .... Halal restaurants were closed down. The word 'halal' was removed from product labels,' he said.

In another break with Karimov-era policy, Mirziyoyev said in September Uzbekistan had removed about 16,000 people from a 17,000-strong security blacklist of potential Muslim religious extremists and dissidents.

He said he wanted "to bring them [back] into our society and educate them."

The issue of Islamist militancy in Uzbekistan has spread beyond the country's borders. This year, at least 60 people have died in attacks abroad carried out by Uzbek nationals or ethnic Uzbeks. The most deadly was a shooting in an Istanbul nightclub in which 39 people died.

In the late 1990s, the government fought the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group that sought to make Uzbekistan an Islamic state. It later moved to Afghanistan to join forces with the Taliban.

Hundreds of Uzbeks have also joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Authorities fear radicalized youths may return home.

"Nowadays they are talking about driving the terrorists out of Syria," Mirziyoyev said in a public speech this month. "But the question is, where will they go now? We should think about it."

At the same time, he said many of Uzbekistan's convicted prisoners had been sentenced unjustly and he vowed to crack down on abuses such as torture and fabricated evidence.

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg.