AUTHORITARIAN REGIMES, MUSLIMS RELIGIOUS RIGHTS IN CENTRAL ASIA, AND LACK OF FOREIGN PRESS COVERAGE OF RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

Eric FREEDMAN


Eric Freedman, Associate Professor of Journalism, Assistant Dean of International Studies & Programs, Michigan State University (U.S.A.)


Introduction

The five former Soviet republics of Central AsiaKazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistanare predominantly Muslim in population and strongly authoritarian in governance. All are secular states with constitutions that promise freedom of religion and belief and prohibit discrimination based on religion. Since independence in 1991, there have been frequent violations of religious rights of their citizens, including those of Muslims. Many such violations are grounded in assertions by repressive regimes that religious practitioners are involved with or sympathetic to what are labeled terrorist organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Islamic Liberation) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and thus are regarded as threats to the continuing political power of those regimes.

This article examines violations of the religious rights of Muslims in Central Asia in the aftermath of the countries repudiation of Marxism-Leninism. It opens with a description of the religious and media setting in the region and a review of prior research. The next section uses international human rights reports to present an overview of regulation of and restraints on the practice of Islam. Then through qualitative content analysis, the article examines press coverage of the issue by Western news organizations, primarily the Norway-based Forum 18 News Service. Last, it discusses the implications of the failure of Western media to report adequately on such rights violations and suggests directions for future research.

Religion and Politics

Religion and politics have been intertwined since the five countries gained independence in 1991 after the U.S.S.R. dissolved, just as anti-religion and politics had been intertwined during seventy years of official atheism under communism in a region long influenced and dominated by Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution triggered a split between conservative Muslims associated with the Society of Ulama and reform-minded (or revolution-minded) Jadids. After the Bolsheviks accession to power, they launched what Khalid characterized as an assault on Islam: It was in the matter of religion that the Bolsheviks and the indigenous reformers could never find common ground. The Jadids based their program heavily on modernization of their faith. The Bolsheviks had absolutely no need for faith.

Once independence arrived, all the regimes continued to strictly control religious practices, motivated in part by worries that Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam might destroy their authoritarian lock on power. As McGlinchey writes, The post-Soviet Uzbek government attempts to manage Islam much as it attempts to manage many other aspects of Uzbek life.

Political leaders fear Islam will be a destabilizing force for their regimes, a rationalization that become ever more visible after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and


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