On May 2, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting entitled “Akramia,” with Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent, and Marina Barnett, Program Manager of the Carnegie Russian and Eurasian Program. Carnegie Senior Associate Martha Olcott chaired the session. The participants’ remarks are summarized below.

Babadjanov: The reaction to the Andijan violence from most media and politicians was very negative. But religious leaders in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries were markedly less critical. Most media accounts were not analytical. The reporters involved did not do research on Akramia, which initiated the uprising. Today I will offer an analysis of the ideology and religious beliefs behind this movement.

My sources come mostly from my work, in June 2005, as part of an expert group assembled by the public prosecutor of Uzbekistan to investigate Akramia. I studied two compositions by Akram Yuldashev, founder of the group, and two videos. Yuldashev also spoke with me for half an hour.

To understand Akramia we must begin with some history. The Central Asian Islamic renaissance in the late 1980s and 1990s created social and political problems. People returned to the religion of their fathers without knowledge of it and seized on religion as a panacea. This movement touched young intellectuals from the marginal parts of society who went on to found radical groups. For many the 1989 translation of the Koran into Uzbek was particularly influential.

Yuldashev was once a candidate for membership in the Soviet Communist Party. But instead he joined the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Within a year he broke away from HT, formed his own group (later called Akramia), and wrote an essay called “The Path to True Faith.” This essay pretends to be innocuous philosophy, but it is actually a call to jihad. Yuldashev drew on the organizational structure and ideas of HT in assembling his group, which began acting in earnest around 1995.

According to Yuldashev Central Asian Muslims are living in a period of ignorance, comparable to period in early Islam when people were not fully acquainted with the teachings of the Prophet. He argues that it is acceptable to pray twice per day, as did some early Muslims, instead of five times. Some ideas along these lines appear in “The Path to True Faith.” Because society is still in an ignorant state, Yuldashev writes, people should not hurry and should avoid logical thinking in reading the Koran.

Most Uzbek Muslims reacted negatively to these ideas. They created a schism in the faith, as Yuldashev expected.

Yuldashev laid out a multi-stage program for his group. In the first stage, “Enlightenment,” Yuldashev and others would spread true knowledge of Islam. In the second, “Community,” he would create a group to influence more people. In the third, “Society,” Akramia would unite Uzbek society around a “unifying idea.” In the fourth, “Politics,” Akramia would create the conditions to restore Islam as the state religion. These stages show the influence of HT, but they are much more abstract and theoretical.

Yuldashev’s attempts to ground his theory bore little fruit because he is not adept at traditional religious argument. This led him into confrontation with the majority of Uzbek Muslims and the state. Members of his organization became isolated and radicalized.

From his HT experience Yuldashev knew he needed money, either from constituents or business. Akramia set up a network of enterprises where workers were also members of the group.

Two crises helped Akramia grow rapidly. First, Uzbek society, especially in its marginal parts, was tending toward micro-integration: around clan, local community, commercial interest, or religion/ideology. There was a widespread crisis of identity and a lot of general Islamic propaganda. Second, Uzbekistan faced myriad economic problems. Akramia’s unique structure allowed Yuldashev to address both crises.

Akramia’s quasi-ideology was not well developed, but it appealed to people with secular and technical education. They liked its vision of Islam with less ritual, duty, and prescription.

Leaders of Yuldashev’s group often hid the religious basis for their activities, claiming to be reporters or human rights advocates. Their motives were always religious, however. Yuldashev’s commentary to the 61st Surah, written just six weeks before the Andijan violence, contains a call for jihad. I considered the possibility that the commentary could be a fabrication. But when I spoke with Yuldashev he confirmed his authorship. He also said he had overestimated the split in society and called too soon for jihad.

In the beginning only a few Akramia members knew of the group’s political activities. They talked about politics mostly in hints and allegories. While they wanted a caliphate, it was an abstraction for them. There were no plans for an uprising, though they considered it a “delayed duty.” “The Path to True Faith,” written in 1992, does contain hints about fighting.

The idea that Akramia expresses social protest cannot withstand scrutiny. The group’s rhetoric and writing show no aspiration to defend the poor.

Today we need more detailed research into the Islamicization of provincial intellectuals and the influence of HT. Marginal intellectuals in Europe and the Arab world are also undergoing Islamicization, so such analyses would have broad implications. In Europe HT members often have technical educations; they are post-modernists. They group together on university campuses. Many come from provincial cities. They have certain leadership qualities, plus a feeling of special destiny and ambition. They can lead others into protest violence, as we saw in France.

Marina Barnett analyzed the videos recorded by Akramia in Andijan prior to the outbreak of violence. She and Babadjanov commented briefly on the videos before showing selections from them.

Barnett: From these videos it is clear that the Andijan protests were not a spontaneous outburst. Akramia provided meals for people in the crowd and had spokesmen on hand in Western suits. The group had its own security team, which pretended to be a government security force.

The protest was not meant to be peaceful. The video shows the Akramia members were well armed and trained in the proper use of their weapons. One group of youths is shown making tens of Molotov cocktails.

Akramia attracted people to the square in Andijan by setting several buildings on fire, then took the firefighters hostage and would not let the crowd leave.

Babadjanov: We need to ask who started shooting. Is it possible to call Akramia a peaceful organization, as it claims to be? I understand the emotional aspect of this debate. After the violence I spoke with a mother whose son, a soldier, was wounded in Andijan and lay in a coma for three months before dying. He was shot in the spine while trying to run away. When she spoke on Western radio, saying that terrorists had killed her son, there was little interest in her story. She asked, “What about my son’s and my rights?” Nobody has answered these questions. Most emotional statements about Andijan haven’t relied on evidence like the documents and videos I have used.

Q: Was your interview with Yuldashev private, or was a government representative present?
Babadjanov: A representative of the public prosecutor was there for the first five minutes, but I then asked him to leave and he did.

Q: What about the idea that the businessmen were jailed because they didn’t pay the mayor a bribe? From what you’ve said it seems marginal people joined Akramia for economic reasons and secular elites joined for religious reasons. So how can you combat the group over the long term? Also if you strip away the Islamic rhetoric Yuldashev’s essay sounds almost like Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?”
Babadjanov: The mayor is on a higher level; he would never have been involved with such small bribes. As for the group’s appeal, we should differentiate low and high-level members. Yes, the economic benefits of membership are appealing. Akramia initiated direct cotton exports to Ivanovo, in Russia, using bribes and various special means. Previously cotton had gone through the Baltics and shipment cost much more. The elites are caught between religion and secularism, or perhaps religion and Sovietism. That’s why they’re interesting. Akramia’s leaders are eclectic, caught between the Koran, Marx, and Freud. As for the similarity to Lenin, we all come from the USSR, even today’s religious leaders. Their commentaries betray a radical egalitarianism, and without the Islamic rhetoric they would sound like Lenin in many respects.

Q: The video, as you said, does not show the dispersal of the crowd. Why did the government restrict information on the violence?
Babadjanov: This is a complicated question for me. I don’t work for the prosecutor; I just served on an expert committee. I don’t want to judge anyone. Rather I’m calling for a sober assessment of events.

Q: Are there ties between Akramia and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or other Central Asian terrorist groups?
Babadjanov: That is a good but complicated question. The Uzbek public prosecutor and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have both claimed such links exist, but I have not seen their evidence. One detained leader of Akramia said he was trained by a foreigner, but recanted after his release. There is one small piece of evidence connected with Amro Bank. The bank disclosed that US$200,000 was transferred from Kabul, through Istanbul and Amsterdam, to an Akramia account in Tashkent. That’s all the evidence I’ve seen, and I can’t say how strong it is.

Summary prepared by Matthew Gibson, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.