The handsome young man who received me last month in a government office in the Uzbek town of Fergana was working for the area's governor as a state "watchdog" for supervising Islam, but he didn't look or act the part. Rather than lecture me on the evils of religion, he told me that he had spent a year studying at an Islamic university in Cairo. And he gave me a copy of a book that was an Uzbek runaway bestseller.
The book, "Religion: There Is a Proper Way," is a guide to bringing Uzbeks back to their true faith through prayer. Its author, Sheik Muhammad Sadyk Muhammad Yusuf, fled Uzbekistan in fear of his life in 1993. He had been fired as the country's senior cleric for, among other things, being too tolerant of the Islamic fundamentalists in his native Fergana Valley. But he's back, and the government's decision to allow the open sale of his book was part of an effort to encourage "good" Muslims and discourage "bad" ones, like those tied to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an alleged terrorist group the sheik criticizes.
These distinctions were a small step forward for the regime of Uzbekistan's secular president, Islam Karimov, who for most of the past decade has repressed Muslims of every stripe while currying favor with the United States and Russia for his stand against religious extremism. However, after a prison break, a popular demonstration and an army crackdown in Andijan earlier this month, Karimov is blaming Islamic extremists again.
There are dangerous Islamic extremists in Uzbekistan, but poverty, corruption, repressive security agents, price controls on cotton sales, steep taxes on small businesses and restrictions on small traders have created a disgruntlement that has nothing to do with religion. Karimov's cronies have monopolized industries for their own advantage.
But instead of restoring public confidence by offering concrete economic reforms, the Uzbek president continues to blame his problems on Islamic terrorists and the foreigners who support them. He snipes at Western critics who are pressuring him to liberalize. And he shows no signs of wavering in his commitment to an ambiguous policy of "evolution, not revolution." The latter, he says, comes when leaders show weakness, not strength.
Popular frustration may be even greater in Uzbekistan than it was in other countries that experienced color revolutions. But their revolutions coalesced around opposition figures who had administrative experience and widespread support. In contrast, Uzbek public figures who criticize their regime are few and far between. The three most serious challengers to Karimov are Shukrulla Mirsaidov, a former prime minister who has been living under house arrest in the capital of Tashkent since 1992; Muhammad Salih, a poet who ran against Karimov for president in December 1991 and who lives in Norway, where he leads a pro-democracy group called Erk, or Liberty; and Abdurahim Polat, a scientist and leader of a pro-democracy group called Birlik , or Unity, who has shuttled between the United States and Turkey ever since a near-fatal beating in Tashkent in 1994.
There are pro-reform elements within Uzbekistan's ruling elite -- in economic ministries, parliament, the private sector, the diplomatic service, even the military -- but to name these people would put their jobs at risk. There is no evidence that they are organized and many may not know of each others' existence. Uzbekistan's powerful ministers -- of internal affairs, state security and defense -- help keep a distance between Karimov and the closet reformers who serve him. In theory, these ministers could be strong enough to oust the president, a la Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania. But cooperation has never been their strong suit.
Even if they were to make common cause, there is little reason to expect that their president-designate would be any more pro-reform than his predecessor. True reform would cost them the economic benefits and perquisites of power that they would be seeking to preserve. It is far more likely that they might embrace religion in the hope that an empowered Islamic establishment would prevent Islamic militants from persecuting their secular benefactors.
Karimov is already turning to Islam to increase his regime's popularity. Sheik Muhammad Sadyk spoke on national television in recent days, railing against Hizb ut-Tahrir for using violence against the state in the name of Islam. Such speeches may have a calming influence in the short run, but they will not redress economic grievances nor create the political safety valves Uzbeks need to let off steam.
The use of force to put down popular protest may buy a regime a little more time if disturbances are small and uncoordinated. Each time unarmed civilians are killed, a measure of public support for the regime dies. Inevitably there will come a day when force does not prevail.
In Uzbekistan that would be a prelude to turmoil. Regional figures, bolstered by support from local clerics, would likely vie for the right to form a new national government, using remnants of competing state security forces to advance their cause. Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, no international force would be prepared to step in to fill the vacuum. Even Russia would be reluctant to offer help.
Political disarray in Uzbekistan could rapidly destabilize the border regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and undermine the security of their governments. It would end any prospect for democratic reform in Kazakhstan, which would almost certainly impose martial rule in its politically unreliable south.
Before the bloody crackdown on Andijan protests, Karimov showed a glimmer of realization that he needed to appeal to moderate Muslims. During my visit to Fergana, where I was researching the history of Islamic terrorism, I was permitted to meet six former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another terrorist group. I met these men in their homes in dusty villages near Namangan and Kokand. Sitting on the floor drinking tea, they told me of their experiences in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and al Qaeda-sponsored camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, from 1994 to 2001. At least two, both former commanders, were battle-hardened -- with few, if any, moral hesitations about using their skills. These men had decided to come home, sworn that they personally "had no blood on their hands" and received amnesty. But the Karimov regime shows little sign of making reconciliation of that kind with other Islamists or its secular critics.
The best hope for long-term peace and prosperity in the region is for the international community to press the Karimov regime to change. An important first step would be for the Uzbek government to accept an international investigation into what happened in Andijan. Back-channel diplomacy to get Karimov's acquiescence to this should include promises of international assistance to help the country cover its budget deficits while shrinking the role of the state in the economy. In return, Uzbek authorities would have to permit registration of foreign nongovernmental organizations and promise to step up the pace of civic institution building.
The loss of life in Andijan cannot be effaced. But the scores or hundreds of deaths can serve as a wakeup call. The situation can no longer be answered with platitudes about Islamic threats or empty exhortations to democratic reform. If the Uzbek regime can't or won't fix its problems, then the world community will soon face the choice between intervention and chaos.
Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contributed this comment to The Washington Post, where it first appeared in longer form.