Shortly after declaring independence in 1991, Uzbekistan received a gift of some five million Korans from Saudi Arabia inscribed "From your good friends in Riyadh." At the time, several Uzbeks reportedly tore out the pages bearing the inscription and resold the books abroad.
But a growing number of Uzbeks have turned to Islam, specifically the Wahabbi strand of radical Islam imported from places like Saudi Arabia. Central Asia's Fergana Valley emerged as a hotbed of fundamentalism (New Yorker), not to mention a popular corridor for drug traffickers. Meanwhile, in nearby Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban funneled cash and arms to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other terrorist cells in Uzbekistan, explained in this new Backgrounder.
Yet the most controversial event came last May. In Andijan, smack in the middle of Uzbekistan's part of the Fergana Valley, what began as a small prison uprising orchestrated by few members of an obscure Islamist religious group quickly morphed into a mass demonstration that turned deadly (RFE/RL). Hundreds died in the massacre. A new video, touched up by the Uzbek government and circulated by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, raises a number of questions, chief among them: Who started the violence?
Regardless of whether a Tiananmen Square-style massacre occurred, a question experts say may never be fully resolved (EurasiaNet), the event has had far-reaching effects and marked a decided turning point in U.S.-Uzbek ties. Those relations peaked after September 11, 2001 with the signing of an important security agreement, but were dealt a blow when Uzbekistan booted U.S. forces off its base at Karshi-Khanabad shortly after Andijan. Uzbekistan found shelter in an hitherto unknown security body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), outlined in this Backgrounder, while reorienting itself closer to Russia and China, both of which share Tashkent's fears of "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" (not coincidentally, the theme of June's SCO meeting).
Yet, in an interview with CFR.org, Carnegie's Martha Brill Olcott asks: "What constitutes terrorism?" While Western governments characterize the uprising at Andijan as a repressive move aimed at crushing democracy, the Uzbeks, backed by their Russian and Chinese allies, describe it as counterterrorism. "Why is it not terrorism when it's in Uzbekistan, but it is when it's someplace else?" Olcott asks.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, similar dilemmas confront Russia in its southern Caucasus region, primarily driven by Chechen-led terrorism. China, too, has faced Islamic separatist violence originating with restive Muslims of the Uighur nation, an ethnic group in western China's Xinjiang province. In Foreign Affairs, Chien-peng Chung recounts the story of five Uighurs recently released from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay. Today, they are in legal limbo in Albania because authorities fear they will be executed if returned to China (BBC).