ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- At the start of last week, top Uzbek officials and representatives of pro-government public organizations gathered in the cabinet of ministers building to discuss a vexing problem.
Uzbekistan, said Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and State Security Service chief Abdusalim Azizov, was facing a new wave of 'religious radicalization.'
The meeting was unannounced and no statement on it having taken place was released until September 14.
But sources that attended the meeting and spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity said that along with the supposed rise in radical interpretations of the country's main religion, officials raised alarms about an increase in polygamy and the emerging problem of citizens -- including state officials -- attending prayers during working hours.
Officials should either 'choose religion or work for the state,' Aripov said, according to the sources.
After coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoev's government banked credit at home and abroad by easing draconian restrictions on religious practices, particularly Islam, which about 90 percent of the country of some 35 million people adheres to.
But now, everything points to government policy edging back toward the time of Mirziyoev's predecessor, authoritarian Islam Karimov, when extensive state control stifled the religion and thousands of devout believers were jailed and tortured as extremists.
Muslims pray during Friday Prayers at the Khazrati Imam Mosque in Tashkent in October 2021.
On the Friday before the meeting, September 9, Uzbekistan's most senior religious cleric called for 'restraint' in regard to Islamic clothing and beards amid 'excesses' that he said were visible everywhere among practicing Muslims.
'An opinion has formed that Islam implies wearing certain clothes and having a certain appearance,' said Mufti Nuriddin Kholiqnazarov, appearing to strike out at the niqab veil that covers all of a woman's face except the eyes.
'There is a rule left to us by our prophet. Islam does not have a specific form, it is impossible, it is not a religion of one nation, it is not a religion of one climate,' the cleric said.
And if that message came over loud and clear for believers, then the 'azon' -- or call to prayer -- is reportedly getting much quieter in some of the country's neighborhoods.
This month alone, correspondents for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service heard multiple instances of the volume of the call to prayer being lowered, including in a district in Tashkent, where a correspondent was able to visit and confirm that observation.
In response to RFE/RL's request for comment, a representative of the Muftiate said the reports 'do not correspond to reality.' The State Committee on Religious Affairs, the government body that oversees religion, did not respond before to requests for comment.
A new mosque in Nukus, in northwestern Uzbekistan
Walking The Streets Freely?
This new development is ironic because Mirziyoev only recently touted the azon's return to loudspeakers in late 2017 as one of the symbols of his 'New Uzbekistan.'
It was one of several developments that led to Tashkent no longer finding itself being termed 'a country of particular concern' by the U.S. State Department -- a designation for the very worst offenders of religious freedom that currently applies to 12 countries.
Others changes included the lifting of an unofficial but rigorously enforced ban on minors attending prayers, the opening of new mosques, and the claimed reduction of a lengthy 'blacklist' of citizens under surveillance due to allegedly extreme religious beliefs.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov was known for his repressive policies toward Islam, a religion observed by some 90 percent of the population.
During an appearance in the religiously conservative Andijon Province prior to his reelection this summer, Mirziyoev said Uzbeks could now 'walk the streets freely and without any fear' -- an indirect reference to the repressions of the Karimov era.
'I want to cry when I hear the azon, [knowing] that we have reached these days,' he said. 'When did we last have this?'
But in the last few years Muslims have been walking the streets with more apprehension than Mirziyoev's comments suggest. Detentions and interrogations of religious believers have increased, and there have been a stream of reports regarding forced beard shavings.
Uzbek officials are, moreover, no longer in regular contact with either the United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of religion or the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, according to a government source who spoke to RFE/RL. The special rapporteur was slated to visit the country at least three times in recent years only for these visits to be canceled, the source said.
Ilkham Umarakhunov, an expert on Islam in Central Asia based in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, told RFE/RL that there was currently a 'big gap between what the international community wants to see and what the government is prepared to do in terms of religious freedom.'
'In Uzbekistan, even talking to experts there, religion is still seen more from the point of view of security rather than freedom,' he said.
Most worrying for the authorities is the idea that people will abandon secular institutions completely in favor of 'Islamic ecosystems,' Umarakhunov added. 'On the one hand there is an issue of freedom of religion, on the other there is a possibility that one group can grow quickly and try to impose their rules on others, potentially causing a conflict. They are very afraid of that.'
SEE ALSO: After Freedom Of Speech Opening, Uzbekistan Is Now Binge-Arresting And Imprisoning Bloggers
Indeed, on September 5, lawmakers in the rubber-stamp lower house of parliament approved a law that will introduce fines for perceived violations of the secular order. Targets for the law include marriages blessed in Islamic ceremony but not registered with the state and clothing that makes the wearer 'unidentifiable' in public -- code for the niqab.
Lawmakers backed the bill 'after heated discussions and long polemics,' the press service of the lower house said, without offering further details. It is now due for consideration by the upper house, the Senate.
'Our Voice Is Silenced'
The Uzbek regime's historic concerns -- and paranoia -- regarding Islam are not completely without basis.
Early independence saw the rapid emergence of religious groups prepared to openly challenge seculariism in Uzbekistan.
One such group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is still active more than two decades after authorities accused it of carrying out a series of car bombings in Tashkent.
And the IMU is still nominally committed to toppling the Uzbek regime, even if the days when it could pose a serious threat to Tashkent appear long gone, with a struggle for survival in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan a more pressing concern for the extremist group.
But there is no doubt that Muslims committed to a more conservative interpretation of Islam than the version overseen by the government-loyal Muftiate have been raising their voices in recent years.
In the early years of Mirziyoev's rule, these conservative voices spoke out against bans on the hijab inside state educational institutions as well as the school uniforms that they found too revealing, among other things.
Mosque Kok-Gumbaz in Shahrisabz
Now the space for secular and religious voices alike is shrinking.
Last month, Mubashshir Ahmad, the founder of the popular online channel and website Azon.uz, announced the closure of its various projects in a perfunctory Facebook message.
Emerging in 2017 and hosting debates and opinion pieces on Islam and its history in Uzbekistan, Azon was an example of the new opportunities appearing in the Uzbek information space.
In April, popular blogger Xodjiakbar Nosirov was sentenced to 15 days in prison for a video in which he argued that a number of yogurt brands popular in Uzbekistan should be considered 'haram,' or unfit for consumption by Muslims, due to a food colorant in them that is extracted from the cochineal beetle.
While Islamic scholarship differs on the permissibility of the carmine food colorant, it is well within the realm of legitimate theological debate -- outside Uzbekistan, at least.
Given these incidents and regular reports of religious bloggers being hauled into police stations for questioning, it is perhaps surprising that religious voices are still heard from at all.
And yet they are.
One example was a fiery September 11 Facebook post on Azon by Shermurod Togay a former Tashkent imam who warned that Uzbekistan would 'not achieve greatness' if it turned its back on Shari'a law.
'Now they want to turn off the call to prayer. Our voice is silenced. [But] the call to prayer will not fade. The voice of those who demanded silence will be silenced. Their place will be in hell,' Togay fumed in the post, further pledging that 'the number of worshipers will increase' and insisting that 'curses will fall upon the grave of the wretched, bloodthirsty.'
Togay's post generated plenty of pushback in the form of posts defending the secular state. But it also attracted comments of approval.
One commenter bemoaned the fact that the call to prayer had already been muffled in Andijon -- the same part of the country where Mirziyoev was hailing its return earlier this year.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036