Our World Uzbeks make a stan on diversity

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Sometimes good comes out of adversity, as seems to be the case in Uzbekistan.

Of all the countries that are home to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, the oldest Koran in the world lives here in Uzbekistan, which many consider the most secular Islamic country.

In an unimposing new Library of Spiritual Administration in the oldest part of Tashkent, a city of 350 sunny days a year, this Koran written by Othman, the third caliph (Muslim leader) between AD644 and AD646, not much more than a decade after Muhammad’s death, lies open for all to see.

Yes, here off Khast Imom Square, in an area dating to the 16th century, I am standing before the oldest Koran in the world, and so, right next to me, are a couple of girls in singlets and short Western skirts, with uncovered heads. A couple of chaps in shorts and sandals join us. “So that’s it, then,” one says.

Yes, that’s it, and the symbolism of this moment is enormous.

Uzbekistan may sound strange, faraway, unknown, and uncomfortably too close to Afghanistan, and yet it shows us what a secular Islamist country looks like.

Some roots of that lie in the Jadids movement in the early 20th century. The Jadids not only bravely and skilfully confronted the Soviets for the way they were using the area for mining and agriculture while neglecting the people, but then set out to reshape Islamic thinking, embracing technology, education and women’s rights.

The Jadids also focused on Islam, seeing in it nationalism as much as religion and putting in the footings of this progressive, socially inclusive, secular Muslim nation.

Today, religious teachers from overseas are still not allowed in, says Anait Garaev, an experienced and knowledgeable guide who is showing me around. “We had a bad experience with fundamentalism. Local students are taught by local teachers.”

The long-time ruler of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016 after 25 years as its only president, was autocratic and Uzbekistan is still seen as an authoritarian state with limited civil rights. But, while there may be those who would replace regime with theocracy, it seems true that the overwhelming majority of Uzbeks don’t see that as a successful future.

When current President Shavat Mirziyoyev met US President Donald Trump on May 16, no mention was made of human rights. 

“I know that people say these things but we love our government,”  Anait says. She is a strong, intelligent woman — not someone with the wool pulled over her eyes. She says she watches the Uzbek, government-controlled TV channels for all the good news: “They are there to keep us happy — only good news.” She watches the BBC and CNN for the bad news. “But no one is filtering that. No one is controlling that.”

Indeed, I sit in the library with the world’s oldest Koran, with its 338 pages of buckskin, and consider these things as people come and go. More bareheaded women; lighthearted children; thoughtful men.

There are no clothing rules here, in a country that is 80 per cent Muslim but home to some 65 nationalities.

Uzbekistan is a place used to challenge and change. It is used to shock waves of all sorts. In the 6th century BC, people here practised Zoroastrianism (a good thought, good word, good deed each day). They converted to Buddhism, then to Islam in the 7th century, to Sufism in the 8th century and the city was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219. It rose under Emir Temur, still considered by many “the father of the nation”, in the 14th century. It was taken over by Tsarist Russia in 1865, and became a Soviet republic after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In World War II, 1.5 million men fought the nazis and half a million did not return. 

After the Soviet collapse of 1991, Uzbekistan became independent.

That moment in 1991 cannot be underestimated — it was the loss of the only way of life they knew.

But these are indeed a resourceful people. Take the example of their language.

The Uzbek language was founded in the 16th century, using the Arabic language. After it was conquered by the Russian empire in 1865, and through the Tsarist and Soviet eras to 1991, Russian was the official language, written in the Cyrillic alphabet. With independence, Uzbek became the official language again. There was the choice of alphabet to use — Arabic, Cyrillic or Latin. 

Today, Uzbek is written with the Latin alphabet but many Uzbek signs in Tashkent are in Cyrillic, as this was the native alphabet for so long here. Oh, and young people increasingly speak English.

These are an adaptable and resourceful people, used to tremors.

For though Tashkent’s history may date back 2200 years, and it may have been one of the important trading points on the Great Silk Road between Asia and Europe, the modern city as we see it today had a distinctive moment of birth.

The earthquake came in the early hours, shaking the city while most people were still in their homes. Some say 200,000 were left homeless; some say 300,000.

Some say the earthquake in the city of Tashkent in April 1966 measured as much as nine on the Richter scale, some eight, but 7.5 with aftershocks seems to be the most reliable record.

Many of the homes were mud and straw but their roofs perched separately on a sort of scaffold, which helped.

This was, of course, when Uzbekistan was still part of the then Soviet Union, and they sent help.

“They sent young volunteers from all over the Soviet Union,” Anait says. “Young engineers. They stayed in tents and constructed everything. And at the end of the construction, they were offered free apartments and many youngsters got free apartments. The city became young and multinational.”

This is a city now which has wide roads, never has traffic jams, and good public transport that is subsidised and cheap — 25¢ to go anywhere on the Metro.

The big city library, with its books and wi-fi has Uzbek, Russian and English language debating clubs where young people test and contest subjects such as the effects of globalisation, and which are very popular.

These are a resourceful people and Tashkent, a city of just over two million people, is one of the most pleasant cities in which to spend time, and watch people with a mix mostly of Muslim and Russian histories, focused on being purely Uzbek.

The people here don’t call you “tourists”. 

They call you “guests”.

How a point of view is broadened

The best of travel may not make me see the world from someone else’s point of view but it shows me the viewpoint from which they see it. And here’s a challenge to my thinking, as Uzbeks I speak to say they are keen to keep their dictatorship, even if they lack the human rights much of the rest of the world might expect, because the strength of the Uzbek government and its leaders has kept fundamentalists out. This is a secular country and peaceful. No outside teachers are allowed in their Islamic schools, they say.

One woman, a former university lecturer, told me: “We don’t need democracy — believe me. We need a strong leader. I am afraid of any outside influence. Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad — these were strong leaders.”

This is a country where for many, Putin is highly thought of; Yeltsin is forgiven as he gave the gift of Putin; and Gorbachev remains despised.

Fact File


Stephen Scourfield was in Uzbekistan as a guest of Travel Directors. They have not seen or approved this story.


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