Observers Remain Skeptical as Uzbek Government Says Religious Extremism Rising

Uzbekistan’s State Security Service says there is a revival of religious extremist activities in the Central Asian country, but the government’s history of alleging extremism accusations to target political opposition has led some observers to view the warning with suspicion.The country’s security body in recent months has announced several operations against extremist activities, including an operation on September 8 in the capital, Tashkent. Six Uzbek citizens were detained for allegedly distributing material on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, to “call for and encourage going to Syria to join the ranks of an international terrorist organization.”Uzbekistan has a population of nearly 33 million, with about 94% identifying as Muslims, according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of the remaining population, 3.5% of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox. The remaining roughly 3% includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, other denominations of Christian faith, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists.Like some of its neighboring countries, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Uzbekistan has been accused by rights organizations of restricting basic religious practices. The Uzbek government, however, says freedom of religion is guaranteed through its constitution and that its measures are merely to separate religion from the state, as well as uproot violent extremism that has been a threat for decades.Uzbek officials have not disclosed the number of people arrested in recent sweeps. According to the country’s interior ministry, they mostly involved adherents of banned Islamist groups, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jihodchilar.Banned groupsHizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, is an international pan-Islamist movement founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani in Jerusalem with the aims of restoring the Islamic caliphate system. Despite its rejection of violence to establish a caliphate, individuals affiliated with the group have been linked to several attacks in different countries.UzbekistanAlmost nothing is known about Jihodchilar, meaning “Jihadists,” a group banned by the Uzbek government in 2016. Some regional experts and rights groups have questioned its existence and claimed it was invented by authorities to afflict dissenters under the guise of fighting extremism.“Uzbekistan has very broad and vague definitions of ‘extremism,’ ‘extremist activity,’ or ‘extremist materials’ in the Counter-Extremism Act,” said Vladislav Lobanov, a Berlin-based senior research assistant for Human Rights Watch.Lobanov said that despite some reforms and occasional presidential pardons of prisoners, arrests on extremism charges have continued under Shavkat Mirziyoyev who became president in 2016. Those who practice their faith outside strict state controls become targets for authorities.“Many promising reforms continue to exist only on paper. The government still has a lot of work to do in the direction of ‘a new era of free society,’ including to create an independent judiciary, allow independent human rights groups to register and operate, end forced labor, allow opposition parties to contest elections, and stop censorship. These are still dreams for Uzbekistan,” Lobanov said.VOA was not able to reach Uzbekistan’s interior and foreign ministries for comment.Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister, became president following the death of President Islam Karimov and vowed significant reforms, including pardoning “sincerely repentant” religious prisoners and abolishing blacklists of individuals suspected of participating in extremist religious organizations.Last month, Mirziyoyev ordered the release of more than 1,500 “persons serving a sentence of imprisonment who sincerely repented of their deeds and firmly embarked on the path of correction,” including 113 political and Muslim religious prisoners, according to a government statement.A long way to goAs part of Mirziyoyev’s amnesty for religious prisoners, some members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir group were also released. However, authorities arrested them again later on charges of “conspiring with Hizb ut-Tahrir to spread the ideas and literature of the group among the population, and to expand the ranks of the organization,” according to a government statement.While Mirziyoyev’s progress is welcomed by rights watchdogs, they say the country still has a long way to go to allow basic freedom of expression. The U.N. Human Rights Committee in April said it was concerned that the Uzbek government was still using the country’s legislation to unduly restrict freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association.Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and an associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California, said that the government’s criminal code, through strict limits on basic religious practices, has had “a strong chilling effect” on the progress of civil society in Uzbekistan. The criminal articles, he claimed, were violating the country’s international human rights obligations.”President Karimov used them for a quarter century to go after both political and religious opponents, and while used less often now, they are still on the books and still applied periodically under the current president,” Swerdlow said, adding that the country’s repressive measures against extremism likely have adverse effects.“If the government really wants to fight extremism, it can do so more effectively by creating an environment where human rights organizations are able to more freely register and where journalists can perform their work without fear of harassment or intimidation. Civil society is one of the most important bulwarks against violent extremism and this is an area where the government must do more to see that reforms indeed take place,” he said.While the 2019 U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom recognized the Uzbek government for making “substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom,” the country still remains on the State Department’s Special Watch List for “having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.”VOA Uzbek Service’s Malik Mansur contributed to this story from Europe.      

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Tens of Thousands Attend Bangladesh Islamist Leader’s Funeral

Tens of thousands of people gathered to mourn the leader of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist group as his funeral was held Saturday in a rural southeastern town, police said.Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, who had led the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam group since it was formed in 2010, died of age-related complications Friday in the capital Dhaka. He was believed to be more than 100 years old.His death came a day after an unprecedented revolt involving thousands of students at his highly influential madrasa, or Islamic school, forced him to resign after three decades as its chair.Shafi made his mark in national politics when he marched tens of thousands of his followers into central Dhaka in May 2013, demanding harsh blasphemy laws and the execution of atheist bloggers.The rally ended in violence when police evicted his followers from the capital’s main commercial center. About 50 people were killed in clashes with security forces, most of them shot, in some of the worst political violence the country had ever seen.Around half a dozen bloggers and secular activists were later hacked to death by Islamist extremists.On Saturday, after Shafi’s body was brought back to his school in Hathazari outside the port city of Chittagong, vast crowds of his followers rushed to pay their respects.Local TV stations aired live footage of people, mostly men in religious dress, packing roads and spaces in and around the school.”Some 150,000 people have already gathered here on the madrasa ground, in the buildings and out on the roads to his funeral prayers,” regional police chief Anwar Hossain told AFP. Shafi’s supporters said the turnout was far higher.Madrasa revolt  As supreme leader of Hefazat-e-Islam, Shafi oversaw its growth into the South Asian country’s biggest Islamic fundamentalist group with millions of supporters.Bangladesh is 90% Muslim and Shafi drew on support from seminaries at the tens of thousands of Islamic schools in the conservative nation of 168 million people.His followers saw him as a key defender of the faith, but to his critics he was known as the “Tamarind Cleric,” who wanted to roll back the secular character of modern Bangladesh.Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina praised Shafi’s contribution to the expansion of Islamic education in the country in a statement.Shafi’s unceremonious resignation as head of the madrasa, which is considered the heart of conservative Islam in Bangladesh, came Thursday night after a two-day demonstration at the school.Up to 3,000 madrasa students took part in the revolt, a police spokesman told AFP, which was triggered by the sacking of three madrasa teachers, allegedly orchestrated by Shafi’s powerful son Anas Madani.The students also forced Madani’s sacking from the school.In recent years, relations have improved between Hefazat-e-Islam and the secular government, which agreed to the group’s demands for recognition of madrasa degrees and allowed students from all madrasas to compete for government jobs.

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Somali Schools Reassure of Students Health Safety as Learning Resumes

Fifteen-year-old Nasra Aidarus is happy to be back in class after a four-month school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Somalia.The seventh-grader at Daynile Primary and Secondary School was just settling into her new school when classes were canceled in March to limit the coronavirus spread. Her family came back to Somalia in 2018 after living in Yemen as refugees for years.
She was worried she might never fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.She said her greatest fear was not being able to complete her education and being married off at a young age because of the school closure.Aidarus is one of 390 students who went back to the school in the Daynile District in mid-August, but more have yet to report for fear contracting the coronavirus.Daud Jiran, Mercy Corps Somalia’s country director, said the coronavirus pandemic has taken away years of gains in drawing children, mostly girls, into classrooms.“When the schools were going on, girls had a safe space,” Jiran said. “We understand from the little assessment that we do that girls are being depended on more by their families. So the burden of social support to their families has become more. Girls dropping out of school have increased.”We also see when teenage girls stay home long, we see the issue of early marriage increasing now because society feels they need support.”Aid agencies say Somalia has one of the world’s largest populations of children out of school — 2 million out 5 million of school age.Years of disruptionThe country’s educational system has been affected by decades of conflict, displacement and, most recently, the coronavirus.Daynile Deputy Headteacher Mahad Dahir Hassan says the school is reaching out to the children’s families, trying to assure them that the school is doing everything possible to minimize the virus’ spread by keeping students apart. Some students have heeded the call and have reported to the school, he said, but others have not. School officials, he said, sometimes even go to the youths’ homes to try to persuade them to return to classes.More classrooms were created to allow greater spacing in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, which has resulted in teachers working at least two shifts a day.President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has just inaugurated the national curriculum for secondary schools, ending three decades of multiple nonstandardized educational systems in Somalia.

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Afghan Media Fear Losing Freedom in Taliban Peace Talks

Afghan journalists covering the government’s peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, say Kabul did not provide them with full access to information. The government has reiterated its pledge of transparency and support for press freedom in the peace talks process. But journalists say they are concerned an agreement between Afghanistan and the Taliban could mean a loss for media freedom and access to information in the future. VOA’s Samsama Sirat files this report from Kabul, narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.

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Taliban Want ‘Islamic System’ of Government as Focal Point of Afghan Talks

Delegates of Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban continue finalizing “rules of negotiations” for a power-sharing deal a week after the two foes launched their historic U.S.-brokered direct peace dialogue.Meanwhile, battlefield hostilities between Afghan forces and Taliban insurgents continued to inflict heavy casualties on both sides and deepen a mutual trust deficit at the negotiating table.Airstrikes carried out by Afghan forces against Taliban positions in northeastern Kunduz province Saturday reportedly killed at least 12 civilians and injured 10 others. Defense ministry officials said the attack killed more than 40 insurgents and that investigations into reports of civilian casualties were underway.A Taliban statement said the airstrikes killed 23 civilians, including women and children, and injured 17 others. It was not immediately possible to verify claims made by either side.The insurgents have rejected calls for a cease-fire until they negotiate a broader political deal over the future of Afghanistan in the dialogue being hosted by Qatar.The two negotiating teams have held daily meetings but have shared few details about the intra-Afghan dialogue that began September 12 in Doha, the Qatari capital.Abdullah Abdullah (C), chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, speaks with members of delegations at the end of a session during peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.In a weekly commentary published Saturday, the Taliban insisted they have, from the outset, called for the establishment of an “Islamic system” of governance in Afghanistan to be a “focal point of discussions.”The radical group asserted it “believes” the Islamic system could only bring peace and solve problems facing Afghanistan, including corruption and other crimes.The Taliban denounce the existing Afghan ruling system as illegal and a product of what they call America’s occupation of the country.The Afghan government vehemently defends the political system as “fully Islamic” and has vowed not to compromise on it in the discussions with the insurgent interlocutors.The peace negotiations in Doha are an outcome of the deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February to withdraw about 8,600 American troops remaining in the country by May 2021 and close out America’s longest war.Trump’s take on TalibanOn Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump described the Taliban as “tough” and “smart,” saying his administration was dealing well with the insurgents.“We’ll be down very shortly over the next couple of weeks to 4,000 — less than 4,000 [service members] in Afghanistan. And then we’ll make that final determination a little bit later on,” Trump told reporters.FILE – U.S. soldiers load onto a Chinook helicopter to head out on a mission in Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2019.“We’re dealing very well with the Taliban. They’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp. … So, we’re having some very good discussions with the Taliban, as you probably heard. … And so, we’ll be out of there, knowing that certain things have to happen — certain things have to be fulfilled,” Trump underscored.A U.S.-led foreign military alliance invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power days after the September 11, 2001, terror strikes on the U.S. that al-Qaida leaders orchestrated from their Afghan sanctuaries.Trump is seeking re-election November 3, and eliminating what he often denounces as America’s “endless war” in Afghanistan has been a key campaign promise.The Afghan war has cost Washington the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service members and hundreds of billions of dollars.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week cautioned that intra-Afghan negotiations would be a “difficult” process, but would help reduce the cost of war for the U.S.A recent survey by the nonprofit Eurasia Group Foundation found strong public support among Republican and Democratic voters for Trump administration-backed peace talks to end the 19-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan.The U.S.-Taliban pact binds the insurgents to disallow international terrorism from Afghan soil and engage in peace talks with rival Afghan factions to end the deadly conflict.

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Somalia’s Education System Struggles to Attract Girls

Fifteen-year-old Nasra Aidarus is happy to be back in class after a four-month school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Somalia.The seventh-grader at Daynile Primary and Secondary School was just settling into her new school when classes were canceled in March to limit the coronavirus spread. Her family came back to Somalia in 2018 after living in Yemen as refugees for years.
She was worried she might never fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.She said her greatest fear was not being able to complete her education and being married off at a young age because of the school closure.Aidarus is one of 390 students who went back to the school in the Daynile District in mid-August, but more have yet to report for fear contracting the coronavirus.Daud Jiran, Mercy Corps Somalia’s country director, said the coronavirus pandemic has taken away years of gains in drawing children, mostly girls, into classrooms.“When the schools were going on, girls had a safe space,” Jiran said. “We understand from the little assessment that we do that girls are being depended on more by their families. So the burden of social support to their families has become more. Girls dropping out of school have increased.”We also see when teenage girls stay home long, we see the issue of early marriage increasing now because society feels they need support.”Aid agencies say Somalia has one of the world’s largest populations of children out of school — 2 million out 5 million of school age.Years of disruptionThe country’s educational system has been affected by decades of conflict, displacement and, most recently, the coronavirus.Daynile Deputy Headteacher Mahad Dahir Hassan says the school is reaching out to the children’s families, trying to assure them that the school is doing everything possible to minimize the virus’ spread by keeping students apart. Some students have heeded the call and have reported to the school, he said, but others have not. School officials, he said, sometimes even go to the youths’ homes to try to persuade them to return to classes.More classrooms were created to allow greater spacing in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, which has resulted in teachers working at least two shifts a day.President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has just inaugurated the national curriculum for secondary schools, ending three decades of multiple nonstandardized educational systems in Somalia.

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