Lawrence Uzzell: If you think that IRFW has been obsessed with the countries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in our recent bulletins, let me plead that we have good reasons. According to my sources in Washington, the possibility of naming Uzbekistan as a "country of particular concern" was still alive as of the end of December--though it is an uphill struggle. That's why I devoted none of my attention to Russia and all of it to these two Central Asian countries when I was invited to take part in a briefing in the U.S. Capitol Building last month hosted by Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Here is the full text of my remarks, which were quoted in various religious and secular news media.
Remarks of Lawrence A. Uzzell to Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom, December 14, 2005
First let me say what a pleasure it is to be in the presence of so many people who have done so much to try to make the U.S. government take seriously the cause of international religious freedom. We've know for the last decade that most of the State Department bureaucracy needs constant pressure to give these issues the attention they deserve. We now know that the White House also needs pressure, no matter which party is in power--sometimes especially with an administration that's tempted to think that it can take its religious supporters for granted.
Five minutes is such a short time that I'm going to concentrate on just two countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I'll be glad to answer questions later about Russia or any other part of the former Soviet Union; I would also invite you to read our website, www.irfw.org. But right now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan deserve priority because they are by far the most vicious persecutors of religious faith among all the former Soviet republics. These two Central Asian countries are also by far the most egregious examples, not just in that part of the world but anywhere, of the current administration failing to do what it should be doing to promote religious freedom and other human rights. The fact that Washington has not named Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as "countries of particular concern" under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act ought to be a major scandal.
Let me suggest a thought experiment for you. Suppose that the American government were as tone-deaf about religion and as paranoid about religious believers as the current government of Uzbekistan. Suppose that the U.S. government were unable or unwilling to make the distinction between the average devout evangelical Protestant and the Ku Klux Klan, and that it treated any outward display of Protestant piety as evidence of allegiance to terrorist movements plotting to overthrow the government. Suppose that you could be thrown into jail just for displaying a cross or for holding Bible studies in your home, and that your jailers would torture you until you agreed to denounce your friends and relatives as fellow members of your terrorist conspiracy.
That is essentially what pious Muslims now face in Uzbekistan. The secret police there are among the leading torturers of all Eurasia; indeed that may be one of the keys to their government's relationship with Washington. Any youg man who belongs to any Muslim group not totally controlled by the state is at risk of arrest, even if that group is completely apolitical. It's risky to wear a beard or to pray five times daily. In practice the state refuses to grant legal registration to new religious congregations other than those of the state-controlled Muslim clergy or of Jews; it treats unregistered religious activity as a criminal offense. Protestant groups are not tortured like the Muslims, but they regularly suffer police raids. All missionary activities are banned.
Except in the area of torture, Turkmenistan is even worse. Here's another thought experiment: Suppose that the president of the United States were to write his own holy scripture, his own book of personal reflections on spiritual and moral issues which he then ordered the rest of us to treat as if it were a sacred text. Suppose that the Republican National Committee were constantly proclaiming that this book is on a par with the Bible or the Koran. Suppose that the Department of Homeland Security were constantly pressuring clergy of all religions to display it in their places of worship and to quote from it in their sermons. Suppose that the No Child Left Behind program included a requirement that every schoolchild study these presidential scriptures in depth, memorizing passages and writing essays about them, at the expense of class time formerly spent on subjects like history and science. I realize that this sounds like some sort of sick joke, but it is an exact description of the personality cult enforced by Turkmenistan's dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.
We can safely predict that someday after Niyazov's death his two-volume collection of "spiritual thoughts," the Rukhnama, will take its richly deserved place alongside the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev. But in the meantime Niyazov's government is destroying cultural and educational opportunities for an entire generation of young Turkmens. It is also forcing both Muslims and Christians to commit what serious religious believers can only regard as blasphemy.
Independent human-rights groups are nearly unanimous in calling on the State Department to tell the truth about Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan by formally listing them as "countries of particular concern." Joining that call is the government's own bipartisan advisory commission on religious freedom. On the other side of the debate is the Pentagon. Unfortunately, it seems that the Pentagon is winning.
In the 1990s, the greatest obstacle in Washington to the cause of international religious freedom was liberal secularism. Too many key decision-makers in the executive branch simply had a blind spot with regard to religion: They were accustomed to thinking of religious believers as enemies of freedom, as agents of persecution rather than victims of it. Many of the people in this room have worked hard to overcome that obstacle, but now we face another one.
Some of our leaders have now become so obsessed with the war on terrorism, or with what they think is a war on terrorism, that they are willing to overlook the most horrible violations of freedom and of basic morality by dictators who claim to be our allies in that war. Thugs like Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niyazov have become quite skillful at pushing our hot buttons, at getting us to think that unless we support them their countries will see the rise to power of Islamic extremists. The truth is almost exactly the opposite, especially in Uzbekistan: Karimov's brutal methods are driving his subjects into the arms of the extremists. Moreover, during wartime it is especially important to remind ourselves that the end does not justify the means: We may win the war on terrorism but lose our souls. If we continue our current ham-fisted policies in Central Asia, we may lose both.
Published by International Religious Freedom Watch Copyright © 2005 International Religious Freedom Watch. All rights reserved.
Read the entire article on the International Religious Freedom Watch website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.