WikiLeaks: Former mufti is "political chameleon"

Muhammad Sodiq in Tashkent's IWPR office in 2002
Uzbekistan's former chief mufti Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf is still regarded as a major Islamic authority in Uzbekistan, but US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show different sides of his personality.

Meeting with former ambassador-at-large Hanford

The first cable which discussed the mufti was sent on 16 July 2007 and was titled "Ambassador-at-large Hanford Meets With Uzbekistan's Religious Leaders."

It discussed the former mufti’s meeting with the former US envoy for religious freedom, John Hanford.

Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf received Hanford in his house in Tashkent and he praised close and lasting relations with the US embassy and thanked the US government for attention paid to freedom of religion, especially for its response regarding Uighur Muslims in China.

The former mufti said he had attentively read the US State Department's annual report on the state of freedom of religion in the world.

He said the report's authors should pay close attention to the accuracy of information, especially when it might lead to Uzbekistan's inclusion in a black list and possible sanctions against the country.

"He did not, however, note any particular inaccuracies in the report," the cable’s author and a US embassy staff member, Brad Hanson, clarified.

The former mufti requested the USA to use its influence to help Turkmenistan's former mufti Nasrulla Ibodullayev who had been sentenced to 22 years in prison on trumped-up charges in a trial that lasted only one day.

The sheikh said that he had been in regular contact with Nasrulla's family and that there was some hope that the situation would improve. Turkmen government officials notified his family members that they could go abroad and that they would allow Nasrulla to meet his mother.

Muhammad Sodiq said that the late Turkmen President Saparmyrad Niyazov had given Nasrulla his book "Ruhname" to present it in Mecca but when he refused to do so, he ended up in jail.

Muhammad Sodiq also said the religious situation had deteriorated in Tajikistan.

Uzbek legislation

The former mufti also made comments on Uzbekistan's legislation regarding freedom of religion and said that a ban on private religious education had become a response to the growing threat of terrorism in the previous few years.

He suggested, since the threat of terrorism had diminished somewhat, certain restrictions on religious education should be abolished.

The former mufti admitted that innocent people sometimes had been accused of extremism but in the majority of cases he had studied suspects were guilty of their crimes.

Summarising the meeting between ambassador Hanford and Uzbek religious leaders, Brad Hanson reported that some of them, including Catholic bishop and Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, expressed support for amending the 1998 restrictive law on religion, which would allow to extend [the sphere] of religious education and permit organisations with fewer than one hundred members to register.

Hanson particularly noted that the former mufti spoke in favour of lifting a number of restrictions on private religious education introduced as a response to the terrorist threat which he said was no longer so urgent.

Muhammad Sodiq did not clarify why all of a sudden it was no longer “so urgent” (it is discussed the next cable on this topic).

For dropping religious education restrictions

A cable published on 13 March 2008 “Former Mufti: Religious Extremist Threat Weakening” drawn up by US ambassador Richard Norland describes a new meeting with Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf at his home where he received two US embassy staff members.

The embassy representatives tried to organise a meeting with him as early as in previous autumn, but they were told, after all, to wait until the end of the 2007 presidential election, the cable said.

“Following President Karimov's reelection, the government is presumably now less sensitive to foreign diplomats meeting with the former Mufti, who continues to be an unofficial spiritual leader for the majority of believers in Uzbekistan and one of the country's few genuinely independent public figures,” Norland explains the reason for such long waiting.

During the meeting, Muhammad Sodiq shared his opinion with the embassy officials that the religious extremist threat had become weaker in Uzbekistan than in previous years, which he attributed to the government’s and his own efforts.

He credited the Uzbek government with investing more in the promotion of traditional Islam. As an example, he pointed to the construction of the large new Hazrati Imam Mosque in Tashkent, which opened in June 2007 and can seat 3,500 congregants inside and another 30,000 on the adjacent square.

“As he is no doubt aware, the construction was funded by Saudi money, which the government had held for some time; the government agreed to proceed with construction only after the Saudis threatened to pull funding,” Richard Norland said about this.

Muhammad Sodiq also noted his own efforts to establish contacts with former extremists, including those who had been recently released from jail.

He also said that he was continuing denouncing religious extremism in radio broadcasts and in his frequent publications, which are widely read in Uzbekistan.

Concern regarding copyright violations

Norland drew attention to the fact that, judging by all, Muhammad Sodiq had fewer restrictions on the government’s part regarding the distribution of his views among the Uzbek public than previously.

He stated the government had asked him “a few years ago” to help fight extremism, which he readily agreed to provide.

He said now he had his own daily one-hour radio programme and books and audio cassettes of his sermons were widely distributed in Tashkent.

In a separate conversation with the deputy ambassador at a recent national day reception, Muhammad Sodiq boasted that his seven websites in Uzbek and Russian were visited by thousands every week, Norland continued.

The sheikh also mentioned that he had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia for the annual meeting of the Saudi-based Association of Senior Ulama.

Muhammad Sodiq said he was the only representative from the former Soviet Union in this prestigious group of some twenty ulama.

“If true, this reflects at the least great Saudi confidence in this Islamic leader,” Norland commented on this statement.

He further reported that the deputy ambassador learnt from Kuwaiti Embassy contacts that Muhammad Sodiq occasionally travels to Kuwait too.

“Interestingly, Muhammad Sodiq appeared quite concerned that some of his works were being pirated. He has begun to sell his books with holograms in an attempt to stymie counterfeiters,” the head of the US embassy noted.

He said the former mufti complained that copyrights are generally not respected in Uzbekistan, pointing to the fact that even the state television broadcasted international football matches without the appropriate licences.

The sheikh said that he had raised the importance of copyright protection in his discussions with government officials, and that he believed this had [seriously] contributed to recent Uzbek government law-enforcement efforts.

Mosque attendance continues to climb

Muhammad Sodiq thoroughly answered the question about the level of mosque attendance. He said that attendance at prayers, especially by youth, continued to increase and pointed to some mosques that could hardly seat the increasing number of people.

He said that the government was aware of the problem, and it was planning to enlarge seven or eight mosques in Tashkent though he was not sure what the government was doing to ensure room for crowds in other regions of the country.

Muhammad Sodiq also lamented the generally insufficient education of imams in Uzbekistan.

Trying to improve their level of knowledge, he said that he held trainings for imams at his home several days a week even though he acknowledged that these trainings were technically illegal.

“Uzbekistan's strict religion laws makes any religious education conducted outside of government-approved bodies illegal, including private religious education conducted in one's own home,” Norland explained.

However, he continued, Muhammad Sodiq believes that the government was unlikely to interfere with his training of imams given his [high] stature in the community.

Greatly offended by prominent US scholar’s article

At the end of the meeting, Muhammad Sodiq brought up an article written about by an unnamed scholar, a US citizen, which extremely offended him.

The sheikh said that the article appeared on the Pentagon website and had described him as “worse than Osama bin Laden” and “an extremist”.

“Muhammad Sodiq's comment that the article appeared on the "Pentagon website" suggests that he thinks it might be an official U.S. government publication,”
Richard Norland reported.

He said the sheikh was also offended by the fact that no-one from the US embassy had called him to apologise for the article.

Muhammad Sodiq did not say whether he had actually read the article (published in English, which he is not known to read fluently), but said its publication was brought to his attention by Uzbek government officials, who in his words, tried to “downplay” its significance.

He said bygones are bygones and expressed his appreciation for the embassy official’s visit.

Later the embassy representative found out on the Internet what appears to be the article that Muhammad Sodiq mentioned. It was written by a prominent US expert on Central Asia and was linked to the National Defence University website (which could have been mistakenly constructed as the “Pentagon website”). (The article’s author was Martha Brill Olcott)

The article characterises Muhammad Sodiq as being conservative and politically ambitious and also quotes a "close associate" describing him as a "political chameleon who can adapt to changing winds" and "startlingly fixated on money".

The article also claims that his "fundamental goal" is the "gradual but full Islamisation of Uzbek society," and that he would "like to see a return of the Muslim caliphate." However, the article also clearly explains that Muhammad Sodiq is not an extremist and has rejected violence.

Americans do not trust Babadjanov

“AmCit [the US] scholar is known to frequently collaborate on such articles with Uzbek scholar Baktiyar Babadjanov, who we suspect may have contributed much of the information about Muhammad Sodiq for the AmCit's article,” the US ambassador summarised investigation results.

He said Babadjanov was a respected and legitimate scholar, who nonetheless seemed to know what was required of him to stay within the government's good graces.

The comments in the article mirror those made to political and economic chief last autumn by government official and former Uzbek Embassy in Washington press attaché Furqat Sodikov, Norland continued.

“Babadjanov and he both seem to feed from the same government propaganda trough, and we suspect this was an attempt to simultaneously weaken Muhammad Sodiq's credibility in the United States and poison his trust of us. We do not discount that Muhammad Sodiq understands this as well.

“Muhammad Sodiq's claim that religious extremism is weakening is difficult to verify. Some government officials with whom we have spoken make the same point, while other - equally thoughtful - officials think otherwise,” the US diplomat wrote.

“What is clear is that Uzbeks in Tashkent and the regions are more openly religious, and this religiosity seems to have spread across social groups and classes,” he concluded.

“Great religious scholar”

The next cable that mentions the former mufti is dated 3 July 2008. It recounts a meeting between a US embassy official and Abduvali Hafizov, the chief imam of the Yangi-Chek Mosque in Fergana.

Hafizov is an alumnus of the special exchange programme “International visitors” which sent Uzbek Muslim leaders to the United States for several weeks in 2002.

Hafizov spoke kind words of Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq, who participated in the same programme with him in 2002. He described Sodiq as a "great religious scholar" who had done much to promote "moderate Islam" and "greater understanding between different religions."

“Hafizov positive feelings for Sodiq contrasted sharply with those expressed by Uzbek historian and religious scholar Bakhtiyor Babadjanov during a recent meeting with Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford,” Richard Norland noted.

Babadjanov about Sodiq

During his second visit to Uzbekistan, Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford met Uzbek historian and religious scholar Bakhtiyor Babadjanov who mainly defended the government efforts with regard to religious freedom, said a cable dated 25 July 2008, written by US embassy official Butcher.

While Babadjanov said he understood the international community's criticism of the government's record, nevertheless, he believed that the government's religion policy was correctly aimed at preserving harmony between different religious groups and fighting religious extremism.

According to Babadjanov, Butcher continued, "no former or current Mufti would ever shake the (Orthodox) Metropolitan's hand" without the government pressuring him to do so.

Babadjanov was fiercely critical of former Mufti Mohammad Sodiq, who remains a figure of considerable influence for many Muslims in Uzbekistan.

Though Babadjanov said that Sodiq was “not an extremist”, he described his views as “anti-infidel”.

He argued that Sodiq was essentially "two-faced," presenting himself as a moderate to Western audiences, while at the same time expressing intolerant views of other religions to Muslim audiences.

In contrast, Babadjanov had much kinder words for current State Advisor for Interethnic and Religious Affairs Bahrom Abduhalim.

Babadjanov characterised Abduhalim as open-minded and progressive, noting that at one point Abduhalim pushed for the registration of several mosques that had been denied registration in previous years.

After the meeting with Babadjanov, Butcher made the following conclusion: “We believe the government is using him in an attempt to discredit former Mufti Mohammad Sodiq, who remains one of the most influential non-governmental figures in Uzbekistan, in the eyes of the Western observers.”

Not involved in the Hamidov case

The last cable on this topic was dated 28 January 2010. It denied that the former mufti defended Hayrulla Hamidov, a well-known football commentator, an Islamic preacher and the presenter of the weekly radio broadcast “Holislik Sari” (Towards fairness) who was arrested a week prior to this on charges of illegally setting up a religious organisation. (On 22 May 2010, Hamidov was sentenced to six years in prison –

Ambassador Norland reported that domestic and foreign websites writing about Uzbekistan had been quick to cover the story of Hamidov’s arrest, which had led to some misinformation.

The BBC radio reported that former mufti Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf appealed to law-enforcement authorities to free Hamidov, and also said that Hamidov had only spoken to members of a more conservative brand of Islam (Salafiya) in an effort to persuade them of the incorrectness of their path.

However, relatives of Sodiq informed embassy personnel that the former mufti had had no involvement with Hamidov or his legal case, and the BBC report is without merit, the US envoy reported.