Uzbekistan bans use of religious themes in art

Poster advertising the film Nafs by Saipov
The Uzbek national security service (SNB) has issued a strict warning to the country’s leading artists against using religious themes in their work. The warning was issued at a special conference held at the end of October at the Tashkent Academy Theatre.

At the meeting, an SNB representative told leading theatre and film professionals, writers, painters and musicians that the use of any kind of religious theme in their works was strictly forbidden, has learned from a member of the national Uzbekkino agency, who asked not to be named.

“There are those among you who have been abroad and met with members of so-called opposition movements and extremist religious groups. Some people sitting in this room will have met their foremost leaders,” the SNB agent said.

Following the ‘KGB-style’ warning, a member of Uzbekistan’s State Committee for Religious Affairs described how members of extremist Islamist organizations knowingly misrepresent the Koran, exploiting the fact that the majority of Muslims in Uzbekistan do not know the Arab language and cannot refer to the original text.

It is thought that one of the reasons for the move to ban religious themes in works of art was the recent film Nafs by the young Uzbek actor and director Farroukh Saipov (the name “Nafs” means desire or greed).

According to the Uzbekkino representative, the film is very much in the spirit of classic Indian action films, but in this case is about the works of the devil, who appears to witnesses in various guises. The role of the devil in his true form is played by Saipov himself.

The film premiered at the Alisher Navoi cinema not long before the special meeting of Uzbek artists, but Saipov’s film was banned from distribution after the screening.

Saipov is very popular among young Uzbeks as an actor and director. His films are light and quite similar in many ways to the easy-to-digest Bollywood genre. Saipov’s choice of the devil as protagonist is not uncharacteristic. He is deeply religious and is also a member of a Muslim sect which is not recognised in Uzbekistan. Not long before the premier Saipov was arrested and charged with belonging to a banned religious organization.

Two weeks after his arrest of Saipov was bailed to appear before court once an investigation has been completed.