28, 2003 -> Keeping the FaitH
"Now I must kill you!" the young man
said as his hands
closed around my neck and he began to choke me.
I had been worried that something like this
happen in Uzbekistan. Afghanistan was just around the
corner, Iran a short flight away, Iraq too close for
comfort. I had traveled extensively in Muslim
countries before - Indonesia and Malaysia - but I
sensed that the 'Stans, geographically so much closer
to center of Islam, might be different, more dangerous
to the white American. In a vain attempt to blend in
I had dyed my hair black and grown a thick beard. But
as I soon discovered, only old Muslim men wear beards,
and they are long, white, carefully groomed affairs.
As a young, pale-skinned man with a bushy, unkempt
beard, I looked more like the American Taliban!
But I had nothing to fear - from him or his
The young man was only kidding; getting me back for
any number of sarcastic comments I had made to him
during the day. He was Muslim, but not particularly
religious; he went through the motions when elders
were around, but other than that he set his own
course. His parents were more traditionally pious;
his grandfather, who had once had a drinking problem,
was quite devout.
We met many people like him. Uzbekistan is the
Islamic of the former Central Asia Soviet Republics;
however, as Colin Thubron remarked in "The Lost Heart
of Asia," even the Uzbekistanis 'wear their Islam
lightly.' Many were glad to be rid of the troublesome
Taliban, and viewed Shiite Iranians as too extreme in
their faith. But they were less convinced of the
ostensibly philanthropic mission of the "Coalition of
the Willing" in Iraq. Still, no one harassed us when
we told them we were Americans. In most cases people
would respond with a thumbs-up, an "America! Good!",
or a story of a relative living somewhere in the USA.
On a side trip to Shakrisabz, the birthplace of Timur,
I was talking politics with Otta, a tour guide in his
twenties. "Uzbeks are very open minded," he said,
know there are good things and bad things in
The old madrassahs (Islamic colleges) no longer
educated students on the 'sharia' (Islamic law) - many
were empty, or else filled with tourist shops. We met
no one who fastidiously performed the 'namaaz' - daily
prayers, times daily, facing Mecca - one of the five
'pillars of Islam.' Their faith may have been less
dogmatic than I expected, but it was not hollow.
Mosques still filled on Fridays, and the muezzins
still scaled the minarets to call the faithful to
prayer. A steady stream of supplicants wound around
and inside the mosques and mausolea, stopping to pray
and symbolically cleanse their faces.
President Islam Karimov - whose name, I thought,
wonderfully encapsulated the country and its recent
history - was walking a political tightrope. Keen on
being seen as a devout Muslim at home, he had embarked
on a campaign of mosque and mausoleum building. Yet
he had crushed Islamic extremists in the Ferghana
valley, and had allowed southern Uzbekistan to be a
major staging ground for the US attack on
Afghanistan's Taliban; all part of an assiduously
crafted effort to be viewed as a democratically
elected, religious moderate abroad. If it was a ploy,
it was working; US aid was pouring into the country.
Though everyone had a story of Karimov's alleged
corruption and his certain nepotism, most conceded
that "he is a very clever man."
In Central Asia, we witnessed first-hand the
extraordinary range of interpretation of and adherence
to the Islamic faith. Though we in the West should
know better, even the well-educated often accept what
Esposito, in his excellent book "The Islamic Threat:
Myth or Reality?", calls the 'monolithic' view of all
Muslims as bearded Mullahs and maniacal, would-be
martyrs just looking for a 'jihad.' The media plays a
huge part in creating the perception that Islam equals
terrorism. To be fair, I do not believe the Islamic
establishment is active enough in distancing itself
from the extreme elements, but this is at least in
part due to the perception of a strong, anti-Islamic
policy at work in the West. Better the devil you know
than the Great Satan you don't know.
Only once, in Kyrgyzstan, did a religious
zealot try to convert me to Islam. He was not particularly
aggressive; instead, he cultivated a look of great sadness
on his face as he discussed the end of the world, when "it
will be too late for you." He also used a very colorful
analogy, likening Islam (whose prophet, Muhammad, received
his illumination some 600 years after Jesus' life) as "the
Pentium 4.0 of religion. When the Pentium 4.0 comes, no one
uses the Pentium 2.0 anymore. Why don't people use the latest
word of God?" Though preaching with a light touch, he
still made me feel uncomfortable. Had I asked to be converted
to Islam? But then I remembered the plane-load of teen aged
Christian and Mormon missionaries heading to Papua New Guinea.
Did the natives ask to be converted either?
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