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august 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 might 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 country. 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 most 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, "we know there are good things and bad things in everything."

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?