December of 1991
In early December 1991, three months after Uzbekistan declared its independence, an aggressive group of protesters occupied a local administrative building in the eastern town of Namangan. They were demanding a meeting with the country’s leadership, calling for Uzbekistan to be proclaimed a state governed by the principles of religious fundamentalism.
This was one of the most dramatic episodes in Uzbekistan’s recent history − the newly-emerged country’s economy was in dire straits, and in a few weeks’ time the first ever presidential polls were due to take place, the outcome of which would determine the political direction of the independent republic.
President Islam Karimov arrived in Namangan a day after the riot began. He appeared courageously before the violent crowd, fully aware that this was a pivotal moment for the country’s future. The Uzbek president faced a difficult task: to calm the mob and avoid a potentially fatal escalation of the situation.
It should be noted that this was not a spontaneous protest. The crowd was led by militants who sought to change the country’s secular structure by taking advantage of a shaky political situation in the transition period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the mantras of “the struggle for justice” and the “need to return to primordial religious and moral values”, the mob’s ringleaders Tohir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani were eager to seize the helm of power and establish their own rules of government.
Many still clearly remember how, in the early years of independence, radical groups carried out acts of violent intimidation by killing police officers, beating up and publicly humiliating civil servants and those who, in their view, “lived an immoral life,” throwing stones at girls with short haircuts, and insulting and intimidating representatives of religious minorities.
Back in 1991, no-one could have imagined that a few years later, the leaders of the Namangan riot would be involved in combat operations in the Tajik civil war, fighting on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and plotting and staging terrorist attacks in a number of countries. Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani were the founding leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militant group, which was put on the list of the foreign terrorist organizations by the US State Department following the 9/11 attacks. The group pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015.
Had President Karimov not risked his own life to calm that aggressive mob in Namangan in early December 1991 and persuaded people to disperse, then Uzbekistan could easily have descended into civil war. Thanks to the bravery of the First President of Uzbekistan, his foresight and wisdom, and his timely intervention, Uzbekistan was spared the plight of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where protracted internal conflicts have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.