One feature in Uzbekistan that’s common to many countries is the gap between folk religion and orthodox religion. A standard version of this is Catholicism mixed with indigenous Latin American religions. Since Islam can be one of the strictest religions in terms of what it sees as idolatry, this tension tends to be higher in Islamic countries. While mainstream Islam in Uzbekistan is not fundamentalist, a bit of tension was there. In many popular tombs and places of pilgrimage, there are official signs from (something like) the Ministry of Religion. The signs say (paraphrased): “The acts of tying ribbons for good luck, making offerings for a pregnancy etc are forbidden under Islam”. Not that this stops people. Below are some women tying ribbons to a tree outside the Tomb of Daniel in Samarkand. The “grave” of Daniel is over 10m long as his corpse is said to grow every year.
As per my mention of a ministry of religion above, Islam is pretty centralised in Uzbekistan. There is an official clergy, as sanctioned by the state and other groups might have trouble getting “permits” and so on. In Tashkent, I visited the religious centre of the country: a conglomeration of the major state-affiliated medrassahs and a theological seminary. It had a quote by president Karimov engraved in enormous letters by the entrance. The Karimov regime has used the threat of fundamentalism and the war on terror as the frame from which to target dissenting clergy.
There is certainly fundamentalism in the Ferghana valley. It is the most densely populated part of Uzbekistan and is associated with the most traditional lifestyle. The Australian Department of Foreign Affair’s level of advice for the Ferghana valley is “reconsider your need to travel”. However, the religion there is also entangled with popular anti-Karimov feeling.
The sharia school of Islam that predominates in Uzbekistan is Hanafi. This is the oldest of the 4 Sunni schools and considered the most liberal. Although if you see a map of where it predominates, you’ll find that it includes Afghanistan and Pakistan which are anything but. Of course, the many decades of Soviet rule have meant that the particular flavour in Uzbekistan is probably more liberal than other Hanafi countries (with the exception of perhaps Kyrgyzstan+Kazakhstan). A lot of people seem not to drink but alcohol is available and is currently not seen as something outrageous (to the extent that it is in Iran or the Arabian peninsula). I did not see any kind of veiling that non-Muslims often associate with stereotypes of Islam. Although I did not visit the more conservative parts of the country, there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on it. Older women and married women do often wear a loose headscarf for the hair but it was pretty much the traditional Russian babushka-headscarf. As one Kyrgyz tour guide said when a Russian tourist asked about headscarves, “we’re not Arabs!”.
Uzbekistan also used to have a large Jewish community. Most of the younger generation have left for Israel and the US since the borders were opened up after 1991, leaving a melting community of pensioners. It was interesting to be told in Israel by a particularly ill-informed and bigoted person that “Uzbekistan is an enemy state”, and that Jews left because of persectution. While I’m sure there was (and is) systemic anti-Semitism as there is in most countries with a Muslim majority, it does not seem to have been the primary cause of people leaving (unlike, for instance, Tajikistan where the country’s descent into civil war did make many Jews fear for their lives). Or so my uninformed brain thinks, let me know if you have info to the contrary. And there are plenty of Israeli tourists in Uzbekistan and I walked past the Israeli embassy in Tashkent.
Finally, I was asked my nationality many times. In the former USSR, this means your ethnic background. I was never uncomfortable with saying I was Jewish and the reaction was pretty much as normal as you could expect. One mullah at a mosque in Samarkand (who was also a scientist) described his Jewish neighbours who lived in their courtyard for many years as part of the large-scale evacuation of Jews into Uzbekistan during WWII. My grandfather himself was one of these Jews, living in Tashkent, but unfortunately I can no longer quiz him…