TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (Mar. 11)
The leader of Uzbekistan told a group of visiting American Jewish leaders that his country was committed to countering the threats of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism from neighboring Afghanistan and Iran.
“We are against any kind of fundamentalism,” Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during a meeting last week in the capital of Tashkent.
“We will never let anyone mix the Muslim religion with the politics” of Uzbekistan, added Karimov.
The Uzbek leader stressed that his nation would use its influence in the region to prevent the export of terrorism, fundamentalism, arms and drugs to the West.
Karimov also told the Jewish leaders that he was committed to having stable relations with Israel and the United States.
Uzbekistan, one of the largest former Soviet states, proclaimed its independence in 1991. It since has made substantial progress in developing a market-oriented economy.
But the nation has attracted major international attention for its lack of democratization, especially freedom of speech, persistent human rights abuses and authoritarian trends in the country’s leadership.
At the same time, this Muslim country has avoided any of the open ethnic conflicts that have occurred in many former Soviet states, including most of Uzbekistan’s neighbors in Central Asia.
Thirty percent of the population of 23 million are non-Uzbek. Uzbekistan has 30,000 Jews, two-thirds of whom live in Tashkent, one of the largest cities of the former Soviet Union.
Jews enjoy full freedom of religion and emigration, as do other minorities.
Uzbekistan has been known for its relatively low level of anti-Semitism.
During World War II, the country offered refuge to 200,000 Jews from Central and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution.
Uzbekistan’s role in World War II “requires that we express our appreciation to the safe haven given here to Jews then and since then,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.
The visit of the organization’s 50-member delegation was widely publicized in Uzbekistan.
The group of American Jewish leaders was received by the nation’s top officials, including the foreign minister and the Speaker of the Oliy Majlis, the country’s Parliament.
During these meetings, government officials voiced their sympathy with Israeli concerns, including the recent sales of Russian nuclear reactors to Iran, which is located in close proximity to Uzbekistan.
“We will continue to support the U.S. and Israel’s international initiatives,” Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov told the delegation.
“However, we need support from these countries, which is vitally important because of the unstable region in which our state is located.”
The Jewish leaders in turn praised the government’s positions on major international issues, adding the hope that Uzbekistan will have a positive influence on other countries in this traditionally Islamic region.
The government of Uzbekistan offers a model of “democracy for all the Islamic countries” in the region, said Leon Levy, chairman of the Presidents Conference.
Uzbekistan’s neighbors “are heading toward a more secular society. They see that their future is to be democratic.”
Local Jewish officials in Tashkent said that although the state of human rights is far from perfect in Uzbekistan, the country is making slow progress toward a more democratic society.
“They still have a long way to go,” said Hoenlein. “But we also have to look at the progress this country has made” since it achieved independence.