Forget the Future? Not on 9/11.

Why Uzbekistan is something to think about on this day.

Past offense: Uzbek despot Karimov lays a wreath at Ground Zero in 2002

By this time on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 horror, you will have seen plenty of images of pols trying to launch themselves from the sacralized Ground Zero — though Rudy Giuliani got scorched on his latest takeoff when some victims' families accused him of exploiting the tragedy now that he's a presidential candidate.

Giuliani, who would never have been a presidential candidate if not for 9/11, was the first pol to exploit Ground Zero, but he's not the last, of course, and he's probably not even the most worrisome. In 2002, Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov used the sacralized 9/11 site as a photo-op — with the blessing of Giuliani's successor, Mike Bloomberg.

Why bring up Karimov's Ground Zero visit five years after the fact? Who cares if a foreign pol desecrated what has become sacred ground? The reason is that Uzbekistan is nothing but an Iran in the making, Karimov is its shah, and we're the dupes who have helped prop him up. All that in a world that's more dangerous than it was six years ago.

Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists since our 2003 invasion. Uzbekistan, which is about as geopolitically strategic (see map below), is liable to become such a training ground for terrorists even without a U.S. invasion.

Our fairly warm relationship with Karimov grew warmer after 9/11, when we enlisted in our "war on terror" this dictator who conducts a war of terror on his own people. Dangerous move by the Bush regime, because the radical Muslims who will probably take over undemocratic Uzbekistan when the aging despot dies or is deposed will also have long memories. They're sure to remember that, under the once-secret "rendition" scheme, we shipped Muslim prisoners to his jails for interrogation. They'll also remember how our government stood by and did nothing during Karimov's notorious Andijan massacre of dissidents in the spring of 2005 and then tried to suppress an independent investigation of the slaughter.

Expect to see those images of Karimov at Ground Zero and cuddling with Bush used eventually as devices to stir up hatred of the U.S.

The Central Asian "republic" is destined to be the next "-stan" to push its way into headlines, and the news will be bad. Am I crazy? Yes. Am I wrong about Uzbekistan? I don't think so. Here's how the mainstream International Crisis Group summed things up late last month:

Uzbekistan remains a serious risk to itself and its region. While 69-year-old President Islam Karimov shows no signs of relinquishing power, despite the end of his legal term of office more than half a year ago, his eventual departure may lead to a violent power struggle.

The economy remains tightly controlled, with regime stalwarts, including the security services and Karimov’s daughter Gulnora, exerting excessive influence, which drives away investors and exacerbates poverty. The human rights situation is grave, and those who seek to flee abroad live in constant danger of attempts to return them forcibly.

While the government cites the "war on terror" to justify many policies, its repression may in fact be creating greater future danger. Efforts at international engagement have been stymied by its refusal to reform and to allow an independent investigation of the May 2005 Andijan uprising. Little can be done presently to influence Tashkent, but it is important to help ordinary Uzbeks as much as possible and to assist the country’s neighbours build their capacity to cope with the instability that is likely to develop when Karimov goes.

If understanding our history with Karimov and Uzbekistan is important, then recalling how we "handled" the shah and Iran is instructive.

Yes, Karimov is following right in the footsteps of Shah Reza Pahlavi. What's worse is that our government is traipsing down the same garden path with Uzbek's dictator as we did with the shah. And our relationship with Karimov and his NSS is similar to our relationship with the shah and his dreaded secret service, SAVAK, which was shaped by the CIA. Alfred McCoy, in A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, wrote:

There was little public reaction in the United States to revelations about the CIA's ties to the Shah's secret police.

Yet Iran provided an important cautionary tale. By buttressing the shah's rule with riot police and ruthless interrogation, the CIA unwittingly contributed to the rising opposition that eventually toppled his regime. After training his police, Washington underestimated the stigma attached to torture and stood by, confused, while its key Persian Gulf ally lost legitimacy. The lesson was clear: Torture introduced to defend the shah had instead destroyed the shah.

Karimov rules the same way the shah did. We haven't been as close to Karimov as we were to the shah, but our allowing Karimov to use 9/11 as a symbol back in 2002 was cynical: The Bush regime buttered him up as an ally, and Bloomberg was careful not to offend him because of New York's large number of Bukharan Jewish emigres, many of whom supported him.

Karimov himself is pretty cynical: In his own nation, he generally tolerates Jews and even protects them, because the Bukharan Jews have lived there for a thousand years and pose no threat to his power. But he harshly represses Christians — and even the Muslims who make up nearly 90 percent of the California-sized country of 27 million people.

As I pointed out a couple of years ago, New York's Jewish Week described the strange embrace of Karimov by the city's Bukharan Jews:

Most of the estimated 40,000-strong Bukharan Jews living in the New York area appear to be maintaining their community’s longstanding support for Islam Karimov, the beleaguered president of their native Uzbekistan, despite international media reports that Karimov’s army responded to an uprising and prison break by firing on protesters and killing 500 or more people, including innocent civilians.

That support comes with a caution, though.

The United States, several prominent Bukharan leaders said, should stand by Karimov in this crisis for fear that Islamists might take over the country and persecute the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Jews remaining there. But these leaders contend that Karimov must change course and allow more democracy and economic liberalization.

George W. Bush's relationship with Karimov isn't quite as old as Karimov's relationship with Uzbek Jews. Bush's dealings with Karimov date back to 1997, when Dubya was still the hangingest governor in U.S. history: Enron's Ken Lay, Bush's biggest campaign contributor, wanted to make a deal with Uzbekistan so Lay instructed Dubya to meet with one of Karimov's minions to grease the skids.

By 2002, the Bush regime wanted to curry favor with Karimov because Uzbekistan borders on Afghanistan. When Karimov visited the States, he got the royal treatment. At Ground Zero, the dictator looked like the religious type, right? I mean, he laid a wreath and even signed his name on a memorial wall.

Bloomberg gave Karimov freer rein in New York City than he gave the 500,000 Americans protesting at the Republican National Convention in 2004. And in December 2005, Bloomberg blasted a New York transit strike as "morally reprehensible." But it was OK for the mayor to roll out the red carpet three years earlier for a morally reprehensible dictator.

Anyway, by the time of the 2002 visit, Karimov was already known as a harsh despot, and Bloomberg tried to keep the news pretty quiet that he was schlepping a dictator around town. You couldn't find on the mayor's website the photos of him and Karimov in the mayor's office or of Karimov at Ground Zero. But the pix were trumpeted on the Uzbekistan government site.

Five years after his visit to Ground Zero, Karimov is surely nearing the end of his 20-year reign — one sign is that there's more and more repression in Uzbekistan.

Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious-freedom group that snoops on repressive regimes around the world, noted just the other day that Karimov and his secret police, the National Security Service, have stepped up their spying on religious communities. Forum 18's Felix Corley wrote on September 5:

Members of a variety of religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service of hidden microphones in places of worship, the presence of NSS agents during worship and the recruitment of spies within communities. … "Two secret police officers sit in each church across the country — but not just churches, they are there in mosques and in other places of worship," one Protestant who preferred not to be identified for fear of reprisals told Forum 18 News Service.

But the NSS has also stepped up its covert spying on and within religious communities of all faiths in recent years as the climate in the country has grown more repressive. Few religious leaders are prepared to talk to outsiders about such spying, fearing reprisals if they do so.

It's one thing for a predominantly Muslim country to spy on Christians or for a predominantly Christian nation to spy on Muslims — that happens in many places. But Karimov is playing with fire, just as the shah did in Iran, because he's hassling Muslims in a Muslim country. Forum 18's Corley noted:

The NSS keeps a very close eye on imams and future imams. The independent news website Uznews.net reported on 1 February that the NSS keeps the Islamic University in Tashkent under close scrutiny. The university was opened with great ceremony by President Islam Karimov in April 1999 and is the flagship educational institution for Muslim students, some of whom go on to become imams.

Uznews said that students complain that the authorities regard them with mistrust. They know that each one is being closely monitored by the NSS. One first-year student was quoted by Uznews as reporting that as soon as they join the university, all students without exception face meetings with NSS officers. "During the meetings, you are given to understand that from now on we are under the constant surveillance of this service," the student reported, "and they have to approve all the steps we take in advance."

Students that are too pious, too devoted to their studies or who question any aspects of the teaching they are being given are regarded with the most suspicion and face "serious problems". Those who questioned the teachers' approach, citing the hadiths (oral traditions attributed to the Muslim prophet Muhammed), faced pressure not only from senior university officials but from NSS officers, Uznews reported.

Uznews notes that this NSS surveillance and intimidation leaves students as "frightened shadows" who have received only a superficial Islamic education.

Karimov's day of reckoning with his country's Muslim radicals is approaching. And it won't help Americans worried about the spread of terrorists that our government is supporting him till the bitter end.

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