TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Taking shape along a wide boulevard in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent is one of the largest buildings ever planned for this metropolis of 2.4 million: the proposed “Center of Islamic Civilization.”
I visited this mammoth construction project last month with another journalist, as part of a trip to Uzbekistan sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Culture and various other entities. During my chaotic week in this landlocked Central Asian republic, Uzbekistan’s affable deputy prime minister, Aziz A. Abdukhakimov, spoke to our group several times.
“It was the president’s idea to build such a center,” he said, referring to Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over the leadership of Uzbekistan after the death of its longtime dictator, Islam Karimov, in September 2016. “The idea is very simple: he wants to show that Islam is the religion of intelligence, peace and enlightenment — not the religion of terrorism or fundamentalism. We believe that anyone who visits this center will understand that.”
The $150 million megaproject is reportedly being bankrolled entirely by Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek oligarch who made his money in precious metals and now lives in Russia.
For Usmanov — Forbes estimates his net worth at $12.3 billion — that’s relatively small change. He’s also sinking millions into construction of a tourist zone in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara that’ll include boutique hotels, shopping malls, entertainment centers and hospitals.
On June 15, 2018, Mirziyoyev laid a symbolic cornerstone for the building, which will be finished sometime in mid-2021. The center’s director is Shoazim Minovarov, former chief of the Alliance Française, a cultural and educational institution in Tashkent.
Plans call for the three-story building, which sits on nine hectares of land, to be erected in the architectural style of Uzbekistan’s ancient madrasas.
There will be four main entrances to the center. The first floor is to feature a museum of Islamic history and culture, while a library containing 200,000 manuscripts, a 500-seat auditorium, conference facilities and an exhibition hall will be located on the second floor. The third floor will have an information resource center and various academic departments.
On display: The world’s oldest Quran
But the Center of Islamic Civilization’s crown jewel will be shown in the symmetrical center of the building: the Quran of Usman, which scholars believe is the oldest Quran in the world. Carbon-14 dating has established the manuscript as having been produced between 775 and 995.
A 75-meter-high dome is to cover the display — highlighting the importance of this rare and precious holy book, which is currently housed at a mosque across the street from the construction site.
S. Frederick Starr is a distinguished fellow for Eurasia at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council, and author of the book “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.”
“The message of this project is actually very much in line with the title of my book: a focus on the positive achievements of Muslim thinkers, scholars and artists,” said Starr, who was on the trip as well. “To do that, it means going back to the Golden Age. This is an attempt to regain that. They hope to spotlight great achievements by people who were Muslim.”
Starr added: “This is not an exercise in faith, but rather in enabling modern Uzbeks — especially the young people — to learn what educated, cultured Muslims achieved in the past.”
This is particularly important, considering Uzbekistan’s recent history.
With 34 million people, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous of the five Central Asian “stans” that came into being after the dissolution of the USSR. Since 1989, the country’s population has jumped by 65.8% — and within 20 years, Uzbekistan will overtake rapidly shrinking Ukraine as the largest of the 15 former Soviet republics, besides Russia itself.
Its capital, Tashkent, is by far the largest city in Central Asia after China’s Urumqi and Afghanistan’s Kabul. Tashkent is famous for its gleaming subway system, towering Soviet-era monuments and handicrafts markets.
But 25 years of Soviet-style economic mismanagement took a huge toll on the country. GDP stands at only $50 billion and nearly 13% of the population lives below the national poverty line — despite Uzbekistan’s abundance of hydrocarbons and minerals.
Karimov’s ruthless legacy
It was no secret that, under Karimov, Islamic extremist fundamentalism was suppressed without mercy. After a series of car bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, Karimov warned on Uzbek radio that “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic.”
In 2002, Uzbekistan received more than $500 million in aid and credit from the Bush administration, in return for the Pentagon’s use of the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in southern Uzbekistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Three years later, Uzbek security forces used live ammunition against a crowd of protesters in Andijan, killing several hundred people, including women and children, according to rights groups and survivors (although the government put the death toll at 187 and blamed Islamists for inciting the violence).
The massacre soured relations with the West, as Washington and Brussels imposed an arms embargo on the government. Meanwhile, Karimov kicked the Americans off their military base on the Afghan border, established closer relations with Russia and continued his crackdown on what he perceived as the threat from Islamist fundamentalism.
Over the years, according to critics, thousands of Muslims were arrested and tortured; several were even said to have been boiled alive. Yet under Mirziyoyev, those tactics have ended; his government has made it a point to ensure religious freedom.
In fact, as Reuters reported in late 2017, some emboldened Uzbek imams have begun to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from loudspeakers for the first time in a decade without seeking government permission — an act that under Karimov could have resulted in imprisonment.
Even so, Abdukhakimov cautioned, “all of us know that this young generation is very easy to manipulate. So in order to change their ideas about Islam and what it’s really about, we must teach them that there is another Islam, one that lives peacefully with other religions.”
The number zero: An Uzbek invention?
The new Center of Islamic Civilization, while not being promoted as a tourist attraction, could nevertheless end up being one. Thousands of foreigners — including visitors from the Persian Gulf, Muslims from Russia and other former Soviet republics, even Arab Israelis — could potentially visit the museum as part of a pilgrimage to Uzbekistan that also includes Bukhara, Samarkand and other Islamic points of interest.
“As a religion, Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. But many of the greatest Islamic scientists lived in Uzbekistan,” said Abdukhakimov. “We have four main Hadist books in Islam, and three of them were written by scientists who were born and raised in the territory of modern Uzbekistan — and we are proud of this fact.”
One of Uzbekistan’s proudest sons, in fact, is the father of modern algebra.
“There is an Uzbek secret hidden on every phone. It is this number zero at the bottom of the keypad,” said Firdavs Abdukhalikov, head of the Cultural Legacy of Uzbekistan project, as he pointed to his own smartphone. “The number zero was introduced to the world by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, an Uzbek.”
Another important ancient Uzbek scientist was Ulug-bek, an astronomer who made highly accurate observations of the positions of stars before the lens was invented.
“We are now in the beginning of a great road map,” Abdukhalikov said. “One of our most serious issues is the study, preservation and popularization of cultural heritage of our country. Uzbekistan, as you know, is a young country, with 60% of our people under 35 years old. We strongly believe this young generation should have a strong understanding of who they are. They should know their history.”
Asked about Karimov’s legacy, Abdukhakimov — the deputy prime minister — thought for a moment.
“Karimov is dead now, but he was a man of his time,” he responded. “Back then, it was necessary to keep such strong powers in the presidency, and he really fought the Islamic extremists. Of course, only history can evaluate his rule; not even three years have passed since his death. Maybe he made some mistakes, but he did a lot of good things too. He was the founder of our country.”
NOTE: This is the last of three articles to be published following the author’s Aug. 21-27 trip to Uzbekistan as part of an international press trip focusing on the country’s rich cultural heritage.