The most striking thing about Sayfullo Saipov, the 29-year-old Uzbek man who allegedly drove a pickup truck into a crowd in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people, was his big, black, bushy beard: He wouldn’t have been able to grow one in his native Uzbekistan.
A beard would be considered a sign of religious extremism in Uzbekistan, which has a long and notorious record of restricting the religious practices of its majority Muslim population. All clerics are government vetted; all madrassas are government controlled and infiltrated by undercover informants. Pilgrims to Mecca have to go through a rigorous government vetting process and are then accompanied on the journey by government minders. The communal marking of the end of each day of fasting during the month of Ramadan is banned, as is the celebration of Eid al Fitr, the feast marking the end of Ramadan. Until recently, children under 18 were banned from attending mosques. The authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet ruler who died last year, outlawed Islamist political parties and imprisoned and tortured dozens of religious activists. The government keeps a “black list” of people it has decided are religious extremists. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, “Those on the list are barred from obtaining various jobs and travel, and must report regularly for police interrogations.” Until the new president shortened the list in August, it contained some 18,000 names.
The ostensible point of all these restrictions was to fight the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, a jihadist movement that emerged just after the collapse of the Soviet Union—Uzbekistan was, until 1991, a Soviet republic. The IMU wanted to impose Islamic law in Uzbekistan, and was quickly banned by the new Karimov government. IMU fighters scattered throughout the region—to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and, after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, to the tribal areas of Pakistan—from where they have launched multiple raids into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In 2014, the IMU pledged its allegiance to ISIS.