Tashkent Regional Courthouse is a gray box of a building set off from the sidewalk by a tall metal fence. It overlooks a busy thoroughfare populated by tiny locally made cars that look more like oversized raincoats than actual vehicles. On a steamy morning this past July, a group of women in brightly colored traditional clothes waited in front of the court. They fanned themselves with sheaves of papers, whispered to one another, and watched the padlocked gate guarded by a skinny cop in a teal uniform and the kind of cylindrical, short-billed hat once favored by Charles de Gaulle. Whenever the cop turned the key in the lock, the women mobbed the gate, begging to be allowed inside. Somewhere in the bowels of the courthouse were their sons, husbands and brothers, all defendants in yet another in a long string of dubious trials that have come to define Uzbekistan—Central Asia's strategic linchpin and an important American ally in the Afghanistan war.
In this case, the defendants were accused of following the teachings of Said Nursi, a Turkish Islamic scholar (dead for half a century) who tackled, among other things, Islam's eternal preoccupation of how to reconcile itself with modernity and secular governance. In a lot of places, reading his stuff isn't a problem (a prominent Nursi disciple has lived openly in Pennsylvania for years), but in Uzbekistan such literature runs afoul of an elaborate system of detention and repression in which security forces maintain an iron grip on the frightened population, critical voices are eliminated, and criminal charges are routinely invented—even as the country cultivates closer ties with the West. While the Uzbek regime is wrathfully vigilant when it comes to observant Muslims, it punishes enemies from all walks of public life: culture, business, journalism, politics. The police are so plentiful on the streets that a stand-up comedian recently called their uniform Uzbekistan's new national dress.