04:28 a.m. Feb 05, 1998 Eastern
SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan, Feb 5 (Reuters) - After decades of forced atheism, Islam is again on the rise in Uzbekistan, although often interpreted in a strikingly Soviet way.
Residents of Samarkand -- one of Uzbekistan's major Islamic centres -- thronged the ancient city's mosques on Friday to listen to the solemn prayers ending Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting between dawn and dusk.
Thousands gathered inside and in front of the magnificent Registan complex that groups several mosques with turquoise domes, richly decorated walls and mosaic minarets.
``I have been praying here for six years. Not many people had enough courage to come and pray here in Soviet days,'' said Tolebai, 44, who like many other men wore national dress.
Tolebai had brought with him his youngest son, 10-year-old Dinmurat.
Trying to explain Islam's importance for Uzbekistan, which is Central Asia's largest Moslem nation, he said: ``Islam means a good life for ordinary people, respect for the elderly and the younger generations. We also pray for peace among nations.''
Samarkand's chief mullah Mustafokul started reading the prayer preceding the holiday of Ruza Khait (End of Ramadan).
The bodies of thousands of believers squatting on home-made rugs bowed piously in unison to the mullah's calls of ``Allah Akbar!'' (God is greatest), booming out from loudspeakers.
``I am happy I took part in the prayers. You have this incredible feeling of purity, and your soul becomes closer to God,'' said Utkir, 23.
But unlike Utkir and other religious young men, many older believers were much more matter of fact.
Some of them, still packing away their prayer rugs, took long drags on their cigarettes, while others packed generous portions of nas -- a light hemp narcotic -- under their tongues.
With a month of fasting over, some believers rushed to nearby tea houses to enjoy not only spicy pilau and tea but also vodka and cheap fortified wines.
The mixing of the solemn and the earthy was strikingly reminiscent of May Day demonstrations in the recent Soviet past, when ``ideologically literate'' workers would quaff vodka in the nearest courtyard after carrying posters daubed with communist slogans and images along the main street.
Ironically, the religious holiday coincided this year with the 60th birthday of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who was born in Samarkand and has ruled this nation of 23 million people with a firm hand since Soviet times. Mustafokul wished Karimov, a senior Communist Party apparatchik in the recent past, good health and more strength.
But Karimov's attitude to Islam is an ambiguous one.
Around 5,000 new mosques have been built across the country, up from about 80 when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, and religious schools are functioning nationwide.
Many Uzbeks have been turning to God for relief from the stresses and strains accompanying the country's slow and reluctant shift towards a more market-based economy after decades of state socialism.
But while stressing their support for the revival of Islam in secular Uzbekistan, officials in several regions have resorted to detaining some influential religious leaders, fearing their increasing authority.
Karimov himself has often voiced concern about the progress of the purist Islamist Taleban militia in neighbouring Afghanistan, fearing it could spill over into his republic.
His fears may not be completely unfounded.
``I am not afraid of the Taleban. They want to return to real Islam which existed ages ago,'' said Uktam, a keeper of Gur Emir (Ruler's Tomb) mausoleum, which holds the remains of Tamurlane, the 14th century Central Asian ruler known locally as Timur.
Pointing to Timur's tombstone cut from dark-green jade and blaming ``kofirs'' (infidels) who desecrated the grave in Soviet times, Uktam spoke with enthusiasm about the era when Timur forged 20 Asian states into a single Moslem entity with sword and fire.
But as elsewhere in Central Asia, more than a hundred years of Russia's tsarist rule and Soviet power have left deep marks on the minds of even the staunchest Moslem believers like Uktam.
With a shy smile he confessed he would ``relax and have a drink'' when uraza (fasting) was over, and for a small fee he might allow even ``infidels'' to see Timur's real grave hidden in the mausoleum's basement.
© Copyright 1998, Reuters News Service