TASHKENT — Officials in the Uzbek capital have closed down nearly a dozen restaurants that don’t serve alcohol, the owners claim, adding they were told their businesses could reopen if they agreed to sell liquor.
The actions are the latest in a series of steps in recent months curbing freedom of religion for Muslims amid what appears to be government concern about a wave of “religious radicalization” in Uzbekistan.
Several restaurant owners told RFE/RL their establishments — all identified as halal — were shut down this month after surprise raids by police, security services, tax officials, and health and food-safety inspectors.
“Food-safety specialists inspected the kitchen, tax inspectors examined the till and [official] documents,” is how one Tashkent entrepreneur described a recent raid on his restaurant. “Security officials checked the restaurant’s prayer room, quizzed the staff about their religious views, and even checked their mobile phones.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the man said police and security services didn’t present any official documents authorizing the raid. The restaurant was then “temporarily” closed by food-safety inspectors who — according to the owner — failed to give an acceptable reason for the shutdown.
The businessman insists he carefully follows all food-safety and hygiene regulations, and that the premises are “always thoroughly cleaned” and that “the staff wear clean, white uniforms.”
Several other business owners described to RFE/RL similar raids on their restaurants and cafes that were then also closed down.
Although the eateries are in different parts of Tashkent, the common denominators are that they don’t sell alcohol, promote themselves as serving halal food, and provide a prayer room for diners.
Drinking alcohol is banned under Islam, but its consumption is legal within Uzbekistan, a secular Muslim-majority country of some 35 million people.
RFE/RL contacted Tashkent officials for comment about the claims but did received no response.
The accusations of an alleged state crackdown on the halal restaurants and cafes come amid criticism of the government by rights advocates for “backsliding” on reforms and its promises to improve religious freedom.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, some restaurateurs said they noticed the raids were preceded by what seemed to be covert visits by officials, who quietly “examined the conditions” in the establishments. “They come [pretending to be customers] to check if there is a prayer room in the facility, if the restaurant serves alcohol,” a cafe owner said.
The businessmen believe that “based on findings” during such “unofficial” covert visits, authorities made a list of the eateries they would subsequently raid. They say that none of the restaurants and cafes in their area that sell alcohol was raided.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm the claims.
A few days after the closure of his cafeteria, an owner says he was summoned by “counterterrorism” officials to discuss the future of his business. Security officials allegedly advised him to get a license to sell alcohol and open a small bar at his venue.
“They said, ‘If you sell alcohol, you can continue your business without problem,'” the businessman told RFE/RL. “They said, ‘It’s better if you don’t resist us.'”
Similar accounts were given by other cafe owners. They say the security officials’ ultimatum was subtle and sounded more like advice than a threat.
Officials say, “We understand you, we’re Muslim too, but this is necessary [because] foreign tourists want alcohol,” a businessman told RFE/RL.
Some business owners went on social media and claimed government officials instructed them to remove the “halal food” signs from their eateries.
One cafe owner told RFE/RL that his decision not to sell alcohol had nothing to do with his religious beliefs. He said he had previously worked at a restaurant where brawls would often break out among drunk customers, “some of whom would threaten each other with knives.”
The man also recalled an alcohol poisoning incident at his old workplace. “I told myself then that I won’t sell alcohol when I open my own restaurant,” he said.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who came to power in 2016, was initially credited with ending many restrictions on religious freedom that his predecessor, authoritarian Islam Karimov, had notoriously put in place.
Mirziyoev’s government released hundreds of prisoners jailed for their peaceful religious beliefs and removed thousands of others from the security services’ so-called blacklist of religious extremists.
But in recent years Tashkent has been criticized for backsliding on the steps it had taken to improve the situation regarding religious freedom over the past seven years.
And last month Mufti Nuriddin Kholiqnazarov — the country’s most senior religious cleric — urged people to practice “restraint” in wearing Islamic clothing and beards that he claimed were evident among adherent Muslims in Uzbekistan. Reports of men having their beards forcibly shaved off and of religious believers being interrogated and detained have also appeared in recent months.
Restrictions were also reported by RFE/RL on the Muslim call to prayer, the azon, which was greatly repressed during Karimov’s long reign.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern last month over what it described as the “reemergence of practices that only serve to intimidate believers…and suppress religious expression.”
In a report issued on September 22, the USCIRF said that “within the last week, Uzbek officials have allegedly conducted raids against religious individuals, fined them, and subjected many to brief sentences of administrative arrest.”
The report said that the threat of imprisonment and other punishments had compelled Muslims to exercise self-censorship in their peaceful religious activities.
Tashkent “still appears to view religion as a threat and, as a result, imposes undue restrictions on peaceful religious communities and people,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report on Uzbekistan.
Source: Radio Free Europa