Free to Pray: Being Muslim and Uzbek in America

December 2017

“What is that? Is it Pakistan?” This was usually the response Andrew received whenever he told people that he’s from Uzbekistan. “I was proud to say I’m Uzbek.” Andrew, an Uber driver who lives in San Francisco, was used to his passengers never having heard of his homeland. “No, it’s Uzbekistan. We’re well-known for food,” he said, his voice rising as he talked about the pistachios and dried fruits produced in his hometown.

Then Uzbekistan suddenly became famous on October 31, when Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant who was inspired by the Islamic State group, allegedly drove a truck into a bike lane in Manhattan, killing 8 people and injuring 11. Overnight, Uzbekistan was in the news, mentioned alongside ISIS and terrorism. The Central Asian country was now on Americans’ minds, but only because of the horror associated with one of its citizens, much to the chagrin of Uzbeks living in the U.S.

As of 2015, an estimated 55,000 people born in Uzbekistan lived in the U.S., 60 percent of them in New York City. The majority immigrated through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, which has brought in more than 4,000 Uzbeks every year for the past eight years. The country, which was a part of the Soviet Union for almost 70 years, is slightly larger than California and has a population of nearly 30 million.

Andrew, who asked to be referred to by his adopted American name because he is seeking asylum for fear of religious persecution in Uzbekistan, first heard about the New York City attack in a group chat for Uzbek Uber drivers. “I felt so ashamed,” he said, recalling reading the title of the news article. “I didn’t even click on it. I felt like ‘Fuck, it’s too much!’”

Almost a month after the incident, Andrew sat in a quiet café in downtown San Francisco after praying at a nearby mosque. Wearing a grey hoodie and a white button-up shirt, he checked his phone regularly for ride requests. Until last month, his Uber profile showed that he came from Uzbekistan and could speak Uzbek, but he recently deleted all that information. “I’m so done with this,” Andrew said of being confronted by passengers after the attack. “They would say, ‘Oh you’re from the same country as the guy who killed innocent people.’”

Even with a vague Uber profile, Andrew still gets asked about his nationality because of his unique accent. “Once they asked me where I’m from, and I lied. I just said that I’m from Afghanistan,” he said with an embarrassed look. “Lying is not good for Muslims but I lied because I feel like they would hate me.” A while later, he added, “It’s shame, you know? Even now I feel ashamed for his stupid crime.”

Born and raised in a historic town on the Silk Road, Andrew received his bachelor’s degree at one of Uzbekistan’s best universities. He arrived in the U.S. on an F-1 student visa and applied for asylum. “I was on F-1 until 2014. Then I got a lawyer to change my status,” he said. At first, Andrew was reluctant to talk about his asylum case. He fears that his case could be negatively affected and that his family in Uzbekistan could face danger if he is identified. 

Islam has been important to Andrew’s family since he was young. His mom prays very discretely and he did too while he was growing up. His grandfather was one of the first people in Uzbekistan to make the pilgrimage to Mecca after the collapse of its communist government in 1991. “There are mosques in Uzbekistan but you have to be registered to go,” Andrew said. “You’ll be put on a list as a potential threat because you pray. If something happens you’ll be the first one to be called.” The Uzbek government created religious guidelines that were enforced by local imams, he said. “You have to accept their way of praying. If someone moves differently from the mainstream, then consequences are usually really bad, like death or imprisonment.”

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, which describes Uzbekistan’s human rights record as “abysmal,” Uzbeks under 18 are banned from attending mosques and religious literature is “severely restricted.” It estimates that 12,000 Uzbeks have been “imprisoned on vague charges related to ‘extremism’ or ‘anti-constitutional’ activity.”

“It’s all the pressure and it makes you more violent,” Andrew said, as he thought about Islamic extremism in his home country. “Crazy people are not coming from nowhere. They’re just oppressed for their beliefs, so they want to get revenge.” 

Like Andrew, Bakhtiyor Makhsimov was angry when he heard of the Manhattan attack. “Some idiot, with one action, ruined all our efforts to promote our country,” he said in a resigned tone. An engineer at a multinational corporation’s San Francisco office, Makhsimov is clean-shaven and talks in a careful yet assertive manner. “But there are stupid people everywhere, not only in Uzbekistan. You know what I’m talking about, right?” Just a few days earlier, a gunman had killed 26 people in a Texas church. Another had shot 58 to death in Las Vegas a month earlier. 

Makhsimov immigrated to the U.S. in 2014 after winning the Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery. Every year, 50,000 green cards are handed out to citizens of countries with low rates of immigration in the previous five years. More than 690,000 applications were submitted by Uzbeks in 2013; fewer than one percent were picked at random. Makhsimov had a stable life in Uzbekistan, and wasn’t sure if he should take the chance. “We have to try it,” his wife told him. “Otherwise, we will be sorry.”

“So far so good,” he said of his life in the U.S. “The first year was very tough, but now we’re more stable. And we have a lot of plans.”

President Donald Trump has talked about eliminating the Diversity Visa lottery because Saipov arrived in the U.S. through the program. Currently all citizens of eligible countries who have finished high school or worked for two years can enter the lottery. “I totally understand him,” Makhsimov said of Trump’s determination to end diversity visas. “Countries like Canada bring in people based on needs of the country and immigrants’ skill sets. That makes sense to me,” he said. “But removing the Diversity Visa will shut down the opportunity for a lot of people like me. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to revoke it.” After a moment of contemplation, he continued, “Of course it’s not good just to revoke it. Maybe put a stricter background check or increase the requirements?”

 Unlike Andrew, Makhsimov believes that his country’s harsh treatment toward Islam is necessary. “Uzbekistan is not a very religious country,” Makhsimov said, emphasizing that people should understand this in the wake of the Manhattan attack. The Soviet government fought against religious organizations forcefully. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Uzbek government has maintained a strict attitude toward Islam and discouraged its citizens from being overtly religious, Makhsimov said.

“In our country, we practice a very soft and moderate type of Islam,” Makhsimov continued. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union left a political vacuum, and radical Islamist groups from abroad started to recruit young people in Uzbekistan, giving birth to militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was founded in the late ’90s and later pledged allegiance to ISIS. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president, who was in office for 25 years, suppressed radical Islamists. “In the West, people say that he was a dictator,” Makhsimov said. “Yes, but there was a reason for that. Because if he was soft, there would be a problem in Uzbekistan.” He believes that Karimov prevented the country from descending into civil war.

As a practicing Muslim, Andrew feared for his safety every time he went back to visit. “They just treat everyone as a terrorist,” he said. Even though Islam is the religion of 88 percent of Uzbekistan’s population, the society is largely atheist, he said. “Here, I earned my religious freedom to go to mosques, and that was the right signal to our government because if you pray regularly, you’re labeled a terrorist. It doesn’t matter if it’s peaceful praying.” Andrew said that there are “spies” at the mosques he goes to, and Uzbeks are asked to inform on practicing Muslims upon returning to Uzbekistan.

The unorganized nature of Islam further complicates the issue of extremism, Andrew said. “There are so many groups that say they’re the real Islam.” Some militant groups interpreted the Quran with their ideology and had a large following, he said of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. When Andrew first moved to the U.S., he read books written by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian philosopher who inspired Islamic terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. “I was very taken by his books, but later I found out that he’s an extremist.” He also watched numerous videos on YouTube in order to learn to pray. “They say a whole speech,” he said. “There’s 99 percent true, but one percent they just put in like so subtle. You don’t notice it. But then you’re going to believe: ‘Oh America is bad; America is infidel.’ They do it so smartly.”

As a graduate student in the U.S., Andrew grew a beard as required by the Quran, but was cautioned by his uncle in Uzbekistan not to because it could lead to his family being interrogated by the government. “You’re going to be OK, but they will torture your family,” Andrew recalled his uncle warning him. Now clean-shaven, he tries to go to the mosque five times per day. He has not returned to Uzbekistan since 2011. “Actually, I don’t see any reason why I should go back. I miss my family, but once I go back, I can’t pray,” he said. “This is the thing: I can be poor, but I cannot be without God.”