FRED De SAM LAZARO: Just ten years ago, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. Today, this Central Asian country is independent and has become a key U.S. ally. Top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have visited in recent weeks, as did a congressional delegation. Uzbekistan lies just north of Afghanistan and has provided an airbase for U.S. warplanes.
Analysts say Uzbekistan also is an interesting case study in the challenges presented to the U.S. by countries where fundamental Islam is finding a foothold. Like so much of the dominating Soviet-era architecture, former communist party boss Islam Karimov remains in firm control -- he's now president.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: What has changed is the practice of religion - flourishing once again as it did before Soviet times.
Eighty percent of the nation's 24 million people belong to Uzbekistan's relatively liberal Sunni Islamic tradition known as Hanafism.
ABDUKAYUM AZIMOV (speaking through an interrupter): Bukhari, Fermezi…
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Abdukayum Azimov cites eminent Islamic scholars from history who hail from this region. He heads the government-run institute which trains clerics for what he calls moderate Hanafi Islam.
ABDUKAYUM AZIMOV: We do not need to be preached to about Islam. We are the inheritors of these great scholars. Hanafism is a harmonizing Islam that takes into account local customs -- Women don't cover their faces, for example, it is tolerant.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: However, the nature of some of the worship in Uzbekistan began to change. Soon after independence, Islamic missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nations began arriving, according to Shoazim Minavarov. He's with the government agency that regulates all religious activity.
SHOAZIM MINAVAROV (speaking through an interrupter): Uzbek people have always looked at Islam as peaceful. And it was with great trust that we accepted the foreign religious missionaries in our mosques.
But what happened was that these missionaries brought a different brand of Islam which was alien, foreign to our people.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: According to Minavarov, the newcomers preached conservative ideas, stirring conflict and often violence, particularly in rural areas.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Marat Zakhidov, a former member of parliament, witnessed the tensions caused by the new fundamentalists.
MARAT ZAKHIDOV, Former Member of Parliament (speaking through an interrupter): People who were not willing to observe did not go to the mosque to pray were boycotted. We began to see the first manifestations of this extremism in 1997. I'm talking about assassinations of police and government officials and businessmen in Namangan and other areas.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Radical Islam found its most fertile soil in the Ferghana Valley Uzbekistan's most impoverished region even though the soil itself is considered some of the world's most fertile.
Despite the fertile soil, plus oil and mineral wealth, the economy has faltered badly, leaving many people disillusioned, many worse off than in Soviet times, according to Ravil Bukharaev. He's an Islam scholar, now with BBC Radio's Russian service.
RAVIL BUKHARAEV, Islamic Scholar: These radical views are flourishing, flowering in times of troubles, the so-called "gray areas" of history, where nobody understands anything except that they had something and now they are destitute.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Economically?
RAVIL BUKHARAEV: Economically, of course. Socially…They had a social security, now they have nothing.
They turn to God because there's nothing to turn to. So, where people have no hope for the future, especially where the government is corrupt, to a certain extent -- more or less, then these people are very active and they present a political force.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Up and down Uzbekistan's rugged highways there are police checkpoints. They're off limits to cameras, but it is here that traders and especially farmers are forced to pay bribes to get through, further eroding their already small incomes.
MARAT ZAKHIDOV: And school children are forced to help their parents to survive to get work wherever they can, rather than go to school. And the level of training of teachers has also diminished considerably.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Sergei Yechkov is one of the few journalists who has reported on the endemic corruption.
SERGEI YECHKOV, Journalist (speaking through an interrupter): It becomes bad manners if you have not paid a bribe.
It has become an inalienable national characteristic of Uzbekistan. It explains the very limited amount of investment and the difficulties in relations of Uzbekistan with other countries.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Dissatisfaction with the widespread corruption and economic decay is one reason some call for an Islamic state.
Muktabar Ahmedova, who is a retired geologist, openly supports a theocracy.
MUKTABAR AHMEDOVA, Retired Geologist (speaking through an interrupter): The Islam practiced here has been Russified, its been subjected to decades of atheist influences.
If these people were not in power, we would in fact have a much purer form of Islam.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Ahmedova has been reprimanded for her views, but that's very light treatment, likely because of her advanced age. In general, any dissent has extremely harsh consequences.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: A 1999 U.S. State Department report called Uzbekistan one of the world's most oppressive nations. The government of Islam Karimov, has jailed thousands of citizens, ostensibly in a crackdown on terrorism.
But, the report said many of those jailed were hauled in on trumped up weapons or narcotics charges, many were guilty of little more than attending services in a mosque.
The government defends its response, citing threats from an ill-defined network of terrorist organizations, and an assassination attempt on the president in 1998.
MUKTABAR AHMEDOVA (speaking through an interrupter): There were cases where people based on fundamentalist feelings were calling for overthrow of the government, distributing leaflets, incidents of violence in Ferghana. So these people have been justly prosecuted.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: But Marat Zakhidov says the charges of terrorism were just a pretext for a crackdown on any perceived opposition. He himself was fired from his job as a university professor and removed from parliament.
With international support, he now does human rights work, advocating for detainees. Even after amnesty programs, he says about 5,500 people remain in prison, many tortured to extract confessions on vague charges of extremism.
MARAT ZAKHIDOV (speaking through an interrupter): These are the appeals I've had in just the last two weeks. The courts are totally corrupt -- it is virtually impossible to work with them.
They take very unjust, even at times monstrous decisions about the fate of people.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: Zakhidov is hopeful the growing U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan will promote democratic reforms. However, he and many others say they're not optimistic.
SERGEI YECHKOV (speaking through an interrupter): The U.S has had a double standard, a policy of expediency. When it is useful for the United States to have a political dialogue with this government of Uzbekistan, it closes its eyes to other aspects of life in this country.
FRED De SAM LAZARO: For their part, the visiting U.S. senators thanked the Uzbek leadership for support in the Afghanistan campaign; but they cautioned this nation would have to improve its human rights record and introduce democratic reforms if it wants more American business ties and investment.