Hillary Clinton and John Kerry courted Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s brutal dictator, every bit as assiduously as George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
The west is interested in gas, gold and uranium, but is still more entranced by the allure of the false gold of Uzbekistan’s “successful” anti-terrorism strategy. Karimov was courted as the strong man who held Central Asia against Islamic fundamentalism. His methods – imprisoning, torturing and killing anybody who appeared religious – were viewed as admirable. That all reputable sources acknowledge that 10,000 people are imprisoned solely for their political and religious beliefs did not matter. That young men can be imprisoned or “disappeared” solely for growing a beard, or for praying five times a day, was viewed as “effective”.
The truth is that western governments wished they could do the same thing. The very first words Karimov ever spoke to me were to congratulate me on the fact that Blair had just instituted detention without charge for terrorism suspects – a prime example of the effect abroad of western abandonment of civil liberties.
But of course banning legitimate religious expression does not halt extremism, it creates extremism through frustration. That is why there are so many Uzbeks fighting with ISIS or the IMU in Afghanistan, why it was Uzbeks who blew up Istanbul airport. Unreasonable repression creates terrorism, which is just the effect of the Prevent programme in the UK – or banning the burkini in France.
Western politicians’ idealisation of Karimov shows the attraction to politicians of the idea of absolute power, and the simplicity of their approach to the complex issues being faced across the globe. The destruction of liberty is not the answer.