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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 9   16 - 30 September 2010

Professor A. R. Momin

Turkey Endorses Constitutional Reforms

Thirty years after the 1980 coup masterminded by Turkey’s army generals, a substantial majority (58 per cent) of Turkish voters in a nationwide referendum held on September 12, 2010 said yes to a package of highly significant amendments in the country’s constitution. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had proposed a 26-point amendment package, which was earlier approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly and endorsed by President Abdullah Gul.

The present constitution was drafted by the army generals, staunch defenders of the secularist credo espoused by Kemal Ataturk, who had carried out the 1980 coup and overthrown the civilian government. The amendments proposed by the ruling AK party include expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled, the establishment of ombudspersons, collective bargaining for government employees, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and army, and bringing Turkey more in line with the European Union. The amendments give the Turkish president and Parliament greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court.

Following the 1980 military coup, led by General Kenan Evren, the civilian government was dislodged, over half a million people were arrested and tortured, and 51 executed. According to the proposed amendments, civilian courts will have the power to prosecute military personnel for crimes against the state. The result of the referendum paves the way for the prosecution of the generals who masterminded the 1980 coup and would act as a deterrent against potential coups in the future.

The bitterly contested referendum was widely seen as a trial of strength and credibility for the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership. The result has given a boost to his political standing in the country as well as internationally. After the declaration of the result, Mr Erdogan said the result meant the country had “a historic threshold towards advanced democracy and the supremacy of law”. The European Commission, which had supported the move for constitutional reforms, has welcomed the results. The US President Barack Obama called Mr Erdogan to congratulate him. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the vote was critical for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. The ruling AK party will in all probability get a third term of office in the country’s general elections due in the summer of 2011.

The result of the referendum shows that a substantial majority of Turkish people are against sweeping and tyrannical powers held by the army and the judiciary, which are fanatically committed to the secularist principle and have often ridden roughshod over human rights and civil liberties. The result of the referendum will not only curtail the powers of the army and the judiciary but will also pave the way for a new constitution. Mr Erdogan called the referendum “a key to open the door for a new constitution”. The fact that nearly 42 per cent of Turkish citizens said no to the amendments indicates the fragmentation and deep fissures in Turkish politics and society. But it must be said that Mr Erdogan is moving in the right direction. After all, a country’s constitution and the institutions of the state, including its government and politics, must reflect its people’s cherished traditions, goals and aspirations. A democratic polity cannot be held to ransom by a band of authoritarian and crazed generals and equally crazy judges in the name of a doctrine that is out of sync with Turkish society.

Ancient Islamic Coins Found in Germany

German archaeologists have recently unearthed a fairly large number of silver coins with Arabic inscriptions, silver jewellery and bars in a Slavic settlement of Menzlin in the German town of Anklam in the eastern state of Meckenburg-Western Pomerania, close to the Polish border. The discovery testifies to the extensive trade links between the Middle East and the Baltic Sea coast dating as far back as the 7th century. The earliest of the 82 coins and coin fragments dates from 610 AD.

Many of the coins unearthed by archaeologists had Arabic symbols and characters (Photo credit: DPA)

The Viking settlement of Menzlin was an important base for trade between East and West during the early Middle Ages. The coins were produced in regions that today include northern Africa, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and were used over trade routes that traversed the Black Sea, the Dnieper, the Volga and the Baltic Sea.

Coins and bracelet brought to a Slavic settlement in Germany by Arab traders
(Source: www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,druck-716001,00.html)

The historical geography of Islamic coins provides interesting glimpses into the extensive trade links between Islamic civilization and the rest of the world, including Europe, Latin America and China, and the influence of Islamic numismatics on coinage in different regions of the world. An incredibly large number of Islamic coins—estimated to number 200,000—have been discovered in Russia, Scandinavia, Sweden, Germany, Malta, France, England, Poland, Norway, Greece and Italy. An Islamic dirham, minted in the 8th century, was discovered on the desolate island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon in Italy. Archaeologists in Norway discovered an ancient silver coin dating back to 805 AD in 2009. The coin was issued by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled from 786 to 809.

A silver dirham, minted during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid
(ruled 786-809) was discovered in Oslo, Norway in 2009

More than a thousand silver coins from Islamic lands, dating from about 900 to 1000 AD, were discovered in Sweden on the Baltic island of Gotland in September 2007. The coins were products of the extensive trade which the Vikings had with the Middle East. A hoard of coins discovered in England some years ago had been minted in Samarqand. Dirhams, or silver coins, minted in Samarqand were widely traded in markets in Mainz, Germany during the Middle Ages.

More than 1000 silver coins and coin fragments from Islamic lands were discovered on the
Baltic island of Gotland in Sweden in 2007.

The vast majority of silver coins minted in Islamic lands, which have been discovered in Europe, were brought over by the Vikings. The Vikings were Scandinavian maritime traders, warriors and raiders, who traded in large areas of Europe and the North Atlantic islands from the 8th to the mid-11th century. They colonized nearly the whole of North Atlantic. In the Caucasian steppe an extensive trade network developed in the 7th and 8th centuries, involving Viking and Arab traders as well as Persians and Greeks. By the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings had reached as far as Baghdad. The wares traded by the Vikings included wax and birch bark, fish teeth, honey, goat skins, falcons, acorns, hazelnuts, cattle, swords, armour and amber. They also traded in slaves, captured from amongst the East European peoples. Muslim traders paid for Norse wares with silver coins, which were highly valued and coveted by the Vikings. Arab merchants had started circulating silver coins in the Volga region in the late 8th century. Caches of Arabic dirhams have been discovered at a number of Viking graves and burial sites across Europe. Some 100,000 dirhams deposited between the years 900 and 1030 have been unearthed in Sweden alone. The Viking Age was heavily dependent on Arab coins. Muslim historians and chroniclers, including Ibn Fadlan, al-Mas’udi, al-Muqaddisi, Ibn Khurdadhbih, Ibn Rustah and Ibn Hawqal, have described the trading activities and culture of the Vikings, who are described as “Rus” (from which the word Russia has been derived). Spanish Arab historians referred to the Vikings as al-majus (fire-worshipping pagans or Zoroastrians), perhaps on account of their trade links with the Persians.

Silver dirham of the Umayyad dynasty, minted in Balkh in 111 AH/729 AD

Islamic coins were often copied by European kings and emperors during the early Middle Ages. The 8th century English king Offa of Mercia (757-796) minted a copy of the Abbasid dinar in 774, with the Islamic confession of faith in the Arabic script and “Offa Rex” on the reverse.

A copy of the Abbasid dinar, minted by the 8th century English king Offa of Mercia,
which bears the Islamic confession of faith in the Arabic script and his name on the reverse (British Museum)

King Roger II of Sicily, who was greatly influenced by Islamic culture, minted a gold coin with Arabic inscriptions. In Sicily, Malta and south Italy, from about 913 gold coins of Islamic origin were minted in large numbers by the Normans, Hohenstaufens and the early Angevins rulers.

Gold coin of King Roger II of Sicily, with Arabic inscriptions (British Museum)

World’s Oldest Monastery in Egypt Restored

Christian monasticism originated in Egypt in the third century AD. Many Egyptian Christians retreated to the desert regions to dedicate their lives to prayers and meditation. By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monasteries throughout the Egyptian desert. When Amr ibn al-A’s, a distinguished Companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in 640 AD, he left the Christian population in undisturbed possession of their churches, monasteries and other religious institutions and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches to remain with their traditional custodians.

The world’s oldest Christian monastery is located in an oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, about 155 km south-east of Cairo, and is known as Saint Anthony’s Monastery. The monastery, which is believed to be 1,600 years old, has recently been restored by the Egyptian government. The restoration work took more than eight years and incurred an expenditure of $14.5 million. The main surrounding wall of the monastery, two churches, the monks’ living quarters and a defensive tower were renovated. Paintings inside the church were also restored with the help of archaeologists from the American Research Centre. During the renovations, archaeologists discovered the ruins of the ancient monks’ quarters dating from the 4th century AD.

Saint Anthony’s Monastery was built around 356 AD on the burial site of Saint Anthony (c. 251-356 AD), who was Christian monk and saint from Egypt. He was among the first Christian ascetics who chose a life of complete isolation from society.

The monastery is affiliated to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian church in Egypt. According to tradition, the Coptic Orthodox Church was established by Saint Mark, the apostle and evangelist, in 42 AD. Around 95 % of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

The monastery is a functioning, self-contained village with gardens, a mill, a bakery and five churches. It also has a library with over 1,700 old manuscripts. At present, 120 monks are living in the monastery.

Rising Veilophobia in Muslim Countries

The issue of the Islamic veil, especially the face-covering niqab, has become extremely contentious and controversial across large parts of Europe. Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign secretary, stirred up a controversy on October 6, 2007 by stating that the veil created a barrier and “separateness” between Muslims and other people and made relations between communities more difficult. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy created a huge controversy by stating in his first state of the nation address on January 22, 2009 that Islamic veils were a sign of women’s subservience and debasement and therefore not welcome on French soil. A cross-party commission of French MPs appointed by Sarkozy to consider a ban on face-covering veils recommended a ban on face-covering veils or burqas in schools, universities, hospitals, post offices and other state-owned premises and while using public services. In May 2010 the French cabinet approved a draft law to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public places. The bill calls for a fine of $185 for those who would violate the law. On April 30, 2010, 136 of Belgium’s 138 lower house legislators voted to ban the burqa in the country. In Spain, nine cities in Catalonia, including Barcelona, have banned the burqa. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Austria are considering outlawing face-covering veils. In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has proposed a law aimed at banning face-covering veils in all public institutions.

Much of the momentum for banning the burqa has come from the far-right populist parties, such as Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Northern League in Italy and the Pro-NRW in Germany. Mara Carfagna, a former model and now the federal minister of equal opportunity in Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government in Italy, announced a couple of weeks ago that Italy would soon follow France in introducing a national ban on the face-covering burqa and niqab. Of late the debate over face-covering veils has moved mainstream and has been joined by the centre-left and communist parties. The centre-left Social Democratic Party in Switzerland and the French communist party are pressing for a ban on face-covering veils and burqas. According to a survey carried out by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, a clear majority of Germans, French, Spanish and British support a ban on the burqa and the niqab. Most Americans, on the other hand, disapprove the ban.

An echo of the move to ban the face-covering veil in public places in several European countries can be heard in some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Tunisia and Syria, where the influence of Western culture has been particularly strong.

During the Ottoman era, society and state in Turkey were deeply rooted in Islamic values and traditions. Sufism had a strong and pervasive presence across the country. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Turkey became the first secular state in the Muslim world. The establishment of the Turkish Republic was accompanied by sweeping changes in society. Madrasas, Sufi orders and shrines were closed down. The Swiss civil code replaced the Islamic Shariah. Turkish was substituted for Arabic as the liturgical language. The wearing of fez, a symbol of Turkish identity for centuries, was outlawed and replaced by the European-style hat. The wearing of Islamic clothing was discouraged and the Islamic headscarf was banned in schools and public offices. The Persian script of Turkish language was changed to Latin. Kemal Ataturk thus made a radical break with Turkey’s Islamic heritage. During the presidency of Ismet Inonu (1938-50), the grand mosque of Erzrum was converted into a stable for the army.

Almost two generations of Turkish Muslims were brought up in the secular, Westernised environment that the Ataturk so assiduously sought to foster in Turkey. However, large sections of society, especially in the countryside, continued to hold on to traditional values and cultural traditions. Even after 86 years of state-sponsored Westernisation, more than two-thirds of women in Turkey cover their heads. However, women have been prevented from wearing the headscarf in educational institutions and state offices for decades. No female member of parliament can cover her head in parliament. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a computer scientist who was elected a member of the Turkish parliament, was prevented from taking oath and was subsequently stripped of her Turkish citizenship because she entered parliament with her headscarf. Earlier, her father, Yusuf, Ziya Kavakci, had to resign as dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Ataturk University for supporting women’s right to wear the hijab. Her mother lost her teaching position at the same university for wearing the headscarf. The family had to migrate to the United States.

In 1997 the wearing of headscarves was banned in all universities. Students who wore the hijab had to remove it before entering the university. Turkish women who wear the headscarf complain that they are unfairly discriminated against for their religious belief. “I have been wearing my headscarf since I was 14. This is how I express myself. I do not aim to impose anything on others,” says Leila Shahin, who was expelled from medical school for refusing to remove her headscarf.

In early 2008, Turkey’s Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed an amendment to the constitution which would allow women to wear the headscarf in universities. On February 9, 2008 Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of overturning theban on Islamic headscarves in universities. Mr Erdogan argued that changing the relevant clause in the Turkish constitution was necessary in order to ensure that all women had equal access to higher education without any discrimination. Polls showed that a majority of people in the country are in favour of lifting the ban. Interestingly, the number of women covering their heads in public in Turkey is rapidly increasing. Traditional fashion shops say that business in headscarves has boomed in recent years.

Turkey stands at crossroads. On the one side, the powerful military junta, the judiciary and a section of the elite are fanatically committed to the secularist creed and are inimical to the restoration and revival of the country’s Islamic heritage. On the other, there is a deep yearning in the masses, students and the professional elite for Turkey’s jreturn to its cherished Islamic values and traditions. The Justice and Development Party is committed to fulfilling people’s aspirations in a democratic framework.

In Tunisia, civil servants are not allowed to wear the face-covering veil. In July 2010, Syria’s minister of higher education, Ghiyath Barakat, declared that students wearing the full-face veil would not be allowed to enter university campuses. He added that the practice of wearing the full veil ran counter to the academic values and traditions of Syrian universities. This summer, more than 1,000 teachers who wear the full-face veil or niqab were shifted to administrative duties. The move is part of the Syrian government’s drive against the growing influence of Islamic organizations and movements in the country and a step to affirm its secular identity.

The government has asked imams for recordings of their Friday sermons and started monitoring Islamic schools or madrasas. When the Syrian President Mr Bashar al-Assad was asked at an American talk show in May 2010 to name the biggest challenge facing the country, he said, “How we can keep our society as secular as it is today. The challenge is the extremism in this region”.

The American University in Cairo allows students to wear the headscarf, which covers a woman’s hair but leaves the face visible, but prohibits the face-covering niqab. Iman al-Zainy, a doctoral student at Al-Azhar University who wears the face-covering niqab, sued the American University in 2001 after it prevented her from entering is library. In Je 2007 a court in Egypt upheld her petition and ruled that the American University could not ban women wearing the niqab on campus.

There I disagreement among Muslim jurists about the face-covering niqab. While some consider it mandatory, others say the niqab is a matter of local custom and therefore of choice. In 2009, Egypt’s foremost scholar and jurist, Sheikh Muhammad Said al-Tantawi, former Rector of Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University, banned female students from wearing the face-covering veil at the university. “The niqab is a tradition and has nothing to do with religion,” he said. He also suggested that French Muslims should comply with their country’s laws in the face of the government’s move to ban the full-face veil in public places. A leading Saudi scholar, Sheikh Aed al-Qarni, while condemning France for seeking to ban the face-covering veil, said that “If Muslim women are in a country that has banned the niqab, or if they face harassment on account of it in such a place, it is better that they uncover their faces”

Islamic Resurgence in Dagestan

Russia has more Muslims than any other European country (except Turkey). According to the 2002 census, Russia's Muslim population is 14.5 million, constituting about 10 per cent of the Russian Federation's total population of 145 million. In 2005, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, put the number of Muslims in Russia at 20 million. Nearly 2 million Muslims live in Moscow. The autonomous republics of the Russian Federation’s northern Caucasus region, situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, are inhabited by a number of Muslim communities, including the Dagestanis, Chechens, Adyghe, Balkars, Ingush, Circassians, Kabardin, Tatars, Bashkirs and Kabardin. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this vast region has been in the grip of unrest and violence. Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Caucasus region, has a population of 2.7 million, 90 per cent of them Muslims.

Dagestan is situated in the northern Caucasus region and is surrounded by Chechnya and Georgia in the west, Azerbaijan in the south and the Caspian Sea in the east. Dagestan is rich in oil and gas reserves, but the people of Dagestan are among the poorest in the Russian Federation. Dagestan has had a troubled relationship with Russia since the 19th century. There was fierce resistance to the military onslaught of Czarist forces in the second half of the 19th century. In 1829 a gathering of Sufi leaders in Dagestan decided to launch a military campaign against Russian expansion under the leadership of imams. Imam Shamil (1798-1871) led the war effort for 25 years from 1834 to 1859. Russia had to send some 300,000 troops to quell the rebellion. Although the resistance movement resulted in failure and most of its leaders were either killed or exiled, it remained a force in the region. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Dagestan has been an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation.

In 1999, an Islamic group declared the establishment of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on all Muslims in the Russian-held territories to rise in revolt against Russian domination. Chechen fighters moved into Dagestan and joined hands with the group. Vladimir Putin dealt with the uprising in a ruthless manner. Since then the Russian forces have carried out a brutal campaign of terror and repression in the region. The pro-independence fighters have put up a strong resistance against Russian onslaught. There has been a spate of bombings targeted at Russian forces. In February 2006 Putin nominated the pro-Russian Mukhu Aliyev as president of Dagestan. The region continues to be dogged by violence, political instability and lawlessness. The number of attacks on government forces has more than doubled in the past few years. In March 2009, a group of young female suicide bombers from Dagestan blew itself up in a Moscow subway, killing 40 people. Fifty eight police officers were killed by Dagestani fighters in 2009.

Dagestan is plagued by high unemployment rates. It ranks 79th out of the 83 regions of the Russian Federation in terms of unemployed persons. Some 18,500 students pass out of universities every year, but only one in six can find a job.

In recent years a wave of Islamic resurgence has swept across Dagestan, as well as other Muslim-dominated regions of the Russian Federation. A decade ago, casinos and brothels outnumbered mosques and Islamic schools, but now the situation is reversed. An increasing number of Dagestani women now wear the Islamic veil.

Afghanistan’s Rich, Untapped Natural Resources

Afghanistan, a land-locked country in south-central Asia, is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. The country’s GDP at the official exchange rate is $14.04 billion and the GDP per capita is $1,000. More than 36% per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Two-thirds of the country’s 28.1 million people live on less than $2 a day. The unemployment rate is more than 35 per cent. Life expectancy for both men and women is 44 years, one of the lowest in the world. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world. The country is highly dependent on foreign aid and trade with neighbouring countries. The economy has suffered from decades of conflict and violence, corrupt governments and foreign occupation. The country’s war-ravaged economy is largely based on the cultivation opium and hashish, illegal and clandestine narcotics traffic and aid from industrialized countries. Large sections of the population continue to suffer from lack of basic amenities, insecurity, chronic shortages of housing, clean drinking water, electricity and medical care, crime and drug addiction.

Amidst this gloomy scenario there has come some good news. Surveys carried out by the Pentagon and the US Geological Survey over the past few years indicate that huge deposits of valuable minerals, including gold, copper, iron, cobalt, lithium and niobium lie hidden in the country’s mountainous regions. These untapped minerals, as well as rare earth elements, are worth a staggering $1 trillion. Lithium is a highly prized raw material which is used in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys. Niobium is a soft metal which is used in producing superconducting steel. The US officials believe that the huge deposits of minerals, which are scattered throughout Afghanistan, would transform the country’s economy and would make it into one of the most important mining centres in the world. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Soviet mining experts had collected substantial data about the mineral deposits in the country. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the plans for the exploration and harnessing of the country’s mineral resources were set aside. In 2004, American geologists stumbled upon a number of maps, charts and technical data, collected by Soviet experts, at the Library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul.

With the help of these maps and charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 per cent of the country. Encouraged by the results of the aerial survey, American geologists returned the next year with even more sophisticated equipments. In 2009, a Pentagon business development task force came upon the geological data and, realizing its huge economic value, brought in a team of American mining experts to confirm the survey’s findings, and then briefed the US Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

China has been eyeing Afghanistan’s natural resources for quite a while. It won a bid for the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province. With the discovery of the country’s vast, untapped mineral resources, China will be eager to dominate Afghanistan’s mining industry.

The harnessing of Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources requires huge investment and infrastructure before they begin to yield profits. Afghanistan has no mining industry or infrastructure in place. It may take many years to develop a mining industry. But once developed, the industry would radically alter the economic and social landscape. The Pentagon has already set up a system to develop the mining industry. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to offer advice to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data about the deposits are being made available to multinational mining companies and potential foreign investors.

The discovery of vast mineral deposits in Afghanistan and the keen interest evinced by the Pentagon in the country’s mineral resources raises questions about the real motives of the US in the invasion and occupation of the country. It is not far-fetched to imagine that just as the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was motivated by a desire to control its vast oil wealth, the real purpose of the continued occupation of the country by the US-led coalition forces is to exploit its natural resources. This may mark the beginning of a scramble for Afghanistan—quite like one in colonial Africa.

(Sources: The New York Times, June 13, 2010; The Independent, June 15, 2010)

Ethnic Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan

The countries that formed part of the Central Asian republics during the Soviet era were created by Russian politicians and planners in the 1920s. They were carved out of what was then known as Turkestan in the Russian Empire. When the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, this vast swathe of territory was arbitrarily divided into five republics: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The borders of these republics were artificially created in such a way that each of the republics came to have sizeable ethnic minorities. Thus Kyrgyzstan came to have a substantial Uzbek population and Uzbekistan a sizeable Tajik minority. In the 1920s Stalin arbitrarily divided the Ferghana Valley, a large, fertile basin 300 km long and 70 km wide, among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, most of the valley became a part of Uzbekistan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the declaration of independence by the Central Asian republics, the artificially created borders became final. This was accompanied by a resurgence of nationalistic resurgence and ethnic and religious revival. Uzbekistan sought to reinvent its national identity around the myth of the figure of Tamerlane, the legendary conqueror who conquered much of central and west Asia in the 14th century and built a vast empire that stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea coast.

Nearly all the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union are ethnically heterogeneous and ethnic tensions surfaced soon after independence. In Kyrgyzstan tensions between the majority Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority have been simmering since the early 1990s. The Uzbeks make up about 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.4 million. Most of them live in the southern part of the country, where they make up the majority. In 1990, demands by the Uzbek for the creation of an autonomous region in the southern part of the country, official recognition of the Uzbek language and employment in the government sector led to violent clashes between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek. The Kyrgyz have suspected the Uzbek of being fifth columnists who want to break away from the country and join Uzbekistan. Large-scale violence erupted in June 2010. The violence, which was directed against the Uzbek community, left 118 people dead and 1,500 injured, and tens of thousands of Uzbek have fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Most of the killing took place in the Ferghana Valley.

The Uzbek, though in a minority, are economically better off than the Kyrgyz majority. The Uzbek have traditionally been traders and farmers and own many of the shops and restaurants in the capital. The Kyrgyz, on the other hand, have been pastoralists. Nearly 800,000 Kyrgyz men from the southern part of the country are working on low-paid jobs in Russia. The Kyrgyz, being in a majority, hold the levers of power. The police force and the military are dominated by the Kyrgyz.

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