December 5, 2017
Uzbek hotels will now be required by law to provide religious books
by Ian Dreiblatt
And lo, it came to pass, somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota,
There lived there a young boy named Rocky Raccoon,
And verily, he went forth to the inn, of acerb designs on a man called Dan,
Whereupon his eyes fell upon a Gideon’s Bible, and he waxed wroth, and became a Beatles song.
For a century, religious travelers have been able to criss-cross the United States—and, indeed, much of the world—secure in the knowledge that representatives of the evangelical Christian group Gideons International will have gotten there first, and left behind a copy of the Christian Bible in whatever truck stops, hospitals, firehouses, prisons, shelters, and, most famously, hotels they could find. The Gideons, who describe themselves as “an Association of Christian business and professional men and their wives [sic] dedicated to telling people about Jesus,” do this, give or take, because they think God wants them to. Which, fine.
Now, according to Farangis Najibullah of Radio Free Europe, the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan has passed a slate of tourism laws that might make the Gideons—at least the more ecumenical-minded among them—proud.
The laws, which will go into effect with the new year, require copies of the Qur’an (as well as prayer mats and pointers indicating the direction to Mecca) in one-tenth of the nation’s hotel rooms. (While Uzbekistan’s Directorate for Islamic Affairs lists no books but the Qur’an in its official statement about the new law, Najibullah reports it will also require hotels to provide copies of “the Bible… and ‘the books of other official religions,’” citing unspecified “authorities.”)
The law comes at a tricky time for Uzbekistan; since the death last year of longtime president Islam Karimov—who assumed power before the country’s 1991 proclamation of independence—his successor, the somewhat more moderate Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been quietly dismantling at least some of the repressive apparatus that the government’s efforts to contain violent religious extremism had produced. (Lest you get too excited, Uzbekistan remains a shivering horrorscape for journalists — the world’s twelfth-worst, according to Reporters Without Borders.)
It’s a struggle being played out across the region — just this spring, we reported on tight new restrictions for travelers bringing books into or out of Tajikistan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan. Many then were speculating that the law aimed to provide cover for a crackdown on religious texts of many kinds.
Describing regimes across Central Asia, Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch’s director of advocacy for the region, recently said, “The glimmers of hope in the region should not be taken for granted, nor their fragility underestimated.” It’s not totally obvious that putting religious texts in hotel rooms while thousands of journalists remain behind bars should count as a “glimmer of hope,” but if this proves the earliest intimation of a bigger reduction in repression, that would be good news for sure.
Let us pray.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.