MARGALLAN, Uzbekistan — Twenty-six police checkpoints dot the road connecting the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, with the Fergana Valley barely 180 miles away. They’re a sign of the government’s fear of the impoverished, ethnic patchwork of a region that could become a fulcrum of discontent and rebellion in formerly Soviet Central Asia.
The boundaries of the valley crisscross three countries — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On its southeast border is a fourth restless territory: China’s Xinjiang province, where Uighur militants are demanding greater autonomy or outright independence from Beijing.
So interwoven is the relationship between the people of the Fergana Valley, regardless of their citizenship, that a 1999 bank bombing in the Kyrgyz city of Osh resulted in the arrest and subsequent execution of two brothers from Andijan in Uzbekistan, a few hours’ drive away.
It’s no surprise that stirrings of unrest in any nook of the valley cause deep concern in all three countries, and that Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors have watched with alarm the uprising that toppled longtime Kyrgyz leader Askar Akayev in March. The protests that sparked that uprising began in Osh.
None of the neighbors is more worried than Uzbekistan, already fighting what authorities claim is an embryonic Islamic insurgency and now nervously watching economic frustration building in a region of the country where unemployment is running at 40 percent.
Uzbek settlements in the valley have been seeing small but frequent public protests in recent months, fueled by what the government’s critics say is unremitting repression of observant Muslims and abuses of farmers and merchants’ rights by local authorities.
“We are more religious in the valley, but it isn’t just the religious side that frightens the government,” said Akhmed Modmarov, a human rights worker in the silk-growing center of Margallan who has three sons and two nephews in jail on religiously motivated charges.
“The government is afraid because it is the most heavily populated area of Uzbekistan. People are educated, and there are no jobs for our young people. The more frustrated they become, the more ready they are to revolt,” he said.
The Fergana Valley was once the ancient trading center of Central Asia, straddling the Silk Road that joined China to the Mediterranean. Arabs introduced Islam to the valley in the 8th century. Since then it has been occupied by Persians, Turks and Mongols under Genghis Khan.
In the 20th century, it fell under Soviet control. Dictator Josef Stalin sought to divide and conquer Central Asia’s many ethnic groups by chopping up the valley’s boundaries. As a result, there are some places where Uzbeks have to cross small patches of Kyrgyzstan to get back into Uzbekistan, sometimes two and three times.
Yet the valley’s recent history suggests Islamist extremism has managed to bridge the divides, drawing followers into groups that transcend national affiliation. It’s the birthplace of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Several smaller radical religious organizations have emerged in the valley in recent years, including the Justice Society, the Long Beard, and Repentance, and there is growing support for the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir, founded in 1952 in Jordan to press for the overthrow of secular governments and their replacement by with a single caliphate, or Islamic rule.