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Tajikistan: New Curbs Target Islamic Students

  • Farangis Najibullah --> A madrasah in Gisar, north of the Tajik capital (AFP) Tajikistan's education minister has extended official strictures on personal and religious freedoms with an assault on deeply ingrained practices at one of the country's major institutions of Islamic learning.

Less than a year after he effectively eliminated Islamic-style head scarves in public schools, Abdujabbor Rahmonov has ordered male students at the Islamic University of Tajikistan to don suits and ties and shave their beards, and he has vowed to introduce teacher uniforms there and ban head scarves, known as hijabs.

It is the latest indication of the balancing act confronting Tajik officials who are outwardly keen to discourage unsanctioned religious practices from getting a foothold. That effort has included the closing and even bulldozing of "illegal" mosques and testing of imams to demonstrate their fitness to lead congregations.

Speaking in the Tajik capital on January 11, Rahmonov said Tajik traditional clothing -- a dress reaching below the knee, worn with pants -- is modest enough to wear at Islamic schools and during prayers, and does not violate Islamic guidelines.

He then ordered male students at the Islamic University to shave their beards and wear suits and ties to classes. Rahmonov also announced that a special uniform would soon be introduced for teachers at the school.

"Of course, we understand that it is an Islamic educational institute and it has certain conditions and requirements," Rahmonov said. "However, I emphasize once again that the order and regulations in madrasahs have to be similar to the rest of the educational institutions."

Jaloliddin Alizoda, the head of the Islamic University, said he was unaware of any imminent dress guidelines for religious teachers and declined to comment on the issue.

Female students at the Islamic school mainly wear long dresses and head scarves.

Rahmonov has described the hijab as a "foreign culture for Tajiks." Likewise, he added that men at the Islamic University should not wear Middle Eastern-style hats.

Many in Tajikistan -- including madrasah students -- suggest that Rahmonov's latest "dress code for religious students and teachers" will be met with compliance despite dissatisfaction with the new regulations.

But several male students at the Islamic University told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that they were stunned by the education minister's latest announcement. Some said Rahmonov's latest revision of the dress code at the Islamic school is unnecessary because the clothing of Islamic students in Tajikistan is not radically different from that in secular schools and universities.

"This is not [an important] issue at all," said one religious student, who did not want to give his name. "I choose my clothes to wear at home or in the madrasah the way I like them. No matter what kind of decree they issue, I will dress the way I want, with or without a tie."

Tough To Oppose

Mahmadali Hait, a member of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which is the only registered Islamic political party in the region, said the minister's order will force many of the university's several hundred students to leave so that they can continue dressing the way they wish.

Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov has taken a hard line on outward signs of faith

Rahmonov said his ministry "is preparing a guideline for teachers' clothing" and will "control compliance with the guideline."

After announcing the enforcement of a ban on the hijab last year, Rahmonov turned up personally at universities to check whether students were obeying his order.

Despite a torrent of complaints from the students and often their parents, women wearing head scarves were not allowed to enter university buildings and were given a clear choice between the hijab and their education. Most of them eventually gave in to the ban and removed their head scarves.

One student, Davlatmoh Ismoilova, appealed to a Tajik court to defend her choice to wear a hijab. But she lost cases against the university and the Education Ministry.

It is not only a new dress code that might have an impact on the staff of the Islamic school. Rahmonov also announced that all religious teachers will have to take an exam, and those without diplomas or the required teaching qualifications will be expelled from the university.

Similar tests were given to all imams in Dushanbe mosques in August by the mayor's office. It said that "unqualified imams have to be replaced by those who have the appropriate qualifications and knowledge."

More than 300 unregistered mosques in the capital alone were shut down by Tajik authorities in 2007. At least two improvised mosques in the capital were bulldozed amid a drive that critics -- including IRP leaders -- claimed was undue pressure on Islamic institutions and values and a crackdown against religion. The Dushanbe mayor's office said some of the former mosques will be turned into police stations, beauty salons, and community centers.

In the northern Sughd Province, the authorities warned that some 350 mosques needed to gain the proper license or they would be closed.

Government officials deny the actions represent an assault on Islam. They claim the mosque closures are simply part of an operation against unlawfully operating businesses and organizations, which include unregistered mosques.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report)