Ten Muslim priests in Tajikistan's northern Isfara district were recently banned from service for activities incompatible with their status. The clerics involved were reportedly members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan -- a violation of the constitutional prohibition against clergy participating in politics.
Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This year for the first time, a commission in Tajikistan comprising members of the governmental Council on Religious Affairs and the Council of Islamic Scholars is taking a hard look at the familiarity of the country's clerics with Tajik laws relating to religious practice.
The commission is focusing this year on the Sughd oblast (formerly Leninabad oblast) in northern Tajikistan. It has begun its annual assessment of the professional knowledge of clerics and teachers at Islamic schools and universities.
The head of the Council on Religious Affairs, Said Akhmedov, told RFE/RL: "The Council of Islamic Scholars and [the Council on Religious Affairs] are checking the level of knowledge of imams. We test them systematically to be sure that they have the minimum required Islamic knowledge."
Akhmedov announced in early August that 10 Muslim clerics in the northern Isfara district were banned from service for political activities incompatible with their status. Under Tajikistan's constitution, the clergy are strictly prohibited from participation in any political organizations.
Akhmedov denied the decision was politically motivated or in any way violates the constitutional rights of religious believers: "[The commission] has stated that whether [a cleric] is a member of an Islamic or communist party does not matter because in any case members of political parties have no right to work in a religious organization. If it is found that he is a party member, his case is put under consideration by the activists [of the mosque]. The members of the mosque congregation decide what to do with him. For example, last year in the Darband region, the worshippers of a local mosque fired their imam because he was a party member."
The 10 Isfara clerics were members of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the main opposition party in the country. But the move, Akhmedov insisted, should not be interpreted as a crackdown on the IRP.
IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri himself said that priests' participation in political parties is a mistake, and urged all clergy to strictly honor the country's laws.
Felix Corley is the editor of Keston news service, which covers religious-freedom issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. He told RFE/RL: "I think it does signal a new hard line against the Muslims. But in fact, the analysis or the appraisal now going on by the [Council] for Religious Affairs is much wider than whether they just know what the country's laws on religions say. It's actually an appraisal of how familiar they are with the canons of Islam and its rituals."
It is not the role of the government, Corley said, to appraise whether religious communities are choosing the right people to be their leaders. It is clearly a violation of the separation of religion and state. According to Corley, these measures are also a violation of Tajikistan's commitments to the international human rights conventions that the country has signed.
Corley pointed out the political motivation of the regime, as active members of the IRP are both prominent political individuals and Muslim leaders. The government's objective, he said, is to prevent any kind of opposition gaining strength among the Muslim leaders, muezzins, and others.
Shirin Akiner, lecturer in Central Asian studies at the University of London, agreed: "Over the past year or so in Tajikistan, we have seen the government authorities becoming very tough with unregistered clerics and unregistered mosques. There have been many closures of mosques over the last year. What is interesting in the new wave of arrests is that it appears to be members of the Islamic [Renaissance] Party. Now we also see that the activities of these clerics have been condemned by the leader of the Islamic [Renaissance] Party."
Corley said attacks against Muslims also happen in the other Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the Islamic community is strictly under the government's domination.
"The governments across the [Central Asian] region do not like religious believers or leaders of any faith getting involved in politics. Religious political parties are banned, with the exception of Tajikistan where the Islamic Renaissance Party was legalized in the wake of the peace accord which brought an end to the civil war," Corley said.
The Tajik government fought for five years (1992-97) against what it regarded as Islamic opposition activists. But IRP passivity toward the government's attack surprises neither Corley nor Akiner.
Akiner said IRP has softened its requirements in the past years: "[The IRP] is very much on the government's side now. It is certainly not acting as an Islamic party. It is really acting as an auxiliary body of the government. So I can well understand that there would be some within the party who are not happy with this. Up to now the opposition to the IRP has come from the unregistered Muslim activists."
Akiner said the subservient position of the IRP leadership is prompting people within the party to take action on their own. A part of the IRP, which is not represented in the leadership, is unhappy with the present situation because moves are being made that are gradually "circumscribing" the activities of both clerics and ordinary Muslim believers.
Some local observers note that Tajik authorities have targeted Isfara since President Imomali Rakhmonov visited the district in early July, when he criticized the construction of unsanctioned mosques and the activity in the region of militant Islamic groups. The Isfara district is located in a place where the Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz borders converge.
Back in the capital, Dushanbe, a few days later, Rakhmonov launched a critical attack on Isfara. Speaking at a congress of the National Unity and Revival Movement -- of which he is chairman -- he said that in the Isfara region alone, 192 mosques have been built in the last several years for a population of 200,000. Under Tajik law, only one mosque is allowed for every 15,000 people.
Rakhmonov complained that many of these mosques are teaching a radical brand of Islam that runs contrary to some of the nation's laws.
Rakhmonov also said three of the prisoners captured in Afghanistan and held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are Tajik citizens from Isfara.
Akiner said that in general there are concerns about the "loyalty" of the northern part of Tajikistan to the capital. However, she noted, one finds similar incidents such as the closure of mosques throughout the country.
"So I wouldn't say that this, in itself, is an indication of a crackdown on the northern part of the country. But certainly there are sometimes concerns in the capital that this is a rather unreliable -- unpredictable -- part of Tajikistan. So for that reason I think one could see -- perhaps -- more strengthening measures taken here than elsewhere," Akiner said.
But Corley stressed the ethnic dimension of the president's attacks. According to him, the government is particularly nervous about the Sughd oblast because a large proportion of the population is ethnic Uzbek, who are known as being "more devoutly Muslim."
"The government fears that there would be an ethnically based opposition to the Tajik government. It fears the ethnic cohesion of the Uzbek community and it fears separatist activities in its northern province where it believes that many Islamic guerillas are based," Corley said.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberty) movement, he adds, has been far stronger among ethnic Uzbeks. The movement -- which is banned in all Central Asian countries -- seeks to establish a separatist Islamic state in the Ferghana Valley, a stronghold of Muslim fundamentalism straddling Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
In other remarks, Rakhmonov warned that the ideology of the IRP could lead to a schism in Tajik society. "Several members of this party [are] engaged in ideological work of an extremist persuasion that may lead to a schism in society," he said.
Rakhmonov also criticized Islamic leaders for inviting students from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan to study in their religious schools. The teachings, Rakhmonov warned, "could lead to a religious split and differences and may destabilize the situation in the country."
Some observers believe that such harsh criticism may presage a ban on the IRP soon. "For the first time since the signing of a peace agreement [in 1997], the Tajik president has made accusations against the IRP," Tajik newspaper "Vecherniy Dushanbe" has noted.
(Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)