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Tajik Government Concerned By Increasing Growth Of Salafism

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

Muhammadi Rakhmatullo is the head of Salafiyyah, an unregistered religious organization in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Educated in a Pakistani madrasah, Rakhmatullo is known as Mullah Muhammadi in Tajikistan and is one of the country's Salafi leaders.


He and his fellow members -- most of whom are young men in their 20s and early 30s -- differ from most other Tajik men. They all have beards and wear their trousers rolled up. Those signs show that they practice Salafism, a form of Islam that is quite different from Hanafism, the traditional, more liberal brand of Islam practiced by the huge majority of Tajiks.


But it is not the look of the Salafis that concerns people. It is not even their growing presence in mosques and the differences in the way they pray and perform other religious rituals.

Some devout Hanafi Muslims -- including Islamic scholars and Tajik officials -- seem most worried by the growing influence and exclusionism of the Salafis. The danger, they say, is that Salafis see themselves as the purest Muslims and exclude others, renouncing many kinds of Islam -- Shi'ism and Sufism among them.


Rakhmatullo claims that 20,000 people have joined his organization in Tajikistan in recent years, and the number of Salafis coming to Friday Prayers -- including to the biggest central mosque in Dushanbe, Imam At-Termezi -- has been rising steadily.


Rakhmatullo and other Salafis shy away from the media. However, Salafi ideology is widely disseminated in brochures and other such materials available on the streets and in bookstores at mosques. Reports say Salafis distribute nearly 6,000 audio and videotapes, books, and brochures every week.


One of the videos features Rakhmatullo giving an anti-Iran speech. He is also very critical of Tajik officials who say that Tajiks and Iranians are brothers (they share the same language and ethnicity).


"Even my [Muslim] brothers [from Tajikistan] did not prove useful to me. So why would I want other 'brothers' to come from Iran?" Rakhmatullo said. "Look, there are 7 million people in Tajikistan. Half of them are men. A million and a half out of 3.5 million are children. Another million Tajiks are in Russia. Only 1 million [Tajik men are] left in Tajikistan. Out of them, only 225,000 attend Friday Prayers. The rest are an absolutely useless bunch of people."


Salafis advocate a pure form of Islam that is said to be similar to that practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims starting with the Prophet Muhammad (Salaf means "ancestors" or "early generations" in Arabic).


Salafis renounce innovations, alterations, and additions that were added in succeeding centuries to their "pure" form of Islam.


The Salafis' rejection of Sufism has caused resentment among many Tajiks because Sufism has strong roots in Tajikistan.


Most Tajiks are Sunnis, although about 5 percent of Tajiks belong to the Shi'a minority of the Islamiliyyah sect in the remote Pamir Mountains.


Some believe Salafism is similar to Wahabbism, and many people use those terms interchangeably. Even the habit of rolled-up pants is similar to the Wahhabi custom in former Soviet republics for adherents to wear their pants three centimeters shorter than normal.


Some say Wahhabis in Central Asia and the Caucasus used the name "Salafi" to mask any connections to Wahhabism and the official repercussions that could be made against them because of the negative association that comes with Wahhabism. But Salafis deny that claim, pointing out that Wahhabism is based on the teachings of a cleric from the 18th century, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.

The head of the Interior Ministry in Soghd Province, Abdurahim Kakhharov, said on June 30 that Salafis must be controlled "because they are associates of Wahhabis."


The ideas and practices of Wahabbism -- an Islamic doctrine of the ruling royal dynasty in Saudi Arabia -- first came to the former Soviet republics in the 1980s.


Authorities often use the term Wahabbism to describe various Islamic movements outside state control, and ascribe antigovernment activities to them.


In Tajikistan, the term was discredited among even ordinary people during the 1992-97 bloody civil war in which an Islamic opposition fought the post-Soviet regime.


Because of the Salafis' anti-Shi'a and anti-Iran positions, there have been allegations that the United States is behind the Salafi movement in Tajikistan.


Hajji Akbar Turajonzoda, a parliamentarian and prominent member of the Islamic opposition, is one of those who claims that the West finances the Salafis. In an April 30 interview with Russia's Regnum information agency, he claimed Western secret services have instructed Salafis to "fight Shi'ites -- more precisely, Iran."


"Their goal is to create antagonism in society and destroy unity among Muslims," Turajonzoda said.


He also claimed that the Salafis' base could not grow without significant financial assistance from "foreign intelligence centers."


Tracy Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador in Dushanbe, denied the allegations in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service on July 2.


"This idea that we at the [U.S.] embassy give money to religious groups is a crazy idea," Jacobson said. "It's not true, I can assure you. But we do work with the [Tajik] government to support freedom of conscience for all peaceful religious groups. But no, we don't give money to the Salafi or other groups. I also read the article in which someone said we support Hizb-ut Tahrir and Salafi in order to create divisions within the Islamic world. It's nothing but propaganda."


Tajik authorities have been careful not to openly criticize Salafis in the past. However, several high-ranking officials have lately expressed concerns about the growth of the Salafism ideology.


There have been cases in which Salafi literature has been confiscated. The most recent incident came last month when police seized 62 books in a single raid in the southwestern city of Kulob.


Earlier this year, Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Salihov admitted that Salafis had not committed "any unlawful and unconstitutional acts." He added, however, that Salafi followers are recognized as extremists and are banned in some countries.


Hayrullo Saidov, the prosecutor in the northern Soghd Province, announced on June 30 that authorities plan to strengthen control over the activities of Salafiyyah members in Soghd. Tajik media quoted Saidov as saying that Salafiyyah is "dangerous because it shows itself from its good side first and then gradually becomes dangerous."


Media have reported that among the confiscated Salafi literature was a pamphlet describing how to keep young people from becoming Shi'ite.


A Kulob government official, Emomali Bulbulov, said that most of the books were high quality and had been printed in Russia. He also said that Salafis promised to pay $200 to nonmembers to distribute the books.


Turajonzoda, who has criticized the Tajik authorities for not taking a harder stance against Salafis, supports the more aggressive attitude by the Tajik government regarding Salafis.


"I heard that the Tajik government, after analyzing and studying this group -- and perhaps, they have also got some information from other countries -- has ordered that this movement should not be supported and even it should be restricted," Turajonzoda said. "To some extent, I support this idea, although in my opinion not supporting the movement would be enough."


Reports indicate that Salafism is also growing in other parts of the former Soviet Union.


Salafiyyah members frequently visit Russia -- the main destination for Tajik labor migrants -- and disseminate Salafi ideas among them. This comes at a time when many Tajiks have left Islam altogether, as more than 180,000 Tajiks are reported to have converted to other religions in recent years, most of them to Christianity.


RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondents Farhodi Milod and Kayumars Ato contributed to this report

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