ISFARA, Tajikistan -- The two-story local police headquarters stands tall among Chorkuh's mud-brick houses.
In Tajikistan, regional police departments like the one in Chorkuh would usually serve an entire district. But this town, located in northern Sughd Province's Isfara District, is an exception, with 60 officers stationed there.
Police in Chorkuh and the rest of the Isfara District have been busy in recent months. Five suspected militants were killed in two police raids in Chorkuh and the neighboring Childukhtaron area in October. Authorities claim two of the militants, including a woman, were followers of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a banned terrorist organization. Another had undergone training at terrorist camps abroad, the Chorkuh police claim.
Officials in Dushanbe have expressed concern about what they see as growing support for Islamic organizations, most notably the IMU, in Isfara. In Chorkuh alone, 15 men are wanted by police for their alleged ties to extremist groups. Dozens of Isfara inhabitants were arrested and found guilty of either membership in the IMU or providing support for the outlawed organization. Several armed attacks on police officers in Isfara in the past two years have been blamed on IMU members. A high-ranking police officer was shot dead and two others were injured during the attacks, which took place in broad daylight.
Isfara is located in the heart of the volatile Ferghana Valley, the most densely populated and religiously conservative area of Central Asia that straddles the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The valley has become the scene of a number of violent conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Childukhtaron area in Isfara, where two suspected militants were killed in a police raid.
Officials have warned any violence or militant activity in Isfara could easily spread throughout the region. In fact, there are no clear borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Isfara District. On our way from the provincial center Khujand to Chorkuh, we crossed into southern Kyrgyz territory at least six times. At one point, we even saw a campaign billboard for a Kyrgyz political party, still standing a month after the country's first parliamentary elections.
Local media have dubbed the area the "Islamic Triangle." Even during Soviet times the area was known for its strong Islamic traditions. Outspoken Criticism
"There were many mullahs in Isfara who privately educated local children, teaching them the basics of Islam," says Rashidkhon Saidmuhammadov, the imam of Chorkuh's Sari Bozor mosque. "Actually, I've got my first religious education attending those underground classes during the Soviet days."
The imam, wearing a blazer and slacks, is eloquent, and outspoken in his criticism of both Islamic militants and government policies toward Islam.
He condemns extremist and terrorist groups, saying, "God has not instructed anyone to punish other human beings in the name of Islam."
"If those people want to serve Islam, they should come to mosques to pray, become imams," Saidmuhammadov says. "If they want to be affiliated with some groups, why don't they join the officially registered, lawful, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, instead of joining outlawed extremist organizations?"
The imam is equally critical of what he calls Tajik authorities' "incorrect" policies toward Islam.
"Why suddenly have head scarves became an issue?" he says, referring to Tajikistan's ban on the Islamic hijab in schools and offices.
"Office workers are not allowed to attend mosque prayers. Men under the age of 50 are not allowed to grow beards," he says. "Would a beard make any difference, would mosque prayers or women's head scarves hamper the country's development?"
The imam says "such pressures backfire" and cause displeasure among peaceful followers of Islam. However, the imam credits President Emomali Rahmon's government with "providing much more religious freedom" in Tajikistan than other Central Asian states.Reopen The Madrasah
Apart from Saidmuhammadov's Sari Bozor mosque, there are 27 other mosques, including two grand mosques, in the village of Chorkuh, about twice the number found in other villages in the province.
The village also had its own religious school, or madrasah, which used to educate some 200 students from all over Tajikistan. The Salmoni Fors madrasah, however, was closed down by authorities after three of its graduates were arrested by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. The three men were sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention center before being handed over to Tajik authorities.
This madrasah in Chorkuh was closed down by the authorities after three graduates were arrested by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Some religious figures in Chorkuh have suggested that authorities reopen the madrasah to prevent young boys from turning to underground religious schools, where the authorities have no control over what is taught.
Asadulloh Karim, a political scientist and a native of Isfara, acknowledges there is much more religious conservatism in Isfara than anywhere else in the relatively liberal Sughd Province. However, he maintains that fears about Isfara becoming a new hotbed for the Islamic insurgency are exaggerated.
"Being religious should not be interpreted as being supportive of extremist groups," Karim says.
Villagers build a mosque in the village of Chorkuh, which already boasts 27 mosques, about twice the number found in other villages in the province.
He blames the widespread poverty and rampant unemployment among youth as potential "breeding grounds for militancy" in Isfara.
"There were 21 factories and industrial plants in Isfara in the 1980s that provided jobs for local people," Karim says. "Now, only three or four of them are functioning."
Chorkuh has a population of 35,000 -- mostly young people, like the rest of the country -- and there are very few sources of employment.
"In such circumstances," Karim says, "some people turn to radical groups because those groups provide financial support for their followers. For some young people such radical groups have become a source of income. It became their way to make ends meet, to provide for their families. It's a part of today's realities that we cannot ignore.
"You cannot prevent extremism by force, by killings and arrests," Karim says. "Provide opportunities for young people. They should be able to do something good with their lives, voice their opinion freely."
But Rahmon's government appears to be doubling down, increasing its restrictions on Islamic religious practices and closing down avenues of free expression. As more and more Tajiks turn to religion amidst a declining economy, it remains to be seen whether extremism will rise.
The rugged landscape surrounding the village of Chorkuh