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'Unawareness' Of Islam May Be Feeding Tajik Extremism

Tajik men pray in a Dushanbe mosque. Women have been forbidden from attending prayers since 2004.

Tajik men pray in a Dushanbe mosque. Women have been forbidden from attending prayers since 2004.

"The main reason behind the participation of young Tajik people in the Syrian conflict is both lack of proper knowledge and bad living conditions," says the chairman of Tajikistan's Committee on Religious Affairs.

Abdurahim Holiqzoda made his comment in Dushanbe last month, and explained it by saying that "a young man who has got a good religious awareness will never take part in such a conflict. Those who recruit young people to go to fight in the Syrian war, above all, take advantage of their unawareness of Islam."

Holiqzoda did not specify where young people in Tajikistan should go to increase their "awareness" of Islam. Presumably in Tajikistan, since the government has been working since 2010 to bring all its nationals studying Islam at madrasahs abroad back home.

So what can they learn about Islam in Tajikistan?

Before continuing I wish to make clear that there are many deeply pious and knowledgeable Islamic clerics in Tajikistan and I have great respect for them.

One person who does not fit in that category is the "Prophet" Shaikh Temur, who is the subject of a recent report by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, or simply Ozodi.

Shaikh Temur convinced people in Tajikistan's Hissar district that he was a new prophet. They married their daughters to him and gave him money after Temur claimed he could bring damnation down upon them.

A short video on Ozodi's website shows people lining the road to touch his car and kiss the "Prophet's" hands as he slowly drives past. In one scene a small group of followers leaves the room where Shaikh Temur is standing and they are mindful not to turn their backs on this "holy" man as they withdraw.

WATCH: Tajik 'Prophet' Shaikh Temur

This is an ancient practice in Central Asia but it has usually been reserved for khans and emirs.

To many, Shaikh Temur is clearly a charlatan, the kind that haunts all religions, and he is currently under house arrest.

But he is not to blame for the "lack of proper knowledge" of Islam in Tajikistan. That dubious distinction more rightly belongs to the government and its policies, some would say meddling, in the practice of Islam.

Regime-Friendly Religion

The Tajik government wants a specific form of Islam that does not threaten, and indeed actually supports, the regime. To be fair, for hundreds of years rulers in Central Asia have attempted to shape Islam so that the religion served them, so President Emomali Rahmon and his government are simply the latest chapter in an ancient tale.

For more than a decade now Tajik authorities have been seeking out and closing mosques that were allegedly operating illegally. This concerns hundreds of mosques. Considering the rugged terrain of Tajikistan, the poor road network and remoteness of some communities, these closures have sometimes left the faithful without a place of worship.

In late 2013, five of the nine madrasahs in Tajikistan's northern Sughd region had their activities suspended, making it more difficult for young men to find a place to study Islam. For the record, about 40 percent of Tajikistan's population lives in the Sughd region.

Provincial madrasahs in other areas of Tajikistan were closed that same year leaving the Islamic University and the Islamic Gymnasium (school) in the capital Dushanbe as the only places to formally study the religion. By the start of this year, there were 1,548 students left attending the Islamic Gymnasium after some 400 other students left the school and 348 were expelled.

Under a 2011 law, most children under the age of 18 are prohibited from attending Friday prayers. For those men (women were forbidden from attending Friday prayers in 2004) who do attend Friday prayers, the sermons they hear are not only preapproved by the government, they are from a list of topics sanctions by the authorities.

There has also been a recent tendency for Tajikistan's imams to throw in some words of praise for the government, especially for President Emomali Rahmon.

In October 2013, this so enraged Vokhidkhon Kosiddinov from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only legally registered Islamic party in Central Asia, that police in northern Tajikistan detained him for interrupting the imam during Namaz (daily prayers). Kosiddinov objected to the imam's praise for the president and the government during the sermon.

And one of the most common complaints from the young people of Tajikistan is that the imams do not have a contemporary message. The imams speak of events in the history of Islam but the connection to the world's modern challenges and problems is not always clear.

So when Holiqzoda speaks of "good religious awareness" and "unawareness of Islam" he neglects to note that the state policies he articulates are a very big part of the problem.

As for bad living conditions, more state intervention would probably be welcome there.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions by Salimjon Aioubov from RFE/RL's Tajik Service

Authors Note: For those interested in the impact that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is having on Central Asia, or the reach of Russian media that region, the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and Eurasia Net hosted a panel discussion on these topics in December. Some recognized authorities participated in the event, including Erica Marat, Edward Schatz, Sebastien Peyrouse, David Trilling, Nabi Abdullaev, and Andrei Soldatov.

You can watch a video of proceedings here

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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