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Tajik Youth Look To Mosque For Outlet

  • Farangis Najibullah

Children play along a roadside in Isfara district. There is little else to do in the town, which has no movie theater or mall.

Children play along a roadside in Isfara district. There is little else to do in the town, which has no movie theater or mall.

Farhod Hasanov has never heard of e-mail, or Facebook, or other social-networking tools teenagers in other parts of the world take for granted in this digital age.

The 17-year-old Tajik student does know what it takes to feed a family of five, however.

"I help my father cutting wood, collecting fodder for our cattle, and harvesting apricots in our backyard, because we need them all during the winter season," Hasanov says. "If you buy them from the bazaar, it will cost a lot of money and then you would have to cut back on other things, like clothes."

Farhod lives in the village of Tagisada in Tajikistan's northern Isfara district, a remote village where most locals make a living by farming or working in Russia as migrant laborers.

To connect to the Internet or watch a movie at a cinema, Farhod would have to take a bus 30 kilometers to the nearest town, Isfara. But Farhod, speaking with a group of friends outside a former madrasah (Islamic religious school) in his village, says he can't afford such hobbies.

Farhod and many of his friends used to study at the madrasah, but the authorities closed the madrasah down a few years ago amid rumors that some of its students had joined extremist groups in Afghanistan.

The move came amid growing concerns in Tajikistan that some extremist groups were seeking to take advantage of the rising influence of Islam to recruit supporters, especially among the young Tajiks. Islam is rapidly on the rise in Tajikistan, and observers note that Tajikistan's younger generation is far more religious than their parents, who were brought up during the Soviet era.

Aside from registered religious schools like Farhod's, the authorities have also closed down several unregistered madrasahs in recent years. A number of mosques have been raided amid suspicions that their imams were conducting unsanctioned religious lessons for children. Some imams, especially graduates of foreign madrasahs, have been accused of using mosque sermons to promote radical agendas of unsanctioned groups, such as Salafiya, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

'No Place to Socialize'

"I go to mosque because I meet other young people there," says Farhod, who regularly attends prayers along with most of his friends -- a practice they say they began at the age of six or seven.

"I don't have anywhere else to hang out," he explains. "Our village doesn't have a sports center. We don't have any stadium, or a youth club."

Farhod and his friends say they have never been to a concert, a movie, or a sports competition, because "such things don't exist in villages."

It is a common problem all over the country, where some 70 percent of the population live in rural communities. Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, Tajikistan's former religious leader and a former deputy prime minister, says that because of the lack of alternatives "mosques have become almost the only place where villagers can socialize."

"Mosques everywhere in Tajikistan usually have two rooms or halls -- one is a prayer hall, and another room is used by villagers as a place for socializing," Turajonzoda says. "After the prayers, older people go home, but young people stay until the midnight and even early hours to mingle, eat, or even play cards."

A group of children gather outside a local mosque, one of the lone places to socialize in Isfara district.
Like any teenager, Farhod dreams of a better future. He says he wants to become a successful businessman or to work in a bank but is not sure if his dreams will ever materialize.

"I think I will have to go to Russia as a laborer after I finish my school next summer," Farhod says. "I heard you have to pay bribes to get a good job or enter universities, but our family doesn't have money for that. And I see that many people in our neighborhood go to Russia even after they graduate from universities, because they can't find jobs."

"There are good jobs in cities, but you need to have a good knowledge of English and computers to get them," adds 17-year-old Amonullo Haitov, one of Farhod's friends.

Unemployment is indeed one of the key social problems in the impoverished country, where some 60 percent of the population lives below the official poverty line. Official unemployment figures stand at 2.2 percent, but according to local experts, the real number is above 35 percent.

Future Doubts

Farhod and his friends' lack of faith in the future is a sentiment shared by many young people in Tajikistan.

Tajik experts, especially those dealing with youth issues, say young people's frustration with the lack of opportunities is alarming.

With some 60 percent of Tajikistan's population of 7 million under the age of 25, the country simply can't afford not to tackle their major problem, says Qiyomiddin Avazov, head of the youth committee of the Islamic Renaissance Party.

"Unemployment among the youth could contribute to much bigger problems in the country, including to extremism, especially when young people find themselves in a hopeless situation," Avazov says.

"In addition to unemployment and poverty, they face a lack of political freedom," he adds, "which doesn't help the situation."

"When a person is left unemployed, he becomes capable of many things; he can cause many troubles," Avazov says. "It is true especially when the situation in the country is already volatile. Extremist elements try to target such disillusioned people."

Tackling Unemployment?

The State Committee for Youth Affairs acknowledges the growing problem. The committee sets up job fairs every three months in major cities. It also assists some young people in finding legal employment outside the country, such as seasonal job contracts in construction and agricultural firms in Russia.

The committee has provided money for a number of athletes to travel abroad to take part in sports competitions. It also gives small grants to nongovernmental organizations that offer projects to create jobs for young people.

There are also a number of NGOs in the country -- such as the Youth Development Fund in the northern city of Khujand and the Noor society in the eastern town of Shugnon -- that offer free classes in English and computer basics, among others.

Unfortunately, NGOs suffer from a lack of funds, limiting the number of young people they can reach. And government job fairs usually offer a limited number of positions, which often pay meager wages.

Avazov says more needs to be done and quickly. "There are many other ways to create jobs, such as opening small and medium businesses, setting up smaller-scale factories," he says.

Bringing Students Home

The government has recently called home some 1,500 young men studying in madrasahs in countries like Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. The country's top officials, including President Emomali Rahmon, have cited the risks of the students becoming "terrorists and extremists" under the influence of certain foreign groups.

Some parents of returning students are concerned about the future of their children. They had hoped that, upon return, the government would help their children find alternative places to study or work at home.

Farhod says he doesn't want to study in foreign madrasahs but he would not mind "traveling abroad some day."

"I watch American movies and music video clips on DVDs and want to see where they were filmed," Farhod says. "My favorite singer is Enrique [Iglesias]."

Farhod listens to Enrique's songs on the radio and compact disks. Digital music players haven't reached his village yet.

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