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Turkmenistan Keeps Lid On All Things Islam

Established mosques in Turkmenistan are widely believed to be fuller today than at any time since the country's independence from the Soviet Union. (file photo)

Established mosques in Turkmenistan are widely believed to be fuller today than at any time since the country's independence from the Soviet Union. (file photo)

Few people in Turkmenistan dare to speak about the pressure the government puts upon those suspected of Islamist leanings.

But Merdan, who gives only his first name, wants to be heard. He claims his family was subjected to threats when he began studying for a master's degree in Islamic studies two years ago in Saudi Arabia.

"Once I left Turkmenistan, [the authorities] came to my father, telling him 'bring your son back' and putting my relatives under pressure, such as calling them in for questioning," he says. "That's what we went through."

He told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that in the end he decided not to go back to Turkmenistan and is now seeking UN refugee status. The reason: to avoid the imprisonment that he says his brother suffered upon returning home from studying in Saudi Arabia in 2009.

Merdan's experiences and the jailing of his brother cannot be independently confirmed. But others going abroad have also reportedly suffered various degrees of harassment.

Maysa, who would not give her last name, tells the story of a Turkmen friend of hers returned from Turkey last summer with a body-covering coat that observant Turkish women wear for modesty packed in her bag.

"I have a friend who used to cover herself [while in Turkey]," she says. "When she returned to Turkmenistan last summer her baggage was searched at the airport. In Turkey, women wear a dress with long sleeves and a hem below the knees. This girl was bringing her dress and when [the customs officials] found it they shouted at her, asking, 'What is this, whose is it, and why did you bring it?' This girl was frightened and responded that it was a gift to her mother from one of her friends."

Religious Objects Seized

Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organization that promotes religious freedom, says it has received similar reports of Turkmen travelers having religious objects confiscated when they return home.

Religious inscriptions in Arabic have been confiscated from some people returning from Azerbaijan and prayer rugs have been taken from some returning from Iran.

Such stories could offer a peek into the tough methods the Turkmen government employs to insulate its own traditionally moderate Muslim population from stricter forms of Islam.

The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 says that the government "officially bans only extremist groups that advocate violence, but categorizes Muslim groups advocating a stricter interpretation of Islamic religious doctrine as 'extremist.'"

So far, the isolationist strategy may have helped to preserve Turkmenistan as the only country in Central Asia free of visible problems with Islamic militancy. But the punitive approach risks building resentment, and possibly creates more fertile ground for radicalism in the future.

"If the government is not, in fact, sifting out people who are genuinely dangerous and a threat to society as a whole and is just putting them in together with people who peacefully want to practice their faith outside state-controlled structures, then this is perhaps creating the risk of future problems from people who take against the government just because of that," says Felix Corley of Forum 18.

Some young Muslims appear willing to defy the country's religious law, which permits worship only in state-approved mosques or at home.

A correspondent with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service found a small group of students in one university clandestinely meeting to pray in a common room.

To convert the room into a prayer space, they first had to confront the ubiquitous photograph of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on the wall. They feared praying in its presence would violate religious strictures against worshiping idols, while removing it would be an insult to the president -- a punishable offense. So, they covered it with a cloth.

Ashgabat's wariness of Islamists comes as anecdotal evidence suggests religiosity in general is on the rise in Turkmenistan, where ordinary people remain poor despite the country's energy wealth.

Established mosques in cities and towns are widely believed to be fuller today than at any time since Turkmenistan's independence from the Soviet Union. The crowds attending one mosque -- Ertogrul in central Ashgabat -- are large enough on Fridays that the police must close the surrounding streets to traffic.

The government risks contributing to a religious revival by funding the construction of several new mosques in major cities and towns. But, at the same time, it has implemented controls by permitting only the practice of Turkmenistan's traditional form of Sunni Islam, which is heavily influenced by the teachings of Sufi saints and by indigenous nomadic culture.

Milder Version Of Islam

Traditional Turkmen Islam has long been considered among the mildest versions of the faith in Central Asia.

To further limit its citizens' choices, the government allows only state-registered religious groups to import religious publications. According to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report, even these groups "seldom obtain permission" to actually bring in materials.

At the same time, Ashgabat restricts the number of Turkmen citizens taking part in the annual hajj pilgrimage to just 188, or one small planeload. Forum 18 quotes an imam from a large mosque saying privately in October that he was not aware of any Muslim leader who thought it possible to ask the government to increase the number.

Perhaps the most visible step the authorities have taken to restrict access to other currents in Islam was their 2011 closure of high schools set up by the Turkey-based movement of Islamic scholar and author Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen is a Sunni Muslim living in the United States who advocates tolerance and dialogue among different religions. He was accused in Turkey of advocating the replacement of the secular state with an Islamic one but was acquitted by a Turkish court in 2006.

Turkmen officials said nothing publicly of their reasons for closing the schools. But after expelling the Gulen movement, the government reopened them with Turkmen teachers and the curriculum was changed to that normally taught in Turkmen schools.

Today, Turkmen Muslims interested in discussing their faith appear to be taking increasingly to the Internet to avoid official interference.

At least three Turkmen-run, social-media sites on Islam exist on VKontakte, a Russian social network similar to Facebook. They discuss women's place in society, the role of the hijab, the meaning of jihad, and other issues not usually addressed by the Turkmen religious establishment.