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Tajikistan: Townspeople Seek Community Through Adoption Of Shari'a

A woman and child on a Chorkuh street (RFE/RL) The majestic landscape surrounding the town of Chorkuh, in northern Tajikistan, provided its name -- "Chorkuh" means "Four Mountains" in Tajik. The community lies atop rich agricultural soil in a narrow valley that is nourished by a river flowing from nearby Kyrgyzstan. It is some of Central Asia's most beautiful landscape. It is also home to 32,000 people who have collectively opted to live by Shari'a, or Islamic law.

CHORKUH, Tajikistan; May 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Chorkuh looks as modern as any community in this part of Central Asia. There is electricity, people drive cars, teenage boys walk around town talking on their mobile phones. Satellite dishes adorn some rooftops.

But there are some striking differences between this Tajik community and neighboring towns and villages.

Gender Gap

About half of the women on Chorkuh's streets are veiled. Some of those women partly cover their faces; others are veiled completely.

Abdukhalil Sharipov is the mayor of Chorkuh. He tells RFE/RL that the choice belongs entirely to the women themselves: "Our women, especially the women in Chorkuh, are all free. Like the men, they love and know their Islam. They read their [prayers] and fast. They love Islam."

You won't see men and women walking together around Chorkuh. Women -- veiled or not -- walk through the town in groups, often with their children in tow. But not in the company of men.

Proud Islamic Tradition

Sharipov explains that Chorkuh has ancient roots in Islam.

"Chorkuh is proud of its religious heritage among all [the people] of Tajikistan," Sharipov says. "For instance, [there is] the mosque of Hazrati Shoh, which was built in the 9th century during the [Samanid Dynasty]. We are very proud of it."

1,000-year-old inscriptions at Chorkuh's Hazrati mosque

The mayor says his is a pious Muslim community.

"In Chorkuh, they strictly follow what is written in the Koran. They completely observe this," Sharipov says. "There are 25 mosques in Chorkuh, and these mosques are open for those who want to come and pray."

No Worries?

He notes that the town's reputation for religious zeal has made some Tajik officials nervous. The government and security service keep a close eye on events in Chorkuh, Sharipov says, but he adds that they've never had reason to worry.

"[There are those] who make provocations in the name of Islam," the mayor says. "There are no people here like those that the media reports about -- [the banned Islamist group] Hizb ut-Tahrir or Wahhabis. [Officials] have looked for them, here but they have never found any."

There is something that you won't find in Chorkuh -- and, according to Mayor Sharipov, it is further proof of the town's strict adherence to its interpretation of Islam.

"Look for yourself," Sharipov says. "Travel around Chorkuh, and you won't find any place where they sell alcohol -- although no one has prohibited it. It's just that the people have rid themselves of bad habits because [such habits] don't make Tajiks or Muslims any more beautiful."

Locals say the decision to rid Chorkuh of alcohol was nearly unanimous. One man says there was a store downtown that sold alcohol, but two years ago some of Chorkuh's residents burned it to the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has dared to open a new one.

A view of one of Chorkuh's "four mountains"

Some of the townspeople admit that a few residents might still drink spirits, but they do so at home -- where no one can see them.

The town also votes Islamic -- or in this case, for Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). A local insists that 99 percent of Chorkuh's eligible voters cast their ballots for the IRP in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Post-Soviet Renaissance

There is still evidence of Chorkuh's past within the Soviet Union. Shop and street signs still appear in Russian and Tajik. But residents don't appear to miss anything about the Soviet era.

For many, like this student of Islam, it is just this simple: "Fortunately, now all the mosques are functioning, [and] the madrasahs are functioning. Everyone prays openly. Students can study Islam, and people can pray. This is a cause for happiness for Tajik people. In the Soviet period, the mosques were all closed -- they didn't function. But then a lot of mosques were built."

Residents will concede that adherence to Shari'a has not rid the town of all its problems. But the community appears to be prospering -- and no one suggests that life in Chorkuh should be any different.