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Turkmenistan: Muslims Celebrate New Religious Holiday

By Lowell Bezanis

Washington, 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As the Muslim holy month of fasting and atonement - Ramadan - concludes, it will be marked throughout the Islamic world with three consecutive days of celebration. In Turkmenistan, for the first time, the beginning of this religious holiday (Jan. 30) will be observed and officially sanctified as a day of rest.

The change was ushered in by a Presidential decree signed January 14. In accordance with the decree, the first day of the Festival of Breaking Fast, or Ramazan Bayrami, as it is known to Turcophone Muslims, as well as the beginning of the other Muslim canonical festival, the Feast of the Sacrifice, or Gurban Bayrami, have been declared non-working, national holidays.

Including the two newly declared religious ones, Turkmenistan celebrates 21 official holidays. This number has climbed steadily since Turkmenistan declared its sovereignty in October of 1991. Among the holidays only three -- namely New Year (Nawruz), International Womens' Day (8 March), and Victory Day (9 May) -- were celebrated in the Soviet era. The remainder represent newly instituted holidays.

Most of them have a distinct national overtone. Two have a historical and solemn character. The first of these, marked January 12, harkens to the slaughter of Turkmen tribesmen at Goek-Tepe by Russian Imperial forces in 1881. The other, which is marked October 6, commemorates those who died in the devastating earthquake which hit the republic in 1948.

Among those who died in the earthquake were President Saparmurad Niyazov's mother and brothers.

Other holidays are less somber in character, but aim to strengthen national unity and pride in Turkmenistan, and in its institutions of today. Among this category are holidays commemorating, for example, Turkmen musicians, national development and unity, the republic's declaration of sovereignty and its national flag. Others highlight some of the government's more innocuous policies, such as its declared commitment to good neighborliness and neutrality in international affairs.

Several of the new holidays belie the manner in which the nation-building process has gone forward in Turkmenistan. They take their inspiration from something important to, or closely associated with Turkmen, but otherwise lack profundity or abstract value. Without denigrating the importance of water, Turkmen carpets, melons or Akhal Tekin horses, many observers were taken aback by official announcements that these items deserved to be commemorated as national holidays.

Some holidays, such as National Flag Day (Feb. 19), were added to the calendar in a curious manner. The holiday was initially conceived by Turkmenistan's 50-member unicameral parliament (majlis) as a day of rest to mark President Niyazov's (Turkmenbasi's) birthday. Niyazov, cited in international media for his cultivation of a personality cult -- likened to Stalin and North Korea's Kim il Sung -- rejected his rubber-stamp parliament's offer, and turned the planned birthday celebration into National Flag Day. The latest, religious additions to Turkmenistan's list of official holidays fall into a different category. They will undoubtedly be welcomed by many Turkmen as a gesture to the Muslim faith they esteem as a hallmark of their culture. Outsiders, particularly in the Muslim East, will also likely nod their approval.

Niyazov has also brought Turkmenistan into line with his Central Asian neighbors, such as Uzbekistan.

In making this gesture, Niyazov recognizes long-standing traditions; he does not create them, as has been attempted with all but the Soviet era holidays Turkmen citizens now celebrate. Even for Muslims living in officially secular or in atheist socialist states, like Turkey, Albania or the former Soviet Union, Ramazan Bayrami, remained a time of celebration.

Though many did not observe the fourth pillar of the Muslim faith, which forbids food, drink and sexual intercourse from dawn-to-dusk during the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Ramadan, people remained in the habit of making visits, giving presents to children and offering congratulations at its conclusion, as the faith required.