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Central Asia: Islam Ponders -- To Beard Or Not To Beard

Prague, 1 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It is ridiculous, but wearing a beard has attained more importance politically in some Central Asian countries than any reforms, parties, movements, cease-fires or agreements.

While Afghanistan's Taliban measure beards of people and punish those whose whiskers are shorter then required, in neighboring Uzbekistan authorities repress people if they have beards too bushy or long.

Before the civil war in Tajikistan, a beard was a demonstration of political support for the Islamic opposition. During the unrest which broke out after 1992, it became a military attribute of army generals and opposition fighters.

For anyone appealing to government bureaucrats, having a beard or not having one encourages different results. Many bureaucrats perceive an outgrowth of chin hair as equating to a link to armed groups, either governmental or of the Islamic opposition.

In fact, however, the perceived distinction may have more to do with an acute shortage of money, water, soap and safety razors.

Wearing a beard was a political thing in Soviet times too. Communists claimed bearded people were dissidents. In 1975, when poet and university teacher Foteh Abdullo grew a beard, authorities from the rector of the university to the ideology secretary of Tajikistan's Communist party invited him to "educational conversations" several times. Many people followed that development closely and speculated about the longevity of Abdullo's beard.

Abdullo's reply to the ideology secretary became a folk legend. Abdullo told the secretary that he was a passionate follower of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and finally comrade Fidel Castro. The Communist bosses could not continue fighting against Abdullo's beard, because they feared going against the "peoples' love" of Marx and Lenin, and Castro too.

In the past only geologists and artists were allowed to grow beards, said old men. It is a paradox that during those times a beard was associated with Western hippies, American international radio programs and Soviet dissidents. Now the direction of hatred has turned to Oriental countries. Thus in the times of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's predecessor, former Communist boss Sharaf Rashidov, one of the party's conferences correlated the occasional growing of beards among Uzbekistan students with the pernicious influence of Western culture.

However, Islam Karimov has said, "If you have noticed, Wahhabis have a characteristic feature. They have beards." A Kyrgyz newspaper echoed Karimov's statement: "The basic sign, according to which Uzbek special services separate Wahabbis from other citizens, has become a beard. (A beard) bearer can at any moment be stopped and subjected to humiliating search, and even arrest."

Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov does not denounce a beard as a political sign because many of his army generals sport beards. In 1992, during the short time of National Reconciliation Government, every TV broadcast had someone with a beard. What is more, the inhabitants of the capital city, Dushanbe, displayed an unprecedented number and variety of beards.

When power in Dushanbe changed in December 1992, many people immediately shaved their beards. Others, who didn't consider their facial hair political, kept it. Wrong! Armed supporters of the government often caught those wearing beards and pulled out each hair.

A beard in Tajikistan these days generally has only one meaning. People just don't have time or opportunity to shave. In neighboring countries, however, a beard can still be an indication that the wearer has taken a political side.