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Central Asia: In Tajikistan And Elsewhere, Islamic Groups Still On The Fringe

A Tajik regional court yesterday sentenced an Uzbek national to 14 years in jail for his ties to the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. In Uzbekistan, trials are under way in the case of 15 people accused of being Islamic extremists. Detention and trials of suspected extremists have become routine in both countries. But Dushanbe and Tashkent still maintain different positions on religious activities. While Tajikistan has officially registered an Islamic party, Uzbek officials have cracked down on all Islamic groups as well as peaceful religious observers.

Prague, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The voice of muezzins making the traditional Islamic call to prayer, or "Azan," can be heard five times a day in the mosques of Dushanbe.

But -- unlike previous years -- loudspeakers can no longer be used to read the "Azan." The Dushanbe mayor's office prohibited their use following the reregistration of all the mosques in the Tajik capital.

The measures come as Tajik authorities are issuing amendments to the law on religious activities. Sayeed Ahmadov, head of the country's religious affairs committee, insists the changes will work to the benefit of religious groups. "[According to the new amendments], all religious institutions are required to register themselves, he said. "It would promote their free activities; their freedom will be protected by the law. Once religious groups get registered, the state will know each of them and will protect their freedom."

According to the amendments, no new mosques can be built unless 15,000 local residents sign a letter confirming they need such an institution in their neighborhood. Only 10 or 15 signatures are needed, however, to build a synagogue or a Christian church.

Some Islamic activists argue that the government should not favor certain religions over others. But on the whole, peaceful activists, as well as the country's predominantly Muslim population, have little reason to complain about the Tajik government's policies toward peaceful religious groups. Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country to officially register an Islamic political movement -- the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP).

Mohammad Sharif Himmatzoda is the party's deputy head and a member of the Tajik parliament. He told RFE/RL that IRP is generally satisfied with the government's stance on the party. "There is no legal barrier for our work, because the constitution protects the party's existence and activities. But in reality, some local leaders try to hamper our party's activities. For instance, authorities in the Kulob region don't want to let us set up regional offices and conferences. But despite these barriers, our party is trying to solve problems according the law, with moderation, with understanding," Himmatzoda said.

The IRP does not have a significant influence on the country's politics. It won just two parliamentary seats in the 2000 general elections, which were criticized by international observers as procedurally unsound. Himmatzoda also said the results were dubious, adding they were meant to pressure all opposition groups, including democrats and other secular parties.

Still, two parliamentary seats and relative religious freedom shows considerable progress compared to neighboring Uzbekistan, which is considered one of the worst countries for even the most basic Islamic activities. Authorities in Tashkent have been widely criticized for their crackdown on all Islamic groups and observers, accusing them of supporting banned groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The IMU is included on the U.S. State Department's list of international terrorist organizations and is believed to have links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Most of its members are believed to have been killed during the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. But the IMU is still considered a viable threat in Uzbekistan, where the government holds the group responsible for border incursions over the past few years and a series of explosions in Tashkent in 1999 that left 16 people dead.

Matilda Bogner works for Human Rights Watch in Tashkent. She said some 6,000 Muslims have been arrested in Uzbekistan for allegedly supporting groups like the IMU. "The Uzbeks have thousands and thousands in jail for their peaceful practice of religion. And these people are not people who have promoted violence; they have not even been charged for violence. Uzbeks are clearly using the threat -- which was real, which the IMU did pose to Uzbekistan -- to crack down on internal political opposition," Bogner said.

Bogner said the Uzbek authorities also use the extremist label to suppress their political opponents. She said there is no widespread support in Uzbekistan for either the IMU or Hizb ut-Tahrir, another banned Islamic group. Bogner said what few Uzbeks do support such groups usually do so because the country offers no moderate political alternatives.

The crackdown against Hizb ut-Tahrir followers has been harsh in all five Central Asian countries, although the group is believed to be especially active in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Himmatzoda of Tajikistan's IRP told RFE/RL his party has no links with Islamic groups who use violence or terrorist acts. Nor does it maintain ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an underground organization that has called for the creation of a single Islamic caliphate but which actively rejects all use of violence. "[Hizb ut-Tahrir] does not have any link or connection with our party. To the contrary, they have condemned and criticized us, because we opted for a peaceful existence with the secular system and work according to the law," he said.

"Mustafa," a 22-year-old student at the Tajik state university who asked that his real name not be used, said the overwhelming majority of Tajiks -- including young people -- do not support Hizb ut-Tahrir. "A lot of information has spread about Hizb ut-Tahrir saying that it's kind of a provocative group that leads people astray. I think those parties who call themselves Islamic should promote goodwill, peace and friendship, because Islam is about peace. Only then will people accept these parties," he said.

But even a legitimate Islamic party like the IRP has yet to win a widespread following. Another university student, Bakhtiyor, said he does not personally support IRP, but insisted that every political party has the right to exist. "I think our society needs all kind of parties, including democrats, the Islamic Renaissance Party and Communists. Each of them has its own place and role in the society," he said.

"I don't go to mosque," Bakhtiyor said. "But I don't mind other people practicing their religion, because it is their right."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.