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Tajikistan: Secular -- Not Shari'a -- Law Prevails In Eastern Mountains

In the years following Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s there was concern over the influence of Islamic Shari'a law in the remote eastern Karategin Valley. The valley had served as a base of support for the Islamic opposition and there were questions over how the region would interact with secular areas in the rest of the country. But reports from the valley -- including from a Norway-based news agency -- say those fears were overblown. Valley residents are replacing Shari'a law with secular law and life there increasingly resembles life elsewhere in the country.

Prague, 2 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Igor Rotar, a correspondent for the Norway-based news agency Forum 18, says changes are underway in Tajikistan's remote Karategin Valley.

He tells RFE/RL he recently visited the valley and found a peaceful population governed by secular law. He says this was in marked contrast to his visit to the region during the 1990s civil war, when life for residents was much harder.

Rotar: "Five years ago life, this valley was regulated by Shari'a law. If some man did [something] bad, they used only Islamic punishment. For example, they beat people. Now the Karategin Valley follows secular law, not religious law. And now the situation with the law is nearly the same as in other parts of Tajikistan."

The valley stretches some 300 kilometers northeast from the capital, Dushanbe. To drive across it takes more than 10 hours because of the bad quality of the roads and mountain peaks that soar to more than 4,000 meters above sea level.

It was a stronghold of the Islamic Renaissance Party during the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. The harsh climate and extreme terrain offered insurgents an ideal environment from which to operate.

Rotar says that while the region remains relatively religious, the militant atmosphere has changed. He says people are tired of war and violence.

"Many people in Tajikistan suggest this region is like an Islamic 'radical enclave.' But now it is not true. People are tired of fighting and many people are disappointed by the leaders of the opposition. They told me: 'We don't want a new war. We only want to live in peace.'"

Rotar's findings will be seen as good news to supporters of the secular Tajik state. The valley -- because of its remoteness -- has traditionally been seen as vulnerable to radical ideas.

Davlataly, a director of a theater in the Tavildara District in the valley, agrees the region is not a stronghold of radical Islam: "The Tavildara District that you've heard about five years ago is completely different now. The culture is stronger than religion. There is no difference between Tavildara and other regions of Tajikistan. People in Tavildara also like art, skills, and theater."

When supporters of the Islamic Renaissance Party seized the Karategin Valley, they imposed elements of Shari'a law on the local population, including prohibitions on alcohol and cigarettes, and music at weddings.

Muhiddin Idizoda, a journalist based in Dushanbe, describes conditions for women in the region at that time: "During the five-year civil war, a group of fighters tried to impose on people a kind of Islam. They didn't know either Shari'a law or Koran. They didn't understand it. At that time women faced many restrictions. They didn't have the right to walk in the street or to work at school. They didn't have the right to have activities in the society."

After a peace agreement in 1997 between the opposition and the Tajik government, opposition leaders and troops were integrated to governmental structures. Shari'a law was gradually replaced by secular law.

The days when fighters forced local people to pray in mosques now have gone. Criminals are sentenced under Tajik law and shops are allowed to sell alcohol even during Ramadan.

RFE/RL's reporter in the valley, Kholik Sangin, says:

"The real life in the Karategin Valley is that 70 to 80 percent of people who are going to the Mosque every day are elders."

He continues: "Five years ago you couldn't find any store selling alcohol. But now there a lot of shops selling alcohol and cigarettes."

(Sojida Djakhfarova from RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)