DUSHANBE -- A Tajik imam who was once jailed for spreading banned Salafist “propaganda” has plunged into an intense public debate over authorities' doubling of Internet costs, praising the policy and accusing social media of being the source of "all bad things in Tajikistan."
Eshoni Sirojiddin Abdurakhmonov, the unofficial leader of the country’s banned Salafist movement, made an 18-minute video on April 20 in which he described the Internet as "the plague of the century."
He also warned his fellow Tajiks not to listen to "people who instigate provocations. Follow the leaders of the country.”
But then, on April 23, public anger in Tajikistan about the Internet rate hikes forced Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to take a rare step. He issued an order that reversed them.
Rahmon and his administration have long grappled with extremism, intensifying the campaign as larger numbers of Tajik fighters turned up in Iraq and Syria on the side of radical armed groups like Islamic State (IS). Some of those Islamist fighters are thought to have been radicalized through the Internet.
Pushed By The State?
Abdurakhmonov's video also came against the backdrop of public anger over the price hike, proposed by the Tajik Tax Committee, that came into force on April 18 after being approved by the state’s Antimonopoly Service.
Zafar Sufiev, a self-exiled Tajik journalist who previously owned and headed the independent weekly Ozodagon newspaper, told RFE/RL that Abdurakhmonov’s anti-Internet diatribe has all the earmarks of being “initiated” by state authorities.
“The video statement was mostly likely initiated by the Tajik authorities who are probably concerned about the number of people unhappy about their move to increase the tariffs” for using the Internet, Sufiev said.
Hundreds of Tajiks signed petitions against the Internet price hike.
Officials originally had said the price hike was a "a necessary step" to take the youth "out of the virtual world back to reality."
But in the face of growing public resentment, Rahmon on April 23 dismissed Antimonopoly Service chief Sadi Qodirzodi from his post and demoted him to a deputy post in a branch of the presidential administration. Then he overturned Qodirzodi's approval of the Internet rate hikes.
Khushbakht Azizbekov, a young Tajik campaign organizer for a petition against the Internet price hikes, argued that the move was crippling to individuals who rely on the Internet for their livelihood.
“A lot of people use the Internet to earn a living and I am one of them,” Azizbekov said. “People use the Internet for work every day. Here in Tajikistan, people earn about $120 per month," he said, noting that the doubling of Internet costs was already making life harder for Tajiks.
Not 'Thinking With Their Heads'
Others complained that the Internet price hike hit families who have sent their sons to Russia and other countries to work as migrant laborers and send their earnings back to Tajikistan as remittances.
That’s because Tajik migrant workers rely on Internet messaging services to stay in regular contact with their families back home.
Abdulla Abdullazada, a resident of the city of Khujand, said the authorities who had approved the Internet price hike were not “thinking with their heads.”
“They want to rob the families of poor migrant workers in Tajikistan and in Russia,” Abdullazada said. “No one is thinking about our future. Everyone is just trying to rob people now for as much as they can get.”
Imam Abdurakhmonov's video was posted on a Tajik YouTube channel called Oshqoni Vatan, or “People Who Love Their Country,” where it was watched by about 3,000 people within three days.
Nearly 100 viewers “disliked” the Abdurakhmonov’s lecture with a thumbs down rating. About two dozen viewers “liked” the video, which has prompted a lively debate on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media.
“I ask all my beautiful sisters and people in Tajikistan not to waste your time on the Internet,” Abdurakhmonov said, blaming it for "creating broken families, leading to lies, and inducing disrespect for parents and society.”
A Tajik court sentenced Abdurakhmonov in 2009 to seven years in prison on charges of spreading Salafism -- a conservative reform branch of Sunni Islam that has been banned in Tajikistan as “extremist.”
Then, in 2013, he was pardoned and released under a general amnesty.
Since his release, Abdurakhmonov has appeared to shy away from criticizing Rahmon or other state authorities.
But he has spoken out against the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which Tajik authorities have labeled a "terrorist" group, calling it a “tool of foreign powers.”