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Tajik Mullahs Set To Learn Marketable Skills

Tajik authorities have a message for mullahs: learn marketable skills, and get regular jobs.

The northern Sughd Province is expected to serve as the testing ground for a new effort to expand madrasah curriculums well beyond religious education.

The goal is to produce multi-skilled mullahs, ones who will not only depend on their followers or state funding to make a living.

All of the province's major madrasahs have been closed since July 2013, when they were shuttered by authorities for failing to abide by state education regulations.

When they reopen they are expected to have a more well-rounded, secular-minded, educational offering.

"We might even turn madrasahs to religious colleges, where students would learn both Islamic subjects and professional skills," says Abdulhakim Sharifov, who oversees the Sughd provincial government's Religious Affairs Department.

According to Sharifov, education and religious officials are considering several different options for new madrassa curriculums, but haven't yet come to a final decision.

"The main point is that mullahs should get regular jobs," Sharifov told journalists last week.

"Around 500 young people graduate from Sughd madrasahs every year. Most of them hope to become mullahs and mosque imams, and they expect people take care of them [financially.] The government can't accept this. Everyone has to have a profession, a job as a source of living," Sharifov said.

The Tajik state this month launched the first phase of an initiative under which mullahs at registered mosques will receive salaries of $170 to $315 a month, depending on their positions.

But authorities apparently want to wean mullahs from any dependence they might have on state funds. Even before the new curriculum has been approved in Sughd, a list of potential alternative professions for mullahs has been compiled.

Depending on their intellectual abilities, Sharifov said, madrasah students would be qualified to become barbers, cooks, teachers, or tour guides.

Those with the highest grades would be given greater opportunities, such as enrolling in computer science classes to train as programmers.

The new curriculum would also require madrasah students to study conventional subjects such as history, math, European languages, and teaching.

Falling Short

Existing madrasah curriculums have come under criticism even by some religious figures, who argue that the education provided falls short.

"We only teach the most basic religious knowledge," says Ibodulloh Kalonzoda, an imam of the Nuri Islom mosque and former head of a madrasah in the northern town of Khujand.

"Our madrasah graduates can't even work as Arabic alphabet teachers in schools because they are not trained as teachers," Kalonzoda adds.

Back to school?
Back to school?
Kalonzoda says the new curriculum should produce "knowledgeable mullahs capable of analyzing the aims of illegal religious movements" and countering their impact on society.

However, Sughd authorities' move has raised concerns among religious communities in the country, including leaders of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP).

They see the move as a bid to restrict citizens' religious freedoms.

"I would welcome if authorities really intend to teach madrasah students additional skills, but it will never happen in Sughd or elsewhere in Tajikistan," says Zubaidullo Roziq, the head of IRP's Education and Religious Affairs department.

"Authorities could have kept madrasahs open, and introduced additional subjects and tests once they were approved," Roziq tells RFE/RL.

With the exception of the capital, Dushanbe, madrasahs throughout the country were shut down last year. The reason provided by the state committee for religious affairs was that the religious schools lacked proper teaching programs and specialists.

The closure of madrasahs followed President Emomali Rahmon's severe criticism of growing "religious extremism, religious hatred, religion-related suicide attacks, and the exploitation of Islam for political and personal aims."

With its 4,000 mosques, 7,000 madrasah graduates, and 200,000 pilgrims, Rahmon warned in 2013, Tajikistan was witnessing "a rise in extremism and even a dangerous tendency toward terrorism."

The president said at the time that the the situation required authorities "to seek decisive measures."

Rahmon's critics, however, say authorities are taking the wrong course in the fight against religious extremism, which they attribute to widespread poverty and restrictions on personal freedoms.
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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.