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Tajikistan Opens A New Chapter: No Books Allowed In Or Out Without Approval

The move is widely seen as aimed at preventing the dissemination of religious and extremist material. (file photo)
The move is widely seen as aimed at preventing the dissemination of religious and extremist material. (file photo)

You might want to think twice before grabbing a book to read on your flight to Tajikistan -- especially if it is written in an unfamiliar script.

The country's Culture Ministry recently announced that no books are allowed in or out of the country without written permission, part of a stated effort to prevent valuable manuscripts from being smuggled out of the country.

"Regardless of the number of books, authorization from the Culture Ministry is required," Sherali Khojaev, the head of the ministry’s department for the protection of cultural heritage, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "The requirement applies to [travelers to and from] all countries, regardless of the language or script of the books."

Despite that last comment, however, the move has led some to come to the conclusion that it is really intended to stop the dissemination of extremist religious material and could mean that books written in languages like Farsi and Arabic could fall under particular scrutiny.

Saidi Yusufi, a Dushanbe-based expert on social affairs, says the Tajik government is seriously concerned about preventing extremist literature from entering the country.

"However, since many of the customs employees can't read the Arabic-Farsi script, every book with such script can be treated with suspicion," Yusufi adds. "In some instances, the customs officials seized entirely 'harmless' books."

The State Customs Service recently confirmed that a copy of Bustan, a famous work by the renowned medieval Persian poet Saadi Shirazi, had been seized from an unidentified Tajik citizen traveling abroad.

The customs office said in March that the book was confiscated along with three others -- including a book on interpretations of dreams and a book of spells. All four books were in the Arabic script.

Despite the recent announcement by the Culture Ministry, however, travelers at the Dushanbe airport said they had not attracted additional scrutiny despite having books in their luggage.

Scanning machines are installed both in departure and arrival halls at Dushanbe's international airport, and staffers routinely scan both carry-on and checked luggage. Some passengers say customs officials randomly select bags or suitcases for additional searches.

Khojaev described the process for obtaining written permission to take a book out of the country as a simple procedure. You only need to fill out an application "citing the name of the books, stating their language, the place of publication, the name of the authors, and the country of origin or destination," he said.

Arriving passengers whose books have been seized at airports or other border-entry points are advised to submit a similar application to the ministry to reclaim their confiscated goods -- that is, if the authorities have determined that the material is allowed.

Tajikistan's state religious-affairs committee and the Interior Ministry have compiled a blacklist of banned books, most of them religious in nature, but also including books of spells.

In 2015, the country updated the list, adding 13 books alleged to promote the fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam.

Tajikistan’s Supreme Court banned Salafism in 2009, deeming it a threat to the country’s security and stability.

The Koran and other Islamic books, such as manuals to Islamic prayers, are freely available in bookstores across the county.

The secular government in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country has taken a tough stance on how its citizens practice the religion, including banning the wearing of the hijab in schools and discouraging men from growing long beards.

The government has ordered most Tajik students studying abroad at Islamic schools to return home, saying they can potentially pose security threats to Tajikistan.

Tajikistan was the first and only former Soviet country to officially register an Islamic political party in 1999. But the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was banned and branded as a terrorist organization by the country’s Supreme Court in 2015.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Abdullo Ashurov

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