Tajik authorities have pledged to dismiss many foreign-educated imams across the country in a move they say is aimed at averting religious extremism.
Tajikistan's state religious committee late last month set a deadline of mid-November for the heads of local government to replace imams who studied at religious schools abroad, outside of official channels, with “suitable” people.
The instruction further tightens the government’s grip on religious practices in the predominantly Muslim state of around 8 million, which until 2015 permitted post-Soviet Central Asia's only explicitly Islamic political party.
The committee said “some foreign-educated” religious figures had been involved in “spreading banned religious” teachings that promote a strict form of Sunni Islam.
Afshin Muqim, a committee spokesman, stressed on November 2 that the expulsion order does not apply to those who studied abroad “legally,” with Tajik government approval.
The head of the state-backed Council of Islamic Ulema of Tajikistan, Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, is one of hundreds of clerics who studied outside the country under official auspices.
I don’t want a repeat of the terrible events of the 1990s."-- Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, Council of Islamic Ulema of Tajikistan
Abdulqodirzoda, a graduate of a religious school in Islamabad, announced his “readiness to resign...for the sake of the country’s stability.”
It is unlikely that the committee's ultimatum would have been prepared without Abdulqodirzoda's knowledge, given Tajik authorities' coordinated efforts to vet prominent religious leaders.
“If Tajikistan’s stability depends on several religious figures who studied abroad, I’m ready to leave my post,” Abdulqodirzoda said on November 2.
“I don’t want a repeat of the terrible events of the 1990s,” he said, referring to Tajikistan’s bloody 1992-97 civil war, which pitted a predominantly secular government against an Islamist-led opposition in fighting that was fueled by regional factionalism.
Imams in Tajikistan are appointed by the same religious committee that ordered the purge, which also oversees mosques and churches and implements laws relating to religion.
Earlier this year, seven imams in the northern province of Sughd were each sentenced to at least three years in high-security prison on charges that included membership in banned Islamic movements. The imams denied the accusation.
Authorities said the jailed imams had studied in foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Tajik officials say around 500 Tajik citizens are currently studying in Islamic schools abroad.
Tajikistan repatriated more than 3,000 students from Islamic madrasahs and universities in Iran, Pakistan, and the Middle East in 2010 after President Emomali Rahmon said they could fall under the influence of extremists.
The state religious committee said about 30 of the students who returned home were suspected of having ties with “terrorist groups” and at least 18 subsequently left the country to join Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria.
Tajikistan has outlawed Islamic head scarves at government institutions and frowned on them among the public as "foreign influences" and introduced a limit on beard length, which is seen as an outward sign of the Islamic faith.