A wide-ranging crackdown on religious freedom is underway in Tajikistan, with authorities closing mosques and harassing men with beards.
During the first 10 days of January, officials in the Tajik capital Dushanbe closed a mosque every day, local media outlets reported. Officials contend the mosques failed to register in accordance with legislation adopted in 2009. But imams insist that they tried to go through the registration process only to have their applications rejected for unspecified reasons.
The suddenness of the government’s action has left many mainstream believers confused and angry. Until authorities closed it in early January, Abdul Alizoda, 56, attended Friday prayers at a mosque near Dushanbe’s train station. “About 200 of us used to pray at the mosque every week. The imam was a good Muslim and never preached a radical message. For me, the mosque was a place to meet my friends and learn about Islam. I don’t understand why it has been closed,” he said.
A gym teacher at a Dushanbe school, Sharali, 55, was forced to shave off his beard following the implementation of a 2009 decree banning teachers from wearing beards. He now sports a moustache. “The increased crackdown on religion in this country is all linked to the events in Rasht,” he said, referring to the August prison escape of 25 alleged extremists and subsequent armed clashes between government forces and militants in the east of the country. “The government closes mosques because they say there are terrorists being trained in them.”
The violence in the Rasht Valley prompted President Imomali Rahmon to urge parents to recall their students from foreign madrasas and Islamic universities so that they wouldn’t “turn into extremists and terrorists in five or 10 years time.” Rahmon’s campaign so far has induced 1,400 Tajiks to return from study-abroad programs, the State Committee on Religious Affairs announced January 21. At least 700 remain abroad “illegally,” officials estimate.
Local media outlets are full of reports describing the persecution of bearded men. On January 8, for example, police detained 30 men with beards, including journalist Shukhrat Shodiyev from the Asia-Plus news agency, for over an hour. They were questioned and fingerprinted before being released. In an earlier incident, on December 20, a bearded British Broadcasting Corp. employee tried to board a plane to Moscow, but he was not permitted to depart after immigration officials complained about his beard, even though his passport photo depicted him with his beard.
Many Dushanbe residents, practicing Muslims and secular Tajiks alike, believe authorities’ obsession with beards masks a lack of ideas on how to counter the Islamic radical threat. Some government critics even argue the crackdown on facial hair will merely give radical groups a boost in recruiting new members.
Authorities associate beards with the conservative Salafi school of Islam, banned in January 2009. Their attempt to control the outward signs of religious expression has a precedent. In 2005, the government banned the wearing of the hijab in schools, arguing that it was not traditional Tajikistani dress.
Despite expressions of discontent, officials remain unabashed practitioners of religious profiling. “We have a right to detain any person. Those who wear a beard must have ID pictures with a beard," the Interior Ministry’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Takhir Normatov, told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Mahmadali Azizov, 38, another Dushanbe resident who used to wear a beard, was recently detained by local police. “Any person with a beard in Tajikistan is now called a terrorist. We are harassed by police and more likely to be stopped than people without beards,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “Two weeks ago, I was asked by two policemen on the street to go with them to a local police station. They told me this was because my passport showed me with a shorter beard and they needed to identify me. When we reached the station they shouted ‘only radicals wear beards’ at me, pulled my beard and told me to shave it off. After two hours they released me. I was very scared and went to the barber the next day.”
The number of people jailed on extremism charges has risen sharply over the past year. During a January 17 news conference, Supreme Court Chairman Nustratullo Abdulloyev revealed that 158 individuals had been convicted for extremist activities in 2010, up from 37 the previous year.
Meanwhile, in a sign of growing state control over mosques, the government plans to test imams’ knowledge of Islam and has discussed instituting a certification process. The State Committee on Religious Affairs has printed and distributed a list of 52 “approved” sermon topics to imams at the country’s 3,000 mosques. The committee has made it clear that imams who fail to abide by government guidelines will be removed.
For some Muslims, government heavy-handedness is breeding defiance. One practicing Dushanbe resident, 34, stated “the beard is sunnah [an Islamic tradition]. It is the duty of Muslim men to have a beard. My passport shows me with my beard and I will not remove it.”