Police in Tajikistan have reportedly arrested Salafist leader Muhammadi Rahmatullo in what appears on first sight to be an extension of the extensive crackdown against the country’s devout Muslims.
Some aspects of Rahmatullo’s activities, however, hint at a slightly less straightforward story.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on February 11 that Rahmatullo, who is better known as Mullah Muhammadi, faces three charges, including one for allegedly inciting religious tensions.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
In January 2015, local media cited his relatives as saying that he had been detained by police, but the Interior Ministry later denied the report.
Some time later, weekly newspaper Faraj published an article under Rahmatullo’s byline in which the writer condemned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which has since been banned and designated a terrorist organization.
In the piece, Rahmatullo claimed that the IRPT was financed by “foreign governments” and argued that Tajikistan had no need for such parties.
He further stated that the IRPT was to blame for the devastating civil war of the 1990s and said the party had links to Iran. He suggested that the IRPT should be disbanded.
Despite being a member of a group also designated as an extremist organization, Rahmatullo had his piece published in several other publications, including ones owned by the government, as well as on the site of the ruling National Democratic Party of Tajikistan.
Another Salafist, Eshoni Sirojiddin, was also enlisted to smear the IRPT. Sirojiddin was jailed in 2009 along with his son, but was later released in an amnesty. He is still believed to be out of prison.
Azizamo Asadullayeva seen during a visit to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, on January 4, 2016.
While never passing on an opportunity to bash strict Muslims, Tajikistan’s leaders are trying to have their cake and eat it by casting themselves as pious upholders of the faith.
The latest wheeze about to descend upon the Tajik public is a suggestion to endow President Emomali Rahmon’s little-seen wife with the title of “Leader of Muslim Women in Tajikistan.”
That proposal is the brainchild of Abdullo Muhakkik, a religious commentator best known for his broadsides against Salafist movements, who expanded on the idea in a January 19 editorial carried by state news agency Khovar. The idea may be exotic, but its appearance in Khovar makes it more than likely it will come to pass.
Underpinning Azizamo Asadullayeva’s claim to this newly devised titled is the fact that she has become, according to Muhakkik, the first woman from Central Asia ever to enter the Kabaa, the building at the center of Mecca’s most sacred mosque. Asadullayeva was part of the large delegation, headed by Rahmon, that visited Saudi Arabia earlier this month.
“Until now, dozens of Tajik women have performed the hajj, but have not been inside the Kabaa,” Muhakkik noted admiringly.
Muhakkik said this historic event should serve as example to Tajik women, and that Asadullayeva should stand as a role model for the devout.
The Saudi caretakers of Mecca purportedly bestow this honor on a select few, although they have been especially generous with their Tajik guests. Even one of Rahmon’s daughters, Ozoda Emomali, got to pop into the Kabaa.
Fresh from President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Mecca, the government in Tajikistan has dreamt up a new way to further curtail the rights of devout Muslims.
Asia-Plus website reported on January 15 that citizens under the age of 40 will no longer be allowed to perform the hajj.
An official on the religious affairs committee, Husein Shokirov, told Asia-Plus that the restrictions would give older Tajiks more of a chance to undertake the pilgrimage.
One ongoing development motivating the move, Shokirov said, are the stricter quotas being put in place by the authorities of Saudi Arabia.
The number of people from Tajikistan allowed to do the hajj in 2015 was 6,300.
Critics of the new age limit of 40, which has been raised from the limit of 35 that was instituted in April, will object that the authorities are attempting crudely to stamp out religiosity among the younger generations. The intent is apparently to prevent instances of radicalization.
Shokirov has also said that imams are to receive training on how to identify extremists and terrorists among worshippers at the mosque.
The courses will be led by representatives of officials religious organizations, who will teach imams how to spot the telltale signs of a terrorist at prayer.
“All imams in the mosques of Tajikistan are well acquainted with the behavior of adherents to our school — the school of Hanafi — and can distinguish them from others,” Shokirov said.
Where that will leave non-orthodox Hanafi practitioners who happen not to be terrorists isn’t clear.
Emomali Rahmon during his pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, in January, 2015.
In a striking change of tack from his regular aversion to all things Muslim, the president of Tajikistan has flown to Saudi Arabia with a bevy of relatives and senior officials to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Emomali Rahmon performed the Umrah — as the pilgrimage is known when not carried out during the period devoted to the Hajj — as a bonus excursion during his begging visit to Saudi Arabia.
An extraordinary series of photos, published on January 5m, show Rahmon wrapped only in a flimsy robe, which struggles to contain his not unsubstantial girth, and reveal how many members of his family he took along. There is the first lady, Azizamo Asadullayeva, Rahmon’s eldest daughter, Firuza, another daughter, Ozoda Emomali, his youngest son, Somon, and a son-in-law, Djamoliddin Nuraliyev. Other faces visible in the crowd belong to the education minister, the economy minister, the transport minister, the head of the country’s largest bank, the head of the committee for religious affairs and the sports and tourism minister.
The presidential website reveals that the gang prayed collectively for the future of Tajikistan. By the intercession of the Saudi king, Rahmon was admitted to the Kaaba, the building at the center of Mecca’s most sacred mosque. Officials in the presidential administration say this was Rahmon second visit inside the Kabaa — a special privilege — and his fourth pilgrimage to Mecca overall.
This level of professed piety may all be very surprising to Tajikistan-watchers, who have seen the government increasingly clamp down on outward displays of devotion among Muslims.
A court in Kyrgyzstan has doubled the prison sentence handed down to a popular imam who was earlier this year found guilty of inciting religious hatred and distributing extremist material.
Rights advocacy group Bir Duino said Osh provincial court on November 24 increased Rashot Kamalov’s punishment to 10 years in a high-security facility. A local court in the southern town of Kara-Suu, where Kamalov served as imam of As-Sarakhsi mosque, passed a five-year sentence in October.
The harsher sentence appears to have been by motivated the Osh court’s decision to restore a charge of abuse of office dropped in earlier proceedings.
Lawyers for Kamalov have said they will pursue a further appeal in the Supreme Court.
The severity of the punishment is bound to fan discontent among Kamalov’s numerous supporters in Kara-Suu. The imam’s trial, which lawyers complained was marred by numerous irregularities, was loyally attended by Kamalov’s most devoted parishioners.
The imam was arrested on February 9 following a raid on his home by armed special operations forces. Police found a disk during their search that contained a video recording of a sermon delivered by Kamalov at the As-Sarakhsi Mosque during Friday prayers on July 4, 2014.
Prosecutors have argued that Kamalov’s references to the caliphate in his sermons constituted support for the activities of radical and violent Islamists in the Middle East.
An unknown number of people from Kyrgyzstan, including from Kara-Suu, are said to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of radical Islamist groups fighting there.
Despite an absence of transparent and convincing evidence that the Islamic State group is actively establishing a presence in Kyrgyzstan, authorities have been eager to claim that the terrorist organization has made inroads.
In their intent to marginalize the role of Islam in public life, authorities in Tajikistan are reportedly prohibiting government employees from attending Friday prayers.
Independent news website Asia-Plus based its October 12 report on the ban on testimonies from unnamed civil servants.
The prohibition fits into a broader pattern of pressure against public displays of piety. An informal ban against young men wearing beards is eagerly enforced, while women with veils covering the face can expect to be hauled off the streets by police.
That intimidation is coupled with an ongoing crackdown of what was Central Asia’s only legal Islamic political party – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan – until it was banned this summer. Almost the entire party leadership is now behind bars pending trials on flimsy claims of involvement in an alleged insurgency.
Moves against government workers attending Friday prayers at the mosque appear to be a recent development and began after the Eid al-Adha holiday, better known as Idi Qurbon in Tajikistan, which was marked this year on September 23.
“Over the last two weeks, after Idi Qurbon, our management forbade us from leaving work to attend Friday prayers,” one unnamed government employee told Asia-Plus.
The website said that the report had been confirmed by the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the Regulation of Traditions and Customs.
Tajikistan’s war on the wrong clothes looks set to step up a gear as the authorities resolve to crack down on anything they perceive as dangerous, radical Islam.
Asia-Plus website reported that a meeting in Dushanbe on August 19 brought together the mayor, members of parliament, city deputies, police, traders and religious leaders for discussions touching on areas of concern, including the flourishing of radical Islam.
Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev appealed to meeting participants to help combat “displays of religious extremism and terrorism” and for all city residents to assist in the battle.
To that end, Ubaidulloev issued instructions for government officials to put an end to the import and sale of clothes alien to Tajiks. That is typically code for conservative Islamic clothing worn by women, anything from hijabs to the niqab, which covers almost the entire face.
What those clothes might be was also spelled out by President Emomali Rahmon during a Mother’s Day speech in February.
“Since ancient times our people have had beautiful women’s dresses, our girls have never worn black clothes. Traditionally, black clothes are not welcome,” Rahmon told mothers ahead of Mother’s Day, which has replaced International Women’s Day in Tajikistan and is marked on March 8.
State television tried to spice up that message some days after the speech by airing a report telling of prostitutes who use the veil to enhance their appeal.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
The Tajik security services are well known for employing heavy-handed tactics as they attempt to stamp out extremism. In recent months, some have reportedly forced men with beards under the razor, tried to ban sales of hijab, and carried on with the usual mass arrests of suspected Islamists. But there is a softer side to counter-terrorism in Tajikistan.
On May 9 the Interior Ministry promised amnesty to Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq who wish to come home. The ministry “is ready to help them return,” the statement declares.
“The Ministry of Interior has received information through its law enforcement agencies that young people have been led astray and are fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Some are now in Turkey and can return home voluntarily. We also inform you that these persons will be exempt from criminal liability,” the ministry’s statement said, without naming any conditions.
Last year the prosecutor’s office in Sughd Province, in the north, offered to amnesty returning fighters. This is the first time authorities have declared a nationwide amnesty.
Authorities are keen to counter messages that the Islamic State is some kind of paradise on earth. On May 7, a man claiming to be a repenting jihadist who had recently returned from Syria spoke to a large crowd in Khujand about his experiences there. Farrukh Sharifov described beheadings, sexual slavery and terrible living conditions. The event, organized by the Interior Ministry, has been widely publicized.