Someone is profiting from Tajikistan’s official Islamophobia, peddling expensive permits purporting to allow observant Muslims to wear a beard or hijab – fashions that are officially discouraged. The permits, adorned with an official-looking stamp, allegedly go for 250 somoni (about $40) each.
In recent weeks, Tajikistan’s secular government has turned up its routine hysteria about the spread of Islamic practice, with state media dutifully declaring that prostitutes wear hijab – a headscarf and modest clothing for women – to drive up their rates, and police reportedly nabbing bearded men on the street and forcing them under the razor. The campaign seems to be part of an effort to liken any Islam outside of state control to terrorism.
The State Committee on Religious Affairs – the body that oversees mosques, appoints all imams, and tells them what to say during their Friday sermons – says the idea of such permits is “absurd,” the Asia-Plus news agency reported April 24. No one has the right to issue such documents, the State Committee said in a statement.
But gullibility is understandable. Anyone can see that freedom in practicing Islam is under assault in Tajikistan and, meanwhile, the government has allowed very few trustworthy sources of information on religious affairs.
The continued departure of young men for jihad in Syria is raising alarm in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, a Sunni Muslim area that allegedly has seen scores of men leave for the war over the past few years.
Parents from Pankisi have asked for the government’s help to stop the trend. A photo that shows two Pankisi high-schoolers armed and posing before the Islamic State flag in a jihadist training camp has added to the sense of urgency. Police had been searching for the duo since April 2, when they vanished after being seen entering the public school they attended.
Now, attention has begun to focus on Georgian border officers as well. One of the two, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, allegedly used his father’s passport to slip through the Georgian-Turkish border. (Georgian citizens can enter Turkey visa-free.)
Angry members of Pankisi’s council of elders have demanded that the government take greater responsibility for blocking such departures at the border. The interior ministry has started an investigation.
“It is a tragedy for an entire nation, when kids are taken to war straight from their school desks,” said Meka Khangoshvili, a Pankisi activist and adviser for the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, in an interview with the Kakheti Information Center. She called on the government to step up efforts to integrate the secluded area into Georgian society.
At the same time, according to local media, parents blame individuals they term Wahhabis, who reportedly deny involvement, for the boys’ departure to Syria, and also Abu Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi-born commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Exasperation also appears targeted at the young jihadists themselves.
Tajikistan’s authoritarian government has enlisted the support of the state-appointed clergy ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary vote.
“We have to vote for those whose work has achieved results,” reads a sermon the government distributed to imams ahead of Friday prayers on February 27. “May God protect our head of state, who has devoted himself to saving our nation and delivering us from our troubles.”
The sermon, seen by EurasiaNet.org, was prepared by the state-run Council of Religious Affairs, which manages all of Tajikistan’s mosques, vets and pays all imams. As instructed, imams read the sermon at a number of mosques in Dushanbe today, a source in the capital told EurasiaNet.org. In the city’s central mosque, the source said, the imam paraphrased the sermon and highlighted long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon’s outstanding leadership qualities.
The sermon goes on to criticize the opposition. Although it does not name any parties, the target is clear: Tajikistan’s beleaguered and moderate Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which the authorities have largely prevented from campaigning ahead of the March 1 election.
“Is it not this party that divided people? Is it not this party that brought you to Afghanistan [as refugees], bringing hunger, poverty and humiliation?” the sermon reads. It goes on to accuse the IRPT – which was born out of the 1997 peace treaty that ended Tajikistan’s civil war – of stockpiling weapons and seeking to return the country to civil war.
Tajikistan’s state-appointed chief mufti has warned that cooperating with journalists or others who intend to “destabilize” the country, or criticizing the authoritarian government to such people, constitutes a “grave sin,” local media report.
The fatwa, according to AFP, includes any “criticism of the ruling powers.” "Criticism undermines trust in the authorities," warned Mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda at Friday prayers in Dushanbe.
Abdulkodirzoda did not specify how Muslims are to identify the potentially perfidious reporters, or if they should avoid speaking with the media altogether, but journalists such as prominent editor Marat Mamadshoev said the fatwa is just the latest attack on their rights in the officially secular country.
Lawyer and opposition activist Rahmatillo Zoirov told Radio Ozodi that the fatwa would undermine laws on the freedom of the press (which officials often ignore) and that the clergy “has no right to interfere in the affairs of state.”
Moderate Muslims, including the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, have also denounced the injunction, according to AFP.
It is not unusual, of course, for a leader to use his people's faith to enforce fealty. In Russia, where Tajik leaders look for inspiration, the Orthodox Church has become the moral mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s reign.
The protesters, members of a Georgian Orthodox Church congregation in the Black-Sea resort town of Kobuleti, said they resorted to this gruesome form of protest to prevent the spread of Islam in their neighborhood. Earlier on, they had planted a large cross before the madrasa as well.
Many Georgians see the growing Turkish investment and presence in Kobuleti’s Turkey-adjacent region, Achara, as an existential threat.
The Kobuleti incident, though, was made even more disturbing by outlandish comments from one middle-aged female protester. “We did not desecrate it; we decorated it,” said the woman, radiant with joy, in reference to the madrasa, in a YouTube video. “When they brought the piglet, it was squealing so much, but I told him ‘Don’t be afraid, you will be slaughtered soon’ . . . “ she continued, beaming with pride, as if discussing the charms of a favored household pet. “ They have hung […] the pig’s head so handsomely, with its ears pulled to the sides, that it will be a pleasure for them to see when they show up,” she said of those connected with the medresa.
The video went viral, with some sharing it for laughs, others out of revulsion. Some protesters tried to strike more a respectful note, describing Muslims, ironically, as their brothers despite the hardly fraternal form of protest against the madrasa they had chosen.
For most Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a sacred duty to be completed at least once in a lifetime. But Turkmenistan’s Muslim-majority population should surely receive divine dispensation. Under restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government, an eager pilgrim can wait over 10 years to receive permission to perform the haj.
Every country has a quota, a limit to how many Muslims it can send on haj each year. Turkmenistan is facilitating travel for only one-seventh of its quota this year, despite the long waiting lists, Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported on August 25:
Muslims in Balkan Region of western Turkmenistan have to wait on average between eight and eleven years to reach the top of the waiting list to join the state-organized haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an official of the regional Religious Affairs office told Forum 18 News Service from Balkanabad on 21 August. Turkmenistan's government is allowing just under a seventh of the haj quota allocated by the Saudi authorities to travel this October to Mecca. "Turkmenistan is one of the governments not doing all it can to help pilgrims," a Saudi consular official told Forum 18 from Ashgabat.
Thousands of men from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Russia’s Muslim republics gathered in central Moscow on August 8 to mark the closing of Ramadan.
The Eid al-Fitr prayers, which celebrate the end of the month-long fast, gave Moscow’s estimated million-plus population of Muslims, many of them migrant laborers, a chance to put aside, for a few minutes, growing concerns about the nationalist rhetoric, police roundups, and migrant detention centers that have become a feature of the city’s ongoing mayoral campaign and Russian politics in general.
Some knelt on carpets, some on newspapers. Radio Ekho Moskvy said more than 3,000 police and tens of thousands of worshipers gathered outside Moscow’s four mosques for the 8:00 a.m. prayer. Others estimated well over 100,000 faithful.
Outside the Sobornaya Mechet, Russia’s Chief Mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, relayed messages of peace from President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, among others. Blessings in several languages including Uzbek and Tajik were broadcast to the men kneeling in the streets before the main prayer.
A circling police helicopter often drowned out the announcements. For several construction workers from Tajikistan, however, that didn’t matter. As the mufti spoke and they waited for the moment to pray in silence, they were absorbed with a mobile phone video of a tracksuited woman in black leather boots dancing on top of a car.
This just in from the Uzbek Ministry of No Fun: For the remainder of the holy month of Ramadan, government employees, which in authoritarian Uzbekistan includes not only ministry and law enforcement workers, but also those toiling for government-run banks and medical clinics, shall go straight home after work and not consort with anyone.
So reports the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe. Apparently, it is not bad enough that Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast during the day and eat only after sundown, falls this year during the longest days and hottest part of summer in blistering Central Asia. As part of its continued crackdown on religion, the Uzbek government has decided to put the kibosh on the daily ritual celebrating the day’s end known as Iftar, which involves friends and family gathering for food and relaxation.
It’s not clear who issued the new rule, but it is leading to some predictable absurdities.
According to Radio Ozodliq, via the Russian-language Lenta.ru, for instance, employees of the state-owned Halk Bank have been asked to go straight home after work as per a special decree of the company’s human resources department. Eateries in Tashkent, the report says, have been forbidden from letting the pious break fast on their premises, despite the fact that reservation-takers find it impossible to distinguish those hoping to get a table for Iftar from those simply hoping to stop in for an evening meal.
Her father is tough when it comes to religion, but it looks like Gulnara Karimova is now reaching out to Muslims. Could this be, some wonder, a bid to assert herself as an inclusive candidate to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov?
The Uzdaily.uz website reports that Karimova, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Mekhr Nuri (“Ray of Mercy”) foundation, awarded grants to 20 distinguished students from ten (officially sanctioned) Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan on May 4.
The ceremony was held in Bukhara Region as part of a folk art festival. The Directorate of Muslims, a state body, provided organizational assistance to Karimova’s charity, Uzdaily said. Uzdaily did not specify the size of the grants, but noted that Karimova pledged to improve infrastructure at Islamic institutions as well.
Embroiled in money-laundering and bribery investigations in Switzerland and Sweden, Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, seems to be spending a lot of her time in Uzbekistan lately. Some observers believe Karimova’s active public life at home, and on Twitter, in recent months is a sign of her growing presidential ambitions as her aging father’s health is questioned.
A little-known Las Vegas-based showman crowned Karimova the "Princess of Uzbekistan" in a recent PR stunt.
But as a potential leader Karimova would inherit the nasty consequences of her father's brutal policy toward followers of Islam.
Vodka named after Allah was always sure to create a storm of controversy in mainly Muslim Kazakhstan – as it did last year, when bottles bearing Allah’s name went on sale in the eastern city of Semey.
Those bottles were produced in Aktobe on the other side of Kazakhstan, where it seems the country’s security services have recently uncovered a plot to blow up the offending factory.
On February 19 three young men – including a minor – were jailed by a court in the western city of Aktobe for plotting to plant explosives at a factory producing vodka with a label mentioning Allah, KTK TV reports.
Media reports did not name the plant at the center of the plot, but back in April last year a factory owned by Kazakhstan’s GEOM company (which makes liquor under the popular Wimpex brand) got into hot water for making vodka with a label showing an Arabic inscription reading “Allah’s strength is enough for everybody.”
The court found the three young men guilty of plotting to blow up the factory and sentenced 17-year-old Salamat Akhet to three years in prison and Nursultan Tenizbayev and Arslan Zhakabayev, both 18, to five years.
Akhet’s mother claimed her son was the victim of a stitch-up by the security services, which have been cracking down heavily on suspected extremists – particularly in western Kazakhstan – since a spate of terrorist attacks began in 2011.