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.
The “sex school” in Kyrgyzstan’s capital that EurasiaNet.org profiled last year has moved to a bigger facility and opened a branch in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The Jade Gift School’s new location on Bishkek’s Bokonbaeva Street includes a larger gymnasium, where men and women learn to exercise muscles used during intercourse. There’s also now a separate room for theoretical instruction, such as courses on sexual fantasy and “playing the flue” – the school’s metaphor for oral sex. The school now also offers yoga, weight training, and customized workout trainings.
“I never expected this to become a full-time job,” confesses Jade Gift School founder and owner Rakhat Kenjebek kyzy, 31, describing how the school started out as a personal project rather than a business.
While working in China in the late-oughts, Kenjebek kyzy became acquainted with traditional treatments for women’s health. When she returned home, she started passing her knowledge around among friends. The circle of people seeking her advice grew wider and she eventually founded Jade Gift in 2011.
The school now employs three sales managers, a social media manager and five trainers. There are about 50 regular students; another 50 or so attend one-time events each month.
In this conservative country, many eschew talking openly about sex. But Kenjebek kyzy says some of her students are girls from religious families. Some confide that they attend classes because they are afraid their husbands will take second wives, she says. (Polygamy, though illegal, is increasingly common in Kyrgyzstan.)
In the ongoing battle that could be known as Tajikistan vs. Islam, Islam has taken some low blows lately: police nabbing bearded men on the street and submitting them to the razor; state television instructing viewers that women who wear hijab are prostitutes.
The latest target in the Muslim-majority country is Muslim-sounding names.
Under instructions from President Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament is considering a bill that would forbid the Justice Ministry from registering names it thinks sound too Arabic, the deputy head of the ministry’s Department of Civil Registry, Jaloliddin Rahimov, told Interfax on May 4.
"After the adoption of these regulations, the registry offices will not register names that are incorrect or alien to the local culture, including names denoting objects, flora and fauna, as well as names of Arabic origin," Interfax quotes Rahimov as saying.
Though the law would not apply to existing names, only to babies born after it is signed, Interfax suggests some parliamentarians are demanding everyone with an Arab-sounding name pick a new, moreTajik-sounding one.
If parents cannot come up with a name on their own, the Justice Ministry is preparing a list of recommended names. It’s unclear if there will be a list for minorities, such as ethnic Uzbeks, who make up approximately 15 percent of the population.
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.