A shocking outbreak of violence in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe in June was quickly linked by authorities to radical Islam and prompted calls for greater emphasis on sidelining extremist currents of the faith.
Those ambitions, however, have not translated into any material improvements for the city’s main mosque — theoretically a bastion for state-approved Islam.
Employees at Aktobe’s Nur-Gasyr mosque have filed suit in a municipal court after exhausting all other efforts to be paid their wage arrears.
Sputnik news website on September 26 ran a report citing the plaintiffs as saying they had initially appealed to head of mosque’s management, Bakhytkerei Balkenov, to address the problem, but received only obscenities and threats in reply. They also tried to get help from the imam, Ospan Tole bi Dadiluliy, and again were unsuccessful.
Faith-focused online portal E-Islam.kz describes Nur-Gasyr as one of the two largest mosques in Aktobe along with the Central Mosque. It can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers and houses a madrassa, or Islamic school, with 25 students.
In its time, Nur-Gasyr mosque was seen as an important project for advancing the influence of the government-affiliated Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). Around $16.6 million were spent building the mosque from 2005 to 2009. Money was sourced from donations from Aktobe residents and businesspeople. Funding was also provided by major national companies.
Construction of the building was completed in September 2008. The opening was attended by Kazakhstan’s topmost elite, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev downward, as well as senior guests from Russia like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia.
In the wake of the deadly Almaty shootings, authorities in Kazakhstan are drawing up measures to step up the fight against extremism and considering the creation of a fingerprint and DNA register.
“Penalties for crimes of an extremist or terrorist character will be intensified through an increase in the minimum and maximum prison sentences. Rules will be brought in on the confiscation of property as a mandatory form of punishment for extremism and terrorism,” National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov said at a government meeting on July 19.
The measures proposed had been drawn up before the July 18 events in Almaty, which authorities have said were the single-handed work of 26-year old Ruslan Kulekbayev, but they are now being discussed with fresh urgency.
One plank of the suggested new measures includes tightening control over the circulation of firearms.
“It is planned that there will be a strengthening of control over the circulation of firearms, and administrative penalties for violating rules in that area will be made stricter,” Zhumakanov said.
Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov proposed at the same meeting that citizenship be stripped from people that had left the country to join extremist organizations overseas.
Kasymov’s ministry is now developing legislation on fingerprinting and DNA registration that will be brought to parliament by the end of the year. No details are forthcoming yet, however, about who would be included in such registers, which have sparked concern about privacy rights and ethical-legal objections over citizens’ right to presumption of innocence elsewhere in the world.
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced the leader of an ultraconservative Islamic Salafist movement to eight years in prison on charges of membership in an extremist organization.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on July 19, Muhammadi Rahmatullo’s case has been shrouded in secrecy and marked as classified information, so few details are known. This is not so unusual in Tajikistan of late as the government has become increasingly opaque about the multitude of criminal cases it pursues against its real and perceived opponents.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
He first emerged as a self-described Salafist in the early 2000s, when the current first established itself in the country, having been brought back by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war. In 2008, Rahmatullo claimed in an interview that his movement counted 20,000 Tajik citizens.
The movement was banned by a Supreme Court decision after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. Rahmatullo fell out of public view around that time. During that time, it is believed he busied himself converting migrants working outside Tajikistan, particularly in the regions of Russia, and studying at the Faculty of Shariah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. According to Radio Ozodi, Rahmatullo returned to Tajikistan in 2011, but what he got up is not a matter of public record.
The controversy surrounding a series of billboards in Kyrgyzstan’s capital that condemned the spread of conservative Islam has now drawn in President Almaz Atambayev.
Quizzed by journalists on July 14, the president said that not only was he all in favor of the posters’ message, but he is now proposing dotting more of them around the country.
The billboard consists of three pictures side by side. Starting from the left, there is a row of women in traditional Kyrgyz headdresses. Next are women in white hijabs. On the right are women in black niqabs, a form of all-body dress that obscures almost the entire face. Underneath the collage is the tagline “Oh poor nation, where are we headed?” — a suggestion of disapproval at the adoption of what many in Kyrgyzstan see as alien forms of dress.
Atambayev said that it was important to resist the spread of outside customs.
“Let us not confuse Arabian, Pakistani, and I don’t know, Bangladeshi culture with Kyrgyz culture. This is an imposition of foreign culture. A foreign culture of dress. We have our own clothes,” Atambayev said.
While not taking responsibility for the existing handful of billboards that sprung up in Bishkek on July 13, Atambayev urged spreading the message further.
“I have ordered the presidential administration to give funding so that banners like these can be hung up across Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “We need banners like these. It doesn’t say anything bad on them. There are just three photos and one question.”
It is still something of a mystery, however, who was behind the billboards.
Police in Kyrgyzstan have said that they have identified 4,000 people as being “adherents of extremists views,” a big jump from the figure reported last year.
The Interior Minister said on June 14 that in the first five months of the year, police registered 215 “expressions of religious of extremism” and that 63 related criminal cases have been opened.
In September, however, police officials were stating that their database of suspected extremist sympathizers numbered around 1,800.
Raim Salimov, the deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s 10th department, which is responsible for combating terrorism, said at the time that the bulk of that cohort, around 1,360 people, were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic party whose goal is to see an Islamic caliphate created across the region. The group has always professed to eschew violent methods. Salimov also said last year that 74 percent of reported incidents of extremist behavior were recorded in the south.
There is an implied but unspoken inference in that particular data point insofar as it is ethnic Uzbeks, who mainly live in the south, that are the predominant targets of extremism-related prosecutions. That said, research over the years has shown that Hizb ut-Tahrir has in the south been able on occasion to overcome the ethnic divide, so the picture is not always so cut and dry.
Still, it is not immediately apparent how the sudden and drastic increase in identified extremists can be be explained.
There is some indication that the net is being cast wider and more indiscriminately.
For the first time in Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet history, the customary of breaking fast at sundown during the Ramadan period is being banned from mosques and restaurants.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, reported this week that the ban was introduced not by the government itself, however, but by the state-run Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan.
“The ban on performing iftar in cafes, restaurants and mosques is not government policy. We have gone down this road bearing in mind the history of Islam. At the time of the Prophet Muhammed, iftar was organized solely for those who had little or nothing to eat. But now iftar, which had always been a manifestation of the need to care for the needy, has become another display of waste and ostentatious celebration,” Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan, told Ozodlik in an interview.
Accordingly, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan is inviting people to invite small groups of people home instead of gathering in large groups in public places.
“In Mecca people perform iftar because people (pilgrims) do not have their own home there. Our citizens have their own home. They should have iftar at their place, within their family circle,” Mansur said.
The holy month of Ramadan began this year on June 6.
This period is typically a considerable money-spinner for cafes and restaurants in the old part of the capital, Tashkent, which would put on special menus to celebrate the daily breaking of the fast.
For the first time in Tajikistan, mosque prayer leaders have been arraigned on terrorism charges.
The six people on trial are accused of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in Tajikistan.
This marks a departure from the norm since prayer leaders, or imam khatib, are more commonly targeted with charges of sexual molestation or even witchcraft.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on April 5 that the group was arrested in March and have since been in pre-trial detention. Authorities have declined to provide any further information, arguing that it could interfere with the course of investigations.
A lawyer for one of the accused told EurasiaNet.org that the men were detained at various locations around Sughd and that all of them were graduates of the Islamic University of Madinah, in Saudi Arabia.
“The detention of other imam khatibs and spiritual leaders belonging to this group is carrying on. At the moment, their detention has been sanctioned by the court and they are facing official charges,” the lawyer, Faizinniso Vohidova, told EurasiaNet.org.
Vohidova said that investigators argue that the group was recruited to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Tajikistan in 2006 and declared a terrorist group. That created some discomfort in the period following the revolution in Egypt, when Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was ushered into power through elections in 2012.
Despite implicitly considering Morsi the leader of a terrorist group, Tajikistan demurred from severing diplomatic relations with Egypt.
Tajikistan’s top prosecutor decided this week to flesh out the official explanation for where the country’s volunteers to militant groups in Middle Eastern war zones are coming from.
As General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon explained in an interview to state-owned newspaper Jumuhuriat, some 85 percent of the fighters are former migrant laborers.
Rahmon presented a few anecdotal cases as evidence for his assertion. One story involved a group of Tajik citizens, who the prosecutor named as Abdurasul Ahmadov, A. Sattarov, an imam at a mosque in the northern Sughd region, and D. Tohirov. All of them are said to have come under the sway of an alleged Islamic State group member in Moscow in May.
The prosecutor said the suspected recruiter, who he identified as Ilyos Malaboyev, was not intent on enlisting people to fight in Syria, but rather to join up with other alleged IS militants already inside Tajikistan.
“They returned to the motherland, and at the Abuzari Ghifori mosque in the Jabbar Rasulov district (in Sughd), they tried to lure their countrymen into IS. They were detained and a criminal case has now been initiated against them,” Rahmon said.
As in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the government of Tajikistan says it is undertaking strenuous outreach initiatives to discourage young people from being led astray. Rahmon is particularly concerned about Salafist movements.
Believers in Salafism do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other forms of Islamic worship, including Shi'ism and Sufism. The current first appeared in Tajikistan in the early 2000s, having been brought back to the country by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war.
“Nothing. I don’t know anything,” Temur Batirashvili told a Rustavi2 correspondent who visited al-Shishani’s native village, Birkani, in the Pankisi Gorge, about a 45-minute drive outside of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. “I just came out of the house to see if perhaps someone knows something. . . This information will be a lie.”
Batirashvili added that he had not heard from his son, born Tarkhan Batirashvili, “in a long time.”
His neighbors, a primary source of information in Georgia, also know nothing, he added in a separate interview with PalitraTV on March 9. Compatriots of slain ISIS militants from the Caucasus reportedly often are the ones to relay news of their deaths to family members back home.
“God grant that he’s alive,” Batirashvili mumbled, looking down at the ground.
Omar al-Shishani's death has been reported multiple times, but never confirmed.
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.