The Tajik authorities have closed eight mosques close to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz borders in an unprecedented crackdown on Islamic clerics and teachers who practice without state approval.
Fifteen imam-khatibs – heads of mosques – have also been sacked after they failed to gain certification from the Ulem Council of Tajikistan, an official body regulating religious life in the country.
The closure of the mosques – the first such move since Tajikistan became independent following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began on August 6, not long after Tajik president Emomali Rakhmonov denounced Islamist politicians.
He alleged that several members of the Party of the Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, PIRT, were “ideologically indoctrinating people in an extremist spirit, which may lead to a split in society”.
It was Rakhmonov’s first serious criticism of PIRT – the main opposition in the Tajikistan civil war and the only religious party officially allowed to operate in Central Asia – since the fighting ended in 1997.
The remarks came as American forces captured three suspected al-Qaeda suspects in the Isfara district – on the border with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – and a group of Tajiks returned from Pakistan after studying at the Khanafia madrasa, once financed by the supreme leader of the Taleban, Mullah Omar Mohammad.
Under Tajik law, religious officials such as imam-khatibs are not allowed to belong to any political or religious parties. The majority of mosque leaders removed from office were PIRT members.
Some Tajik political scientists believe Rakhmonov’s criticism is a clear signal that a ban on the party or a suspension of its activity could follow.
PIRT leader Saiid Abdullo Nuri told a press conference on September 4 that the closure of the mosques was directly linked to the fact that their imams were members of his organisation.
Abdukhakim Sharipov, head of the ideological section of the khukumat (local administration) in the Sogd Oblast, told IWPR that the mosques in the Jaborrasul region had been closed by demand of the local residents.
“The many mosques in this region illegally established themselves in empty buildings of government institutions, which has caused discontent among the residents,” he said.
However, those affected by the closures disagree. “The authorities called for the mosques to be shut down. Residents are angry at this abuse of power and want their places of worship restored,” said Abdurakhmon Abduogym, an imam-khatib at one of the mosques closed in the village of Gulyakandoz.
“The reason there are a large number of places of worship is to make it easier for elderly people to perform namaz (prayers) in mosques near their homes.”
President Rakhmonov noted in a speech at the beginning of July that the number of new mosques in the first decade of independence outnumbered that of secondary schools built during the 70 years of Soviet rule. He said that in the Isfara district there were 192 mosques for a population of 200,000.
According to official data, there were 231 main mosques, 3,082 smaller mosques, 20 madrasas, one Islamic institute and 96 religious primary education groups registered in Tajikistan on July 1, 2001.
Said Akhmedov, head of religious affairs for the Tajik government, told IWPR that around 250 mosques and 20 madrasas across the country were due to be inspected.
Imams, khatibs and madrasa teachers would be examined for their knowledge of Islam, teaching methods and for their grasp of the laws governing religious life.
During its examination of religious organisations, the certification committee discovered several unregistered mosques. However, their imam-khatibs claim they have been forced to work illegally because the authorities create obstacles for them, or simply refuse to register their institutions.
Najotkhon Isomiddinova, the head of PIRT women’s organisation in the Sogd Oblast, told IWPR that two years ago, 19 women in the Isfarin region organised courses of instruction in their own homes for girls and women who wanted to study Islam.
“The authorities promised to give them the appropriate licences, but they still have not done so. Now these women stand accused of illegal religious activity,” said Isomiddinova.
PIRT press secretary Ismatullo Saifullozoda believes the authorities are acting illegally in their haste to crack down on unregistered religious movements. “The action of the certification committee contradicts the laws of Tajikistan, and aims to limit the free activity of mosques,” he told IWPR.
Nargiz Zakirova is a reporter for Vecherny Dushanbe in Tajikistan. This article originally appeared in Reporting Central Asia, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/.