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By Faromarzi Olamafruz
DUSHANBE – As Tajiks celebrated 20 years of independence, experts reflected on one of the freedoms gained – the freedom of religion – and the benefits and challenges it has brought.
Although most people and religious officials enjoy freedom to worship, some theorised that the USSR’s policy promoting atheism, and penalising religious faith, actually facilitated extremism in the former Soviet republics and precipitated Tajikistan’s recent counter-terror efforts.
Tajikistan’s two decades of freedom since September 9, 1991, have not all been peaceful.
A civil war (1992-97) showed early signs of religious rift. More recently, Tajikistan suffered its first suicide bombing – in Khudzhand in September 2010 – and security forces battled insurgents in the Rasht Valley after an ambush in the Kamarob Gorge killed 28 soldiers a year ago. Mullo Abdullo and Ali Bedaki were linked to the Kamarob Gorge violence, and the Tajik government branded them as extremists, eventually killing both insurgent leaders.
Since those events, Tajikistan has ratcheted up its anti-terror efforts, capturing many of Abdullo and Bedaki’s collaborators, ordering students studying in foreign madrassas to return home and conducting more rigorous inspections of domestic mosques and imam-hatibs.
The Soviets drilled the motto “Religion is the opiate of the masses” into the minds of their citizens.
“This slogan was repeated to us every day starting in elementary school,” recalled Ibragim haji Talybov, a history teacher from Qurghonteppa.
After 74 years of that message, former republics that broke ties with the Soviet Union ushered in religious freedom. But society had a hard time discerning propaganda from true Islam.
“One of the deepest wounds the Soviet Union inflicted on our people and the other peoples of Central Asia was the inability to distinguish pure Islam from terrorist or extremist ideas,” Talybov said. “This problem’s repercussions ... will be felt for a long time to come.”
Talybov’s experience reflects the changes that followed the Soviet collapse. After a life of attending Soviet anti-religious meetings, he completed the Hajj in 2002.
Roots of religion take hold
“With independence, Islam became a way of defining oneself and of forming one’s personality for Tajiks and for many other peoples who seceded,” said theologian Ayatullo Mahmudov. “Forbidden fruit is always sweet, and so hundreds of thousands were drawn to it, often without understanding what was real Islam and what was a perversion.”
Inoyatullo Rahimov, an 80-year-old Dushanbe resident, said his father and grandfather secretly gave him a religious education.
“At that time, the communist authorities strictly forbade engaging in religious activities,” Rahimov said. “The authorities at that time found out that my grandfather was religious, and on one cold winter night, soldiers took him to Siberia. … But not even this could scare our family, and we continued to keep our faith and love for God.”
The Bolskeviks shut down houses of worship of all faiths. “Religion contradicted ... communist ideology, and we were ordered to forget about it,” Mahmudov said.
With independence came religious freedom, Hikmatullo Saifulazade of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan said.
“Peoples who had constantly been under strict monitoring and practiced religion in secret then felt free,” Saifulazade said. “Many mosques were built, and the people of Tajikistan began celebrating religious festivals more extravagantly and following religious canons more strictly.”
Independence opened the borders of the republic and preachers – including extremists – from all over the world came in, Mahmudov said. Tajik students also started studying abroad.
Thus, the door for extremist ideas was cracked ajar.
“How were they to know which were real madrassas and which were frauds without ever seeing true Islam?” Mahmudov asked.
Government fights extremism
The government took notice of extremism within its borders and has started working against it.
In May, Tajik security agencies carried out Operation Madrassa to shut down illegally operating madrassas, according to news media. They shut down more than 10 madrassas and ordered a few others to re-register. Authorities have opened criminal cases against the illegal madrassa operators.
The government also asked all imam-hatibs to pass certification.
“They (the authorities) were convinced that knowing the Holy Koran by heart alone wasn’t enough to obtain a mandate to lead the mosque,” Khodzhi Hussein Musozoda, chairman of the Sughd Oblast Ulema Council and imam-hatib of Khudzhand’s Khodzha Maslakhiddin Mosque, told Central Asia Online in June. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with knowing the secular laws along with Sharia for an imam-hatib, whose voice is heard by thousands.”
In August 2010, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon urged Tajik students studying in dubious foreign madrassas to return home. Most returned in December and February. Rakhmon recommended they study at local madrassas and Islamic University in Dushanbe.
Those are steps in the right direction, “but this (recovery) process will take many, many years,” Mahmudov said.