By Paul Goble
In the latest of a series of moves that recall the Soviet approach to Islam in Central Asia, Tajikistan has closed some 1500 mosques, in many cases at least nominally because their leaderships have failed to secure registration, health and tax documents that Dushanbe has been reluctant to give even when imams have applied for them.
The Islamsng.com portal reported yesterday that the Tajik government “continues to interfere in the religious life” of a republic where Islam and politics are not only thoroughly intermixed but one where the clashes in neighboring Afghanistan are continuing to shake the foundations of the state (islamsng.com/tjk/news/1994).
According to the report, Dushanbe has closed 1500 mosques this year, citing their owners for failing to have the necessary tax documents, permissions from the fire and health services, and official permission from district administrations – even though one imam, Inomjon Saidov, said that he had been trying to get such documents for two years.
Over the last two decades and largely because of the weakness of government institutions, the portal continued, mosques have appeared “on every large street” in Dushanbe and other Tajik cities. Most never registered with the authorities, and consequently, even more mosques are likely to be closed in the coming months.
Expert observers say, the news service continues, that “religious oppression [in Tajikistan] began seven years ago.” At first, women were banned from visiting mosques, then mosques were blocked from calling people to pray via loudspeakers, and children were prevented from wearing the hijab.
Then, last year, Dushanbe began insisting that all Tajiks studying at Islamic institutions in foreign countries return home and be checked to ensure that they were not importing radical ideas. And earlier this year, the Tajik government set up a special commission to ensure that imams have good morals, “rich religious knowledge,” and observe the laws.
Moreover, and perhaps most seriously, the government commission insisted that the imams be “laconic” and not preach more than 15 minutes at mosque ceremonies. In some cases, it appears, the imams have even been asked to clear their sermons in advance with government officials.
These restrictions recall the Soviet approach to mosques, an approach that undermined itself by driving many believers into what came to be known as “underground” or “parallel” Islam. And according to Islamsng.ru, experts believe that the current approach of the Tajikistan government may have the same effect and threaten “the security of the state.”
That is all the more likely because these actions are probably going to escape criticism from other governments who are inclined to look with favor or at least not to oppose any action that can be presented however implausibly as a move against Islamist radicalism and who view Tajikistan as a potential bulwark against the spread of Taliban-style violence northward.