By Paul Goble
Even though Turkmenistan could because of its population have as many as 5,000 haj slots, the Ashgabat government since 2000 has limited the number of people who can make the pilgrimage to Mecca to no more than the number of seats on the largest plane — a Boeing – in the service of its national carrier.
That means that this year again the number of hajis from Turkmenistan has been restricted to 160, a tiny fraction of the number of believers there who would like to make the pilgrimage required of Muslims when possible and a number that gives the authorities the whip hand to decide who can go and who cannot (turkmenistan.gov.tm/?id=19217).
As a result of this arrangement, a far smaller percentage of believers in Turkmenistan have made the haj than Muslims in any other post-Soviet country, a limit clearly resented by the population and one that has had the unintended consequences of leading Muslims there to make alternative pilgrimages, often to “underground” imams, much like in Soviet times.
Before 2000, far larger numbers of Muslims from Turkmenistan made their own way to Mecca, often by bus. But the government decided that too many of them were being radicalized and that Islam got in the way of the leader cult its government promoted and banned all pilgrims except those on its limited and officially controlled flight.
Moreover, according to Muslims in Turkmenistan speaking on condition of anonymity lest the regime take reprisals against them, Ashgabat has set up a special “secret” commission to vet all applicants for the haj and make decisions about who can go and who cannot without any hearing or possibility of appeal if (habartm.org/archives/5223).