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Tajik Youth Drawn to Radical Islam

Education more effective than repression in turning young minds away from extremism, experts say.
By Uguloy Mukhtorova

Tajikistan’s government is on a constant mission to curb the rise of radical Islam. Experts warn that there is little point trying to prevent extremist ideas from taking hold without a better understanding of why young people are drawn to them. 

They also say the government should try educating young people to prevent them being radicalised, rather than just punishing them when it is too late.

Restrictions on religious practice introduced in recent years include last year’s ban on minors attending mosques during school time, an end to the use of loudspeakers to amplify the call to prayer in the capital Dushanbe, and the installation of CCTV cameras at all mosques in the city.

Legislation passed in June bars religious organisations from establishing contact with faith groups abroad and make it illegal to study in Islamic centres in other countries unless the Tajik authorities are informed in advanced.

Late last year, the authorities launched a campaign to get Tajik nationals attending madrassas (religious schools) and Islamic universities in countries like Pakistan, Iran and Egypt to come back home. This was prompted by an August 2011 speech in which President Imomali Rahmon warned parents that their children could be led astray onto the “road to terrorism and religious extremism”. (See Tajikistan: Islamic Students Told to Come Home.)

A 16-year-old from Dushanbe told IWPR he goes to the mosque regularly. His friends often get picked up in police raids, but he escapes their attention because he has a beard and sits among the men.

“My friends... were taken to a police station. Then their parents were summoned and made to sign statements. Only then were they released,” he said. “But even after that, we didn’t stop going to the mosque.”

The young man said that during the academic year, teachers from his school were on patrol outside mosques to check which of their pupils were attending.

Despite his parents asking him not to, he said he still liked going to the mosque - the sermons contained positive messages, and it was not as if he and his friends were misbehaving.

With the end of Soviet rule in Tajikistan, Islam saw a revival in Tajikistan. Missionaries and funding for new mosques flowed in, and Tajiks used their new-found freedom to pursue Islamic studies abroad.

The Islamic Rebirth Party opposed the government in a civil war that lasted until 1997, but then became Central Asia’s only legal, parliamentary Islamic party.

Tilav Rasulzade, a journalist from northern Tajikistan who writes on religious affairs, said the first post-Soviet generation of clerics now preaching in the mosques were not very well informed, and many had been influenced by ideas from other places.

“Those [Middle Eastern] countries practice a kind of Islam that doesn’t fit with the policies of our state. When they return, they fill young people with the same ideas that they learned in those countries. That leads to extremism.”

Umed Faizullo, a 24-year-student in the capital Dushanbe, said young people were easily led.

“They read four pages, learn four suras [Koranic verses] and think that’s Islam,” he said.

The government is concerned about the arrival of groups preaching fundamentalism and in some cases subversion, as opposed to the forms of Sunni Islam traditionally practiced in Tajikistan.

It has outlawed the Hizb ut-Tahrir party, Jamaat Tabligh, the Salafi movement, as well as Jamaat Ansarullah, an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, an armed group based in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Taleban and al-Qaeda links. Members of these groups are regularly arrested, tried and imprisoned.

“Young people who join such groups are under foreign control and start trying to fight against the state,” Rasulzade said.

He and Faizullo agree that desperate poverty and lack of knowledge make young men in the countryside particularly susceptible to radicalisation.

“Young people in the towns are better informed about the various radical trends, but that isn’t the case in rural areas,” Faizullo said. “They don’t have media or internet – it’s an information vacuum. There’s only state television, which doesn’t provide information about these [issues]. When young people need money, they will easily drift into these [radical] trends and movements.

Nosirjon Buriev, who heads the youth affairs department in the government committee for youth, sport and tourism, also believes financial incentives play a big part in drawing people into extremist groups.

“They are unhappy with the wages currently available in this country, so they join up with groups of various kinds without realising what their aims are,” he said.

The question is how best to counter this – through the kind of punitive action the government seems to favour, or through persuasion as well.

Faizullo argues that repression is not the answer, as it is likely to produce the opposite effect to that intended.

“Anything that’s subject to a ban or restrictions is going to be attractive. That’s human nature… It’s why Adam was expelled from Eden,” he said. “They’re trying to shield young people from the influence of religion, but it’s having the reverse effect.”

Qiyemiddin Avaz, the youth affairs officer for the Islamic Rebirth Party, said that if the authorities wanted to inoculate people against radical ideas, they should focus on education.

Noting that having just one Islamic university and one specialised secondary school was woefully inadequate for a predominantly Muslim country, he said, “I’ve said repeatedly that schools should teach religious education and explain the different religions and religious teachings. They should learn about Islam, Judaism and Christianity. If we provided that in the schools, it might keep them from blindly following other [radical] trends.”

Buriev acknowledged that something needed to be done using both state education system and the media.

“The only available textbook, ‘History of Religion’, has been withdrawn from education ministry’s curriculum because there was no one qualified to teach it. That book needs to be republished and re-introduced to the school curriculum,” he said. “The media should be used to describe the banned movements and trends, and what their goals are. There must be more programmes on radio and TV.”

Rasulzade agreed that education was important because “our young people need Islam; they want to fill the religious vacuum created under the Soviet system”.

Faizullo added, “Let young people figure out their own choices… Why does [the government] only know how to restrict things? There must always be choice. If these restrictions are removed, young people will follow in the traditions set by their forebears.”

Rasulzade also pointed to a broader factor behind radicalisation that needed to be addressed – the widespread sense of social exclusion.

“What young people want is equal opportunities for all. They want to go to the university of their choice and get a good job. Universities here have fees and not everyone can afford to enrol and complete their studies. That creates a sense of social injustice, it makes people dissatisfied, and it makes the young start thinking about things.”

Uguloy Mukhtorova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.

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