Tajikistan: Blanket Ban on Islamic Movement Raises Questions

Officials say Salafis represent security threat while Muslim clerics accuse group of receiving external support.

Tajikistan: Blanket Ban on Islamic Movement Raises Questions

Officials say Salafis represent security threat while Muslim clerics accuse group of receiving external support.

Thursday, 29 January, 2009
A high court ban on the Salafis, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, has been generally welcomed in Tajikistan, although it is unclear how the ruling can be enforced.



The Supreme Court of Tajikistan outlawed the Salafi movement on January 8 at the request of the prosecution service, which argued that it was a threat to national security.



“The Salafis conduct propaganda that would be a danger to any state, and all the more so to Tajikistan,” chief prosecutor Muhammadjon Khayrulloev told IWPR. “Salafis, Wahabbis and Hizb ut-Tahrir all have the exactly same policies, the same orientation.”



ARE SALAFIS A THREAT?



Like other Central Asian administrations, Tajikistan’s leaders are wary of radical Islamic groups, especially if they appear to subvert the secular nature of the state in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.



Hizb ut-Tahrir, a party of Middle Eastern origin that appeared in Central Asia in the mid-Nineties, is formally banned in Tajikistan. By contrast, although guerrillas of the Islamic Rebirth Party fought a bloody war against the government in 1992-97, this home-grown group was brought into the political system as part of a peace deal and now operates legally.



The Salafis are relatively recent arrivals in Tajikistan, and officials only raised the alarm about them as a distinct group in 2007, although it remains uncertain whether they really constitute an organisation.



The movement is fundamentalist in the sense that adherents seek a return to the first principles and teachings of Islam, and reject anything they believe was added to religious practice at later periods. That view places it at odds with the Hanafi “mazhab”, the Sunni school of thought prevalent in Central Asia, which is generally tolerant of local traditions such as Sufism and shrines to holy men. Most Tajiks are Sunnis of the Hanafi school,and a minority are Ismaili.



Young people, especially in urban areas, appear to be attracted by the Salafis’ puritan attitudes and straightforward talk of justice and equality – a clear and simple message in uncertain economic times.



“The rapid social and property-based stratification of Tajik society, the displacement of moral signposts, and the disruption in [normal] socialisation patterns has hit young people hard, making them protest against long-established traditional forms and hierarchies of social organisation,” said an analyst at Tajikistan’s Al-Termezi Islamic Institute, who asked not to be named.



That fast-growing appeal may have prompted the authorities to cut off the group, rather than a sense that it has violent intentions towards the state. However, one government official told IWPR that concerns about what they might get up to in future were enough of a reason to curb the group.



“Can we trust them and close our eyes to what they’re doing? Might they not bring us misfortune in future, bearing weapons and demanding that we become the same kind of fanatics they are?” asked Hojiakbar Faizullaev, of the Tajik culture ministry’s religious affairs department.



Abdulvohid Shamolov, head of the national strategy department at the Institute for Strategic Studies, says that “Islamic societies with a low level of religious education are most vulnerable” when it comes to infiltration by extremist groups, and that Tajikistan fits that description.



The formulation of the ban is somewhat curious. Unlike, say, the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafism is more of a theological tendency, at most a loose association of like-minded people following the same teachings. The ban means that membership of the group and proselyting or distributing literature on its behalf are now punishable offences, yet these definitions could prove so loose that any active Muslim could be arrested.



Nor have the authorities alleged that adherents have been acquiring weapons or otherwise engaging in illegal activity.



MUSLIM ESTABLISHMENT ALARMED AT RISE OF “FOREIGN” GROUP



The question of whether the Salafis have a right to propagate their ideas has been the subject of lively argument in the Tajik press in recent months. In the public debate on the issue, Muslim clerics have led the campaign against Salafism.



When Tajik officials justified the ban, they cited not just national security but also concerns that the group was inciting inter-faith hostility – a criminal offence in Tajikistan.



While the Salafis are commonly believed to be hostile to Shia Islam, of which the Ismaili community is a branch, the real dispute in this case seems to be between the Salafis and their fellow-Sunnis in the clerical establishment.



The Council of Clerics, which represents Tajikistan’s mainstream (and therefore Hanafi) Muslim structure, regards Salafi views as an alien intrusion and a divisive force within the faith. Clerics say the Salafis’ puritan teachings are not appropriate for Tajikistan, which has its own traditional interpretations of the faith, and accuse them of importing ideas as well as taking money from funders in Arab states and Pakistan.



Haji Akbar Turajonzoda, an eminent cleric who was head of Tajikistan’s Muslim establishment at the beginning of the Nineties and is now a member of parliament, described the spread of Salafi ideas as a process led from outside the country.



“Pilgrims doing the Haj [in Saudi Arabia] and Tajik students attending Islamic universities abroad have come under the ideological sway of their [Salafis’] emissaries,” he said. “That contributed to the spread of an ideology that is alien to Tajikistan. On their return, some of them engage in promoting non-traditional viewpoints and distributing large consignments of fundamentalist literature. Foreign missionaries are also active in Tajikistan.”



Part of the Salafis’ appeal seems to be that they speak more directly to young people who see the imams who preach in the mosques as remote figures who have little to offer them in terms of relevant messages.



“Young people already know the constant shouting of our dear mullahs off by heart, and they’re sick of hearing the same thing over and over again,” said one young Salafi.



The Salafis accuse Tajik clerics of diluting the message of Islam by preaching poorly and demanding excessive fees for conducting weddings and funerals.





One young man who gave his first name as Rajabali said the campaign to stigmatise the group was being led by Muslic clerics.



“All this animosity against the Salafis has been generated by them [clerics], not ordinary people,” he said. “One of my friends told me, ‘Don’t be offended, pal, but the mullah says you’re a bad lot and you need to be driven out of the mosque.’”



In line with their calls for a more authentic form of Islamic observance, the Salafis disapprove of expansive feasting and other customs that surround religious rites like funerals and weddings. Mainstream clerics have also spoken out about lavish spending on such events, but the Salafis still use the issue against them.



“There’s so much unnecessary expenditure,” said Sirojiddin, a Salafi who gave only his first name. “That never existed in Islam; the Prophet never said to do that. They [clerics] don’t understand that, and it suits them fine.”



Sirojiddin said allegations were hostile to other Muslim faith groups were untrue. “We don’t regard the Shia or Ismailis as heretics or ‘kafirs’,” he said. “It’s a lie, a dirty slander designed to smear the Salafis… we [branches of Islam] are divided by minor differences in the reading and interpretation of Koranic verses.”



WILL BAN BE EFFECTIVE?



Rajabali said legal prohibition would make no practical difference to him.



“How can you ban a conviction?” he asked. “In any case, I will continue to believe as my mind tells me to and as the Koran prescribes.”



Turko Dikaev, a well-known journalist in Tajikistan, said the Supreme Court ruling could prove counter-productive.



“They haven’t committed any crime,” he said. “They haven’t assaulted or killed anyone. What now? Are they going to be put on trial for praying a bit differently from others?”

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