Turkmenistan Stage-Manages Muslim Pilgrimage

Government decides who can perform hajj on the basis of rigorous loyalty checks.

Turkmenistan Stage-Manages Muslim Pilgrimage

Government decides who can perform hajj on the basis of rigorous loyalty checks.

Wednesday, 10 November, 2010

In line with the tight controls it exerts over religious observance, Turkmenistan’s government is allowing only a tiny number of people to perform the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca this year. The lucky few will be hand-picked and carefully vetted by the security services, although some Muslims will find ways of going on the pilgrimage by other routes.

Typically, the October 14 decree approving the number of pilgrims was issued not by the Islamic authorities, but by the president of this secular state, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov.

Deputy Prime Minister Khydyr Saparliev was put in charge of making the arrangements, while the national carrier Turkmen Hava Yollari was told to provide a charter plane free of charge. The number of seats on the plane appears to have decided the number of pilgrims – 188.

Allowing the pilgrims to travel at all is a welcome improvement on last year, when no one was allowed to go, officially because the authorities were concerned about the risk of swine flu contagion. But the number is miniscule compared with the number this majority Sunni Muslim nation could be sending. The Saudi Arabian authorities calculate a quota for each country, which works out at one pilgrim for every 1,000 Muslims there.

Kyrgyzstan, whose total population of 5.5 million is comparable to Turkmenistan’s five million, is sending 4,500 people on the hajj this year.

The annual hajj takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and this year it is set for November 14-17. The pilgrimage counts as one of the five basic obligations of Muslims, and for many it will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

In Turkmenistan, the state takes a close interest in personal belief, and controls mosques through an officially-sanctioned Muslim clerical hierarchy. Religious education is also tightly controlled, and working clerics must have been trained in Turkmenistan rather than abroad.

The presidential administration has a Council for Religious Affairs, which is selecting this year’s hajj participants. The religious rights watchdog Forum 18 reports that applicants have to submit documents to the council’s regional branches before the central body will consider them.

Past practice suggests the party of pilgrims will be accompanied by security service officers who will monitor their activities.

“The authorities fear that devout Muslims, particularly those who have had a religious education in Turkey or Pakistan, could significantly increase the influence they can exert and acquire more followers if they perform the pilgrimage to Mecca,” a local activist who works on freedom of confession issues said.

Local observers say political loyalty is just as important as the strength of one’s religious feelings. Anyone suspected of having connections with the opposition in exile or civil society groups, or even being related to someone who has, will be automatically struck off the list of hajj applicants.

The same applies to members of the small Shia Muslim minority, not because they are particularly active, but just because they are different.

“We have applied to take part in the pilgrimage on several occasions… and have been turned down every time,” said a Shia from the capital Ashgabat who gave his name as Ali. “The Turkmen authorities select people who are loyal to the government, who are of the Sunni branch, and who hold moderate religious views. Anyone deviating from the norm – Shia Muslims, or anyone who is particularly devout and is being monitored by the National Security Ministry – will be stopped at the border controls and quite simply prevented from leaving the country.”

Ali is planning to travel to Saudi Arabia independently, although this is not encouraged by the Turkmen authorities.

Local observers say the Saudi embassy in Ashgabat is reluctant to issue visas to independent pilgrims because it does not want to annoy the government. Forum 18 cited one Ashgabat resident who was turned down by the embassy and told that visas would only be issued to people on the government-approved list.

Others find ways of going on the hajj by travelling to Turkey on a business trip, and then travelling on to Saudi Arabia. An interviewee who performed the pilgrimage in this manner last year said that on arrival in Saudi Arabia, there were no obstacles to entry to Turkmen passport-holders precisely because their country had used up so little of its hajj quota.

Nazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan.

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